Although Season 3 of Current TV‘s in-depth reporting series Vanguard doesn’t get started on television until next Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT/9 p.m. CDT, Hulu is bringing you the full season premiere a few days early. “The OxyContin Express” is an in-depth look at prescription drug abuse and the pill mills of Southern Florida, where lax prescription regulations provide easy access to addictive medications such as oxycodone for people all over the U.S. In her coverage of Broward County, Florida, Vanguard journalist Mariana van Zeller speaks to a family affected by pill addiction, travels the pill pipeline (the “Oxy Express”) from Florida to Appalachia, and rides along as the police crack down on pill dealers. Hulu spoke to Van Zeller about this episode earlier this week. Below, she tells us why they chose to cover prescription meds and all about her harrowing run-in with the angry owner of a pain management clinic. (You can watch part of the experience in the episode.) — Rebecca Harper (), Editor
Hulu: Hi Mariana, thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us about Vanguard?
Mariana van Zeller: Vanguard is an award-winning weekly documentary series that airs on Current TV. What we try to do is tell stories that we believe are important and unreported, and we try to tell them in a way that basically speaks to a young adult audience. We live in a time when most outlets out there, most networks, are shying away from international reporting. They’re closing foreign bureaus, and they’re just not telling international stories. It’s out of a belief that people just aren’t interested in international stories. We believe the exact opposite. We think that especially young people are interested in long-format, in-depth reporting, but there’s no outlet out there that speaks to them directly. That’s what we’re trying to do. We do a lot of international stories, but we do a good batch of national stories as well. What we do differently is that we tell them in a more in-depth way. We don’t spend a minute on the topic, which is what you see nowadays. Again, we live in a time when every subject is approached for either a minute or it’s all conversation and discussion about the subject, but there isn’t actually feet-on-the-ground, in-depth reporting. The way that we report our stories is also very different from what you see in traditional media. It’s more off the cuff, informal. There’s more immediacy to the feel. That’s because, when things are staged, you sort of step away from the story, from the reality. We wanted people to feel like they’re with us, that they’re there on this journey as we tell these stories that we believe are important.
Of course, you reported on pills in the Season 3 premiere. Why prescription drugs?
You hear about prescription pills, unfortunately, when celebrities die. You heard a lot about it when Heath Ledger died and when Michael Jackson died, but that’s pretty much it. But actually prescription pills are a growing problem in the United States. More people now are abusing prescription pills than ecstasy, cocaine and heroin combined. We decided to take a harder look at it, outside the celebrity world, and really go and do an in-depth documentary about where this is happening, why it is happening, and how it’s affecting people. Just to give you an example, we found out that Florida was sort of becoming this source state, the Colombia of prescription drugs. A lot of people from all over the U.S. were heading to Florida to get their drugs. This has become a huge problem in Florida, where 11 people a day are dying from prescription drugs. This is something I like to say, because I think it really opens up people’s eyes: The day that Michael Jackson died, 11 people died that same day in Florida. That’s the average there. Between the deaths of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, 6000 people died in the state of Florida alone. This is a big problem and we can’t just look at it through the eyes of celebrities. We felt that we really had to go out there and do some actual reporting and find out what’s happening.
So what we did is, we followed the pills. We got to Florida and saw the devastation and the impact that prescription pills were having there, and then we followed the pill pipeline from Florida through Appalachia, where every day hundreds of people are coming down to Florida to get their pills and take them back to their states. They’re having huge impacts there, too. Prisons are filling up and people are dying. It’s destroying families and whole communities.
How did you find the people you profiled, people like Todd, an addict we meet at the beginning of the episode?
We spent about two months of preproduction in the office, just making phone calls every day, trying to find people. That was the hardest part, to find actual addicts who were willing to speak to us on camera. We were able to speak to a lot of them but, obviously, there weren’t many who were willing to just give us interviews on camera. But then we came across Maureen, who’s very active herself in the fight against prescription pills because she has lost a son already, and a daughter-in-law. She’s become very, very involved in this fight against these pain clinics in Florida. On the phone with her, she told us that her other son was also addicted to prescription pills, so we came down to Florida and she introduced us to him. We ended up spending a few days with him, and it was just an incredible experience for us.
Watching this, I was personally disturbed by Todd’s story and his actions, that he’s still using after all that’s happened to his family. Do you find that you have a hard time remaining objective as you report on things like this?
Absolutely. I think that’s always the biggest challenge for us journalists. In this story in particular, we had seen the harm that these pain clinics and these doctors are doing to these people, and were trying at the same time to be objective. We tried to get their perspectives on this, too, and of course, as you’ll see in the piece, we were chased away from one clinic. We called a bunch of other clinics because we wanted to set up interviews. No one wanted to talk to us. It gets really difficult when you’re trying to get their voice in there, too, but you’re being chased away and people are hanging up on you as soon as you call. I think that also says a lot about what sort of business is going on there, when we can’t get anyone to sit with us and talk to us. What we have to see, too, is that this is a minority. It’s a small group of doctors, but unfortunately they’re capable of doing a lot of harm. I’m not saying the whole medical community is corrupt.
