Former Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his investigation into how drug distributors pumped powerful opioids into some of West Virginia’s most rural counties. In his new book, Eyre takes readers on a journey through the reporting it took to uncover the story, beginning with a single death in one family and detailing how those distributors ignored how addictive the drugs could be.
“Death In Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic” chronicles Eyre’s years-long probe, which began when he was covering the West Virginia statehouse beat, including newly elected West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
“We got a tip that his (Morrisey’s) wife worked for one of these distributors that distributes opioids and other drugs, called Cardinal Health,” Eyre said in an interview “And then we found out that Cardinal Health had donated to Patrick Morrissey's inaugural party. And it kind of just snowballed from there.”
The story wasn’t an easy one to cover. There were legal fights and efforts by the pharmaceutical industry, the manufacturers and even the Drug Enforcement Agency to conceal records. Morrisey also launched an investigation into the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in what Eyre believes was an attempt to quash the investigation.
“That really took our owners and management back. They were concerned about this aggressive reporting,” Eyre said. Ultimately, the publisher and executive editor at the paper told Eyre to keep at it. “And we won in the end.”
In honoring him the 2017 award for investigative reporting, the Pulitzer Board praised Eyre’s “courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”
One guiding principle for Eyre was the idea of “sustained outrage,” a term coined by Former Charleston Gazette publisher Ned Chilton: Newspapers shouldn’t write about an injustice once and then move on, but report story after story on the topic until something changes.
In today’s news climate, with newspapers closing their doors and laying off reporters, Eyre worries that it may be difficult to continue that tradition.
“We laid off upwards of three people the week before last and then another two the previous month and more cuts are coming. This is not just the Gazette-Mail. This is happening all over the country,” he said.
Eyre resigned from the Gazette-Mail on March 31, the day his book was released. He said he wants to focus on his health. In the book he revealed that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016.
With the coronavirus dominating headlines around the world, Eyre is concerned that the opioid crisis might recede into people’s minds. He noted that many of those same pharmaceutical distributors are using the coronavirus pandemic to “to duck and dodge responsibility for the opioid crisis.
Eyre said he hopes those recovering from substance use disorders don’t experience a setback while the country follows stay-at-home orders.
“A lot of these people who are in recovery, they really, really look forward to group therapy where they have 12 to 15 people. They say that the best part of the whole process is getting together with groups of people. I guess maybe they can do it on Zoom or something or telemedicine, but I don't think it's the same,” Eyre said.
He also noted that in more rural parts of the state, and the region, large percentages of people do not have access to reliable high-speed internet and may not be able to join in those online sessions.
“They say the opposite of addiction is connection and we're not getting much connection now,” Eyre said.
This story is part of an occasional series featuring authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.