As the opioid epidemic continues to spiral, more and more people have reason to seek information about addiction and its consequences. But finding unbiased information is extremely difficult — maybe more so than people realize.
According to an investigation by The Verge, several popular publications covering addiction and treatment double as marketing operations for treatment centers. Rehab Reviews and The Fix are controlled by Cliffside Malibu founder Richard Taite, while Addiction Unscripted — a group promoted by Mark Zuckerberg this summer for its use of Facebook — is owned and staffed by the CEO and marketers of Windward Way, a treatment center in Costa Mesa, California.
All three sites have phone numbers that refer callers to the affiliated rehabs, as well as to partner facilities. On The Fix and Rehab Reviews, there’s a note that the phone number routes you to Service Industries, a “network of commonly owned rehabilitation service providers,” but it doesn’t say which rehabs are in the network, or that Taite owns both the publishers and the providers. Users browsing with an ad blocker will not see the note, just the helpline.
Popular publications covering addiction double as marketing operations
While the connections between the rehabs and the sites are relatively well-known within the industry — Addiction Unscripted even used the Rehab Reviews practice of generating leads for Cliffside Malibu as an example to emulate in an early business plan obtained by The Verge — people reading the sites had no way to know the connection (until disclaimers appeared after The Verge approached the sites for comment).
The Fix, a popular addiction-focused news site, started in 2011 as what The New York Times called “a Web site that combines feature writing, news, video and Zagat-like reviews of rehab facilities.” Two years later, its parent company declared bankruptcy, and the website was sold to the private company, Clean & Sober Media, LLC. Clean & Sober Media also owns Rehab Reviews, which Forbes has called “a Yelp.com for drug rehabs.”
According to a contract reviewed by The Verge and signed by Richard Taite, as well as conversations with people aware of the arrangement, Clean & Sober Media, LLC, is headed by Taite, owner of the California rehab Cliffside Malibu. Loren Beck, the chief legal officer of Cliffside Malibu, was the signatory on Clean & Sober Media’s founding documents. The treatment center is consistently ranked No. 1 on Rehab Reviews’ top 10 list, and given the most prominent spot on The Fix.
The treatment center is consistently ranked No. 1
Taite also owns Access Malibu (as of October 31st, No. 6 on Rehab Reviews’ top 10 list, and No. 8 on The Fix’s top facilities page); Sunset Malibu (No. 4 on both sites); and Recovery Malibu (No. 8 on Rehab Reviews), according to documents filed with the California secretary of state.
“It is correct that Cliffside Malibu and its affiliates collectively operate a total of eight facilities,” a lawyer for Taite responded when The Verge asked for comment. “At certain times, various of these facilities have advertised on one or both websites. However, at no time, have any of these facilities been ‘endorsed’ by either Website, which provide reviews, not endorsements, of various facilities.” The lawyer confirmed that Taite owned Clean & Sober Media.
The lawyer directed The Verge to the websites’ terms and conditions, where one line now says that “Clean & Sober Media, LLC, which is now under common ownership with Cliffside Malibu and its affiliate organizations,” bought The Fix in 2013, and Rehab Reviews in 2014.
Disclaimers appeared after The Verge approached the sites for comment
Some mentions of Cliffside Malibu on The Fix (though not on the treatment center review) are “featured,” and hovering over an informational icon next to the “Featured Centers” banner brings up text that says “Featured centers have paid for placement of their reviews in this section; however, the content and ratings contained in those reviews are editorial content created by The Fix.” There’s no indication that the companies share an owner.
Rehab Reviews doesn’t note the connection to Cliffside at all, except on the new terms and conditions page. Visitors to the site, which bills itself as “The World’s Largest & Most Trusted Resource for Rehab Reviews,” are greeted by a picture of an ocean sunset that reads, “HIGHEST RATED REHABS.” Clicking it brings up the glowing review for Cliffside Malibu. (The site used to have a “Top 10 Rehabs” list in the main menu bar, with Cliffside Malibu consistently at #1, but it was removed after The Verge emailed Taite.)
Most treatment centers have SEO-friendly blogs on their websites, often offering interesting perspectives on news items or debates about treatment. Hazelden Betty Ford has a whole publishing arm that puts out a variety of widely used educational resources. But when a site buries its material connections to a business it funnels customers into, it erodes public trust, and calls into question the information provided by the publication.
“It’s scummy, it’s misleading.”