When you do these exposés, what are your goals? Have you had any success stories from past stories that you’ve covered?
I think our main goal is always to raise awareness, to make people talk about what is broken in the system. People usually ask us journalists, “Why do you always do sad stories or tragic stories; why don’t you report on the good stuff?” Well, because when there’s good stuff, there’s nothing to report about. Our job as journalists is to shine a light and raise awareness on things when the system is broken, when things aren’t working, not when they are. If they’re working, it’s because everything is going accordingly. I think that’s always our objective, to shine a light and raise awareness on what’s going wrong and what’s broken in the system. In this case, it’s very flagrant and very obvious that something is broken and something needs to change.
In “The Oxycontin Express,” you were followed by someone during your coverage. What was that experience like? How did it all unfold?
It was insane. I thought I was in the middle of an episode of The Sopranos. Basically, we were filming on the other side of the street outside a pain clinic. As soon as we took the camera out — we had it out for five minutes — a car parked behind us. This guy started yelling at me because I was the only one standing outside the car at the time. He was cursing at me in a very, very threatening manner and asking us what we were doing. We explained that we were doing the film. He was just cursing and yelling, so we got in the car and drove off. He actually started following us. Two guys got into the car with him, and then another car joined them. Every time we tried to stop at a gas station, they would basically get out of the car and start running toward us. Eventually, we had to call 911, and they came to the rescue.
The back story is that we actually ran out of gas. We didn’t include it in our story, but every time we tried to stop at a gas station, they would come out. Eventually, on the highway, we ran out of gas as we were calling 911. We had to pull over, and I think they were very confused about what was happening because it was in the middle of the freeway in Florida, so they just parked behind us. They stayed in the car and didn’t come out or anything. We just waited. It was the most insane thing. The whole time, I was completely imagining that scene from The Sopranos where the guy comes out of the car and points a gun at us.
It was crazy. I was terrified. Luckily, the police arrived and they got off with a warning. We later found out that one of the cars belonged to the owner of the pain clinic, who was actually a guy who had already served time in prison for possession of steroids with intent to sell.
Have you had any other experiences like this, where you were in danger?
Oh yeah, many. I was doing a story once on the border of Syria and Iraq — it was actually right after the war in Iraq officially supposedly ended, when Bush declared the end to the war in Iraq. It was when the insurgencies started in Iraq, where insurgents, foreign fighters, were coming from all over to Iraq to fight. We did a story about the Syrians who were crossing the border into Iraq basically to fight the Americans. We spent a couple of weeks on the border, trying to get some of these insurgents who were coming back after fighting. We wanted to get their perspectives on what happened, why they were fighting, and how they were doing it. It was very, very scary because we were in a territory where, on one hand, we were told it was full of Al Qaeda members and, on the other hand, we were also trying to stay away from the Syrian secret police because we were there as tourists, or else we wouldn’t be able to report this story. We were followed by the Syrian secret police several times and we had to get the tapes out through Lebanon and it was crazy stuff.
Let’s see, what other harrowing experiences have I had? Well, we had another nerve-wracking experience when we met with militants in the Niger Delta, with the oil conflict. We had an appointment to meet them at this fort, and when we got there, it was a boat with seven armed young men — some of them looked like they were teenagers — who had a bottle of whisky in one hand, and a gun in the other, and they took us away for an hour in their boat in the middle of the swamps to one of their camps to show us, basically, their power. We were eventually able to speak to their spokesperson, and that was very nerve-wracking, especially since at one point, once we got there, to their camp, they didn’t allow women inside. It’s bad juju, bad luck to allow women in their camp. I had to stay in the boat and my producing partner, who is also my husband, was taken inside. So I stayed out in the boat with these seven guys with guns looking at me while my husband goes with the camera inside the camp. That was a nerve-wracking experience, for sure. I’m lucky that I do it with my husband, though. He’s my own personal bodyguard.
What else are you reporting on this season?
We also have another story about the end of the war in Sri Lanka. For 25 years, the government of Sri Lanka was at war with one of the biggest badasses of modern-day terrorism. They’re actually called the “O.G.s of modern-day terrorism,” the Tamal Tigers. After 25 years, that war came to an end, and a lot of countries were looking at Sri Lanka as an example of how to defeat terrorism. We traveled to that country during the waning days of that war to see what Sri Lanka had to do to defeat terrorism and what kind of examples we could learn from that country, if any.
How did you get your start?
I’m from Portugal originally, and my name is Dutch, so I think I have a lot of the explorer’s blood in me — you know, Dutch and Portuguese. I’ve always loved to travel and I sort of decided I wanted to become a journalist when I was around 12 years old. I used to see all these beautiful anchors on Portuguese television. They seemed so knowledgeable; they could talk about anything and go on for hours for every issue. Little did I know they were actually reading from a teleprompter! That’s basically when I decided that I wanted to be that knowledgeable, and I always loved to travel. Early on, I decided I wanted to be a journalist, one who actually goes out and reports and travels and looks for stories. I wouldn’t want to be just an anchor or anything.
Thanks, Mariana for your time today.