When the American pharmaceutical industry looks north, it sees a great menace. And so a staffer at PhRMA had the bright idea of commissioning a novel about terrorists who taint the supply of Canadian generics. When PhRMA bosses found out about the book, they weren't so thrilled, but it was already too late. Brooke recounts the strange genesis of "The Karasik Conspiracy," a tale of secret payments, terror, and revenge.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Here is a story so twisted and tangled, the truth may never see the light of day. It begins in a time - that is to say, now when interest groups, industries and even the White House shun overt public relations. That's why advertisers prefer to place their products inside sitcoms, rather than run ads. That's why the Bush Administration paid columnists to push No Child Left Behind. And that's why someone came up with the idea that the drug lobby would benefit from a novel that had terrorists tampering with generic drugs from Canada. Mark Barondess, a consultant to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, liked the idea. He believes that under current laws, terrorists tampering with foreign generics is a real concern and thought that a good thriller could drive that message home.
MARK BARONDESS: If you bring in terrorism experts and they're testifying, you know, people just get ho hum, they don't really catch onto it. But if it's put into a colorful situation where it shows that this is something that's potentially harmful and might have an impact on your life, even though it's fictional, it gets you thinking a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And who at PhRMA did you take this idea too?
MARK BARONDESS: She is a lower level individual that had the ability to agree that this is something that we could explore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they commissioned a book to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak, who describes the plot as commissioned by the PhRMA rep.
KENIN SPIVAK: A group of Bosnian Muslims, who were unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launched an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans died.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics. But he and his writing partner delivered the goods, promptly rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.
MARK BARONDESS: A child in the fifth grade could have written better than the document that I was handed. And we thought someone might think that this was some improper conduct on the part of the pharmaceutical industry of trying to scare someone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Someone did think that. The PhRMA leadership. Senior Vice President Ken Johnson.
KEN JOHNSON: This was a screwball idea. You know, we have credible safety based arguments supporting our position against importation. But we're not in the business of publishing pulp fiction and loony tunes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But someone from your organization was clearly in touch with this publisher and there were payments made.
MARK BARONDESS: Not by PhRMA. That money was money that I paid over to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: PhRMA consultant, Mark Barondess.
MARK BARONDESS: I, as a consultant, paid to have a draft of this manuscript prepared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not only did Barondess, a lawyer, pay to prepare the manuscript, he also tried to pay 100,000 dollars to kill it. Co author Kenin Spivak.
KENIN SPIVAK: For this 100,000 dollars they wanted the publisher, my co author and me to agree for the rest of our lives, publicly and privately, to never say anything critical of the pharmaceutical industry, PhRMA or the lawyer.
MARK BARONDESS: They said unless we paid them a certain amount of money, they were going to write the book and hold the pharmaceutical industry out in a negative light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like you're accusing them of blackmail.
MARK BARONDESS: [PAUSE] That's about what it was. But, you know, we have nothing to be blackmailed about. It was a bad idea and it was acknowledged to be a bad idea. That's it. I mean, people make mistakes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They say that it was stipulated that if they accepted the hundred grand they weren't to say anything critical of the pharmaceutical industry for the rest of their lives.
MARK BARONDESS: That's incorrect. What it had was a general non denigration clause that I put into all contracts. And I think in this particular case I may have added an extra paragraph about something to do with the pharmaceutical industry because of the vindictive nature that I sensed in them by the original threat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beware of lawyers bearing additional paragraphs. That one flew right up Spivak's nose. He and his co author rejected the money. Did you think it was a pretty good book you delivered, a rippin' good yarn?
KENIN SPIVAK: I thought it was what they wanted. I think what they wanted was not a terrific book. I think the book that now exists is a terrific book.
MARK BARONDESS: If they think that they've fixed it up, then see if you would read it. I bet you by the time that you get to the third chapter, you'll be pulling out Dramamine 'cause your head will be spinning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you can buy that over the counter. But Spivak and Chrystyn did rewrite the novel, retaining some of the old terrorists and adding a big fat new one.
KENIN SPIVAK: There's also now a subplot involving a large pharmaceutical company which, concerned that terrorist attacks might help color the Americans' perception of imported drugs, this pharmaceutical company decides to launch a real terrorist attack on its own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, my God. So for revenge, you've made the enemy the big drug companies themselves.
KENIN SPIVAK: Well, one of the two enemies is the big drug company. And interestingly, one of the requests made by PhRMA while we were writing the book was that the motive be greed. And we really couldn't figure out how to have the type of crazy fundamentalist Muslim terrorists they wanted have as their motive greed. But there's no such problem in [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
KENIN SPIVAK: looking at a pharmaceutical company as a terrorist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Consultant Mark Barondess.
MARK BARONDESS: Clearly Spivak is trying to market through you. That's all that this is about. I've got no dog in this fight. I'm giving you the, the honest account of what took place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're still a consultant for PhRMA, right?
MARK BARONDESS: Yes, yes, I am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, it's a sordid tale. Not the novel, the real life story where to hear it, everyone is a victim, especially and I may have to reach for the Dramamine here the big drug lobby. PhRMA Senior Vice President, Ken Johnson.
KEN JOHNSON: We have taken strong internal steps to correct this problem. It's not going to happen again. But again, it was one person, in effect, a renegade. And [CHUCKLES], you know, I don't think that people hold the New York Times to blame for all of the mistakes of Jayson Blair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well actually, people do. And one more thing. The publisher who took on the novel assigned one of his recent authors as editor. But he reportedly got into a fight with one of the authors and was quickly let go. The name of that editor? Get out the Dramamine. It was Jayson Blair. The final version of the novel, The Karasik Conspiracy, is due out in December. But just to be clear, we're not advising you to buy it. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]