Joe Schrank, one of the two original founders of The Fix, has strong feelings about the marketing model their former site is now part of. “It’s scummy, it’s misleading,” he told The Verge. After the acquisition, he and the other founder, Maer Roshan, discussed coming back as editors. But both ultimately felt the price was too high.
“They wanted final editorial approval,” Schrank said. “‘Well, we’ll probably never use it,’ they said. We just couldn’t do that.”
One of The Fix’s first stories, “Inside Scientology’s Rehab Racket,” was an expose on Scientology-affiliated rehab chain Narconon. According to Zachary Siegel, a journalist who started writing for the site in the early days, The Fix’s appetite for reporting changed after the purchase, although he was unaware of Taite’s involvement until The Verge told him.
“When it came to stories that dealt with exposing fraud and corruption, I was told that the publication didn’t have resources to defend itself against litigious rehabs. I did manage to also get some fraud and corruption stuff into The Fix - it just didn’t have the teeth that I wanted,” Siegel said.
“I stand by everything I wrote at The Fix, but also, in the context of all the fraud and corruption going on in the industry, I do think there’s a need for transparency here.” (Siegel ultimately published several of those stories elsewhere.)
The Fix saw other changes under its new ownership, including the steadily increasing presence of free insurance verifications for treatment coverage, first in a blinking banner ad and then as a pop-up. Around the time of the transition, Cliffside Malibu appeared at the top of a new “best-rated rehabs” section.
The review was first given a full five stars
The review for Cliffside got a nip / tuck, too. The archived, staff-written review of Cliffside Malibu from 2012 gives the center four stars. It’s quite positive throughout, but mentions a few flaws. Originally, it highlighted the “top-notch staff,” but said the “medical doctors used for calls or consultations were only ‘somewhat helpful,’ and occasionally look as though they’ve just dropped by after brunch. ‘I didn’t feel the love,’ said one alumnus.”
After Clean & Sober Media took over, the review was first given a full five stars, and then later changed to read: “although there are no live-in doctors, the on-call physicians are very accessible, helpful, responsive to patients’ needs...One alum who went through detox five times before coming to Cliffside said it was the best detox experience he’d had—and most importantly, he hasn’t needed it since.” The review date still reads March 2012.
“Any implication that the content of an editorial review, including its aesthetics, is influenced by whether a treatment center has paid for advertising is false,” Taite’s lawyer said in a statement.
Maer Roshan, Schrank’s co-founder at The Fix, told The Verge that he believes addiction deserves a serious and credible news source. His and Schrank’s original vision for the site was to not be associated with treatment centers at all. “That’s what made the rehab reviews authentic,” he said. “To me, that authenticity is shadowed by the ownership.”
Clean & Sober Media is far from the only publisher owned in whole or in part by people with a financial interest in a treatment center or addiction-related business. Another is Addiction Unscripted, a group that gained recognition earlier this year when Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long Facebook post promoting both the website and its affiliated Facebook group, Affected By Addiction Support Group, which has over 52,000 members. (Addiction Unscripted itself has nearly 200,000 Facebook likes.)
“We're looking for ways to help people find groups that will be meaningful to them,” the Facebook founder wrote to his 97.8 million followers in July. “Dealing with addiction can be isolating and AddictionUnscripted.com is a place for people affected by addiction to come together. Now if you join their page, you can request to join the Affected By Addiction Support Group to connect with people who are going through the same thing.”
Facebook invited Addiction Unscripted co-founder Matt Mendoza and his partner Jeremy Broderick to the 2017 Facebook Communities Summit at Facebook headquarters, where Mendoza spoke about his role creating a “safe space for people who are experiencing or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.”
Zuckerberg wrote a long Facebook post promoting the site and its affiliated Facebook group
That safe space has another purpose: generating admissions for Costa Mesa treatment center Windward Way and its sister facility, Casa Capri.
Broderick, the CEO of Windward Way, owns about 20 percent of Addiction Unscripted. Mendoza is a marketer at Windward Way, with an office next to Broderick’s. The phone number for Addiction Unscripted, listed on Affected By Addiction Support Group as the primary resource for people in need, rings to Windward Way’s marketers.
“The Affected By Addiction Support Group on Facebook is essentially mined and operated by admissions counselors at Windward Way,” a source inside the company told The Verge. Marketers, including Mendoza, send private messages to people who post to the group, offering support and suggesting they call the hotline.
Addiction Unscripted co-founder Matt Mendoza and Windward Way CEO Jeremy