Veteran journalist Sam Quinones is calling out CBS’s vaunted 60 Minutes newsmagazine, accusing the program of ripping off his reporting without attribution for a recent segment on rising heroin use in American suburbs.
In a lengthy post on his personal blog, Quinones claimed the show used his recent book Dreamland as a “road map” to guide its segment and that he and the show’s producers had originally planned to work on the report together.
Months ago, my publisher and I pitched 60 Minutes on stories from Dreamland: first, the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and then a story about heroin in Ohio.
Over the span of several months and several phone calls, 60 Minutes decided against both ideas.
The Xalisco story wasn’t doable, they concluded, after I convinced them that it was unrealistic to assume that they could show up and in 3-4 days have someone magically open up a heroin lab for them to film…
The Ohio story that we then pitched 60 Minutes had no such cost/danger/language concerns. The state was awash in heroin now. America’s opiate ground zero — for many reasons I made clear in Dreamland. Pills had taken hold there first, and heroin had come sooner than it had anywhere else. Over lunch, a 60 Minutes producer even asked me what story I would do in Ohio. I gave her some ideas.
60 Minutes did go to Ohio. Made it look as if they had figured out who to talk to, and what questions to ask, all on their own. No mention of what led them there and what explained the whole story to them. When I asked them whether they were going to refer to my book, one producer said they wanted to focus on “local” folks. They could have done a local story about the heroin problem in Alabama, or anywhere else in America, but then they wouldn’t have had a book telling them specifically where to look, whom to talk to, and what the story was.
Quinones is a longtime L.A. Times reporter — he left the paper last year — who has spent decades chronicling everything from the drug trade to the unique politics of immigrant communities along the Southwest border. Dreamland, his third book, is a deeply reported account of a heroin pipeline that Quinones traced from its source in Xalisco, Nayarit, Mexico, into small towns and suburbs in the U.S.
It’s not terribly unusual for television news outlets to piggyback on the work of print journalists, and that convention has long been a gripe voiced by the ink-stained; 60 Minutes, however, isn’t a typical local TV outfit. And what makes Quinones’s claims really unusual is the allegation that he and the show’s producers had discussed working together on a project.
Speaking to the Voice, Quinones acknowledged that the heroin epidemic is a story many others have covered but said he and his publicist “spoke at length” with the show’s producers and had helped frame the story.
“They could have gone anywhere in America and done this story, but they went to the place where they had a printed road map for everything they needed,” Quinones said. “Why? You’ll have to ask them. I suspect because it was very cheap.”
Quinones said it was he who suggested Ohio as a good focus for the 60 Minutes story, a representative part of the country and the focus of much of his book. He said he suspects the program is under pressure to make each segment seem as if it’s breaking new ground but added that it was wrong to do so at the expense of independent reporters with a smaller audience.
“It seems to reflect a culture of entitlement,” Quinones said. “It’s the schoolyard bully who thinks that everything in the schoolyard belongs to them…. It’s just a ridiculous and nasty way of doing journalism.”
60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco released a statement, reprinted in full below, denying all of Quinones’s charges and suggesting that he was merely seeking attention for his book.
A heroin epidemic across America has been rigorously documented in national and local media. It’s absurd for Mr. Quinones to claim credit for discovering that it’s a problem in Ohio. Authorities there, and victims such as the Campbell family, have a commendably high level of organization getting the word out about this crisis. Mr. Quinones, who did not add anything to our story, wanted to be part of it to get publicity for his work — which we suppose, now he has received.
Tedesco refused, repeatedly, to address on the record whether or not the show’s producers had ever communicated with Quinones about working with him on a segment. Tedesco referred a Voice reporter to his written statement.
Quinones, for his part, ended his post with a somewhat hopeful note, arguing that the scaling-back of major journalistic institutions like 60 Minutes leaves more space and opportunity for enterprising independent reporters.
“As desiccated titans collapse, abdicating any role in maintaining standards of journalism,” Quinones wrote, “we now have this terrain to ourselves. We must work it, push at it, be relentless. But it’s there. People want it, thirst for it, as I’ve found in the reaction to Dreamland. When we find these stories — as now only we are equipped to do — they will probably mean more than ever.”