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The Martin Shkreli Email Affair Is Sort of Sad, Really

Journalists spent the morning having a laugh — but should we really be so happy about turning our villains into memes?

By Ted Scheinman


Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on February 4, 2016. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

There is nothing a journalist likes so much as being in on the joke, and, this morning, over 450 journalists were treated to a special bit of ego-stroking: inclusion on a secret-sounding email blast sent by someone who claimed to be notorious drug-price-gouger Martin Shkreli. The email included a purported YouTube link to a “leak” of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the single-copy Wu-Tang Clan album that Shkreli bought for $2 million in 2015 and has since refused to share with the world. It was immediately apparent that the sender was not Shkreli but an unknown impostor, and the 456 journalists on the original email chain promptly began replying to all recipients with disaffected one-liners and lots of Harambe memes. At 10:12 a.m. EST, Gadgette founder Holly Brockwell added the real Martin Shkreli to the list. Shkreli proceeded to say vaguely snide things about Hillary Clinton’s appearance; accused the Huffington Post’s Andy Campbell of living in a soup kitchen; and called another journalist overweight.

With Shkreli, as with other millionaire trolls, critics are spoiled with too much material. Here is a man-child with the round cheeks and horrid entitlement of the worst kind of prepster, who as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals jacked up prices for the AIDS drug Daraprim. When he wasn’t busy using a monopoly to prey on a vulnerable community, he was a white dude hoarding black music to the point of erasure. He is one of 2016’s signature villains, in a singularly villainous year.

Shkreli’s appearance before Congress this February marked him as a man who lives beyond the reach of sympathy.

Likewise singular is the way we penalize villains in the present age: by reducing their villainy to a walking meme. “Martin Shkreli” was trending on both coasts this morning, not because of any developments in the legal proceedings against him, but because journalists were having a bang-up time hitting “reply-all” on a thread that began with 456 recipients and keeps growing each hour, as excited journos loop in their friends. (The email list also includes translators, innocent civilians with the misfortune to share names with Web journalists, and the occasional celebrity — Amber Rose, among others.)

This new literary group saw occasional flare-ups — one writer somehow tried to blame the whole thing on Brockwell — but mainly what we got was a steady trickle of optimized Web randomness. One reporter wrote an impassioned, four-paragraph exegesis of his fantasy baseball team. At 10:27 a.m., Brian Adams reminded the list that “SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!!!!!!!!” Circa 11 a.m., Eric Sanchez sent the list the lyrics to Seals “Kiss From a Rose”; around the same time, Josh O’Kane sent the list the entire text of Moby-Dick. In one of the least honorable moves of the morning, Colin Jones sent a “link” to the “full leak of the [Wu-Tang] album”; it took you to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.”

That’s all fine fun for a Friday, and it sounds as though a lot of the New York types from the list are meeting at 3 p.m. at Flavortown, where Shkreli might actually appear to drink with reporters. That will be great for everyone’s Klout score. Maybe he’ll even call you “overweight” to your face! And that’ll be fine because what matters in online decorum now — more than politeness or accuracy or utility — is the appearance of unflappability, of being vastly tickled by even the most monstrous thing you see online. The required performance of cultured unflappability means we end up laughing at this pustule named Shkreli rather than recoiling from him.

Whether you think his price-gouging was unconscionable from a public-health standpoint, or merely business as usual for Big Pharma, the man’s rhetoric and behavior distinguish him as a particularly loathsome robber-baron. He came to infamy for raising the price on Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill; he’s awaiting trial (currently set for June 2017) on securities fraud; besides which (and ignoring for a moment his smirking white-boy diss of the hip-hop world), he’s been accused of harassing a former employee, and made headlines with a flippant, self-destructive testimony before Congress this February that marked him as a man who lives beyond the reach of human sympathy.*

Journalists who know this saga inside-out sometimes seem to be “over it,” as though Shkreli, once identified as a villain, will now enter history as a meme. It can be easy for journalists to forget that not all of their readers think the same way. Meme-ifying a bad guy sometimes just empowers him. Some might point to the presidential race as a lesson on that score.

Chris Morgan, Friday, August 12, 2016 9:33 a.m.: “Guys, the only way we don’t look back at this time as an interesting, but ultimately hollow, moment in our lives is if two people meet in this e-mail chain and fall in love and we all go to their wedding. So go for it, theoretical lovebirds, and just know that when you look back and only see one set of footprints in the sand, that was when I was carrying both of you like an old-timey circus strongman.”

Jesse Case, Friday, August 12, 2016 10:04 a.m.: “This ends with us all being hunted for sport on an island, right?”

The Internet remains, axiomatically, a garbage fire, where various tribes huddle around respective flames to stay warm and remind each other that they’re human. It is natural to transmute evil into comedy — it’s how we preserve our last shred of innocence or optimism, or, failing those, our “unflappability.” The Shkreli Email Affair, though, gives the lie to that unflappability: Journalists made Martin Shkreli trend on Twitter because, briefly, he made them feel good about themselves. That’s a good reason to feel icky about the whole thing.



*Update—2016.08.12: This post has been updated with details about Martin Shkreli’s 2017 trial.