Was the story too good to be true?
That seems to be the question the literary and journalism worlds are asking after concerns were raised about the validity of Pill City, a book that claims two honor roll teens from West Baltimore were responsible for creating an Uber-like system that used location-based technology and encryption software to distribute pills pilfered from Baltimore pharmacies in April 2015 along the East Coast. This enterprise, according to the book, was responsible for a sharp increase in violence and drug overdoses.
Since Pill City was published in February, Baltimore police, health officials, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have questioned the drug operation’s existence, according to an article in The Sun. The New York Times recently ran a correction on a story by Pill City’s author Kevin Deutsch that said it could not confirm the existence of two sources in a story Deutsch wrote for the newspaper in December about deaths from the prescription opiate fentanyl. And Newsday, Deutsch’s former employer, has announced it plans to review Deutsch’s stories.
Deutsch has stood by the book, saying in a post on the website Medium that the reporting is authentic. “Pill City is a true story told under extraordinary circumstances. I reported it aggressively and honestly, and stand behind every word.”
The situation brings up a big question: If these issues with the book’s content existed, why didn’t St. Martin’s Press, its publisher, recognize them?
“There’s no editor that looks over the sourcing and the evidence for a non-fiction book,” says Linda Steiner, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. “There’s a kind of irony in that a publisher might have an editor look over the style and content of a novel, but when it comes to non-fiction, the publishers very often just assume that the author knows what he or she is writing about and they don’t ask questions.”
St. Martin’s Press has stood behind the book, and Steiner says there is a clear reason for that—Deutsch’s use of anonymous sources.
“There have been cases in the past when serious questions emerge and a book has been withdrawn, or sometimes even shredded, but that’s usually when the publisher fears that it will be sued," she says. "In this case, no one can say he’s been libeled because they haven’t been named. So St. Martin’s has no legal responsibility.”
Deutsch’s book, which we reviewed in our February issue, changed names and places to protect the identities of his sources in the drug world. Steiner notes that Deutsch could have given redacted notes to the journalists who raised these claims that would confirm aspects of the book while still preserving certain sources’ identities.
“It’s not sufficient to say, ‘You have to trust me on this,’” she says. “Journalists are expected to corroborate [their work]. When some details are endowed, it does undermine the credibility of the author, and undermine the value of the larger story the journalist was trying to tell. And these days, it reflects on the credibility of the entire profession.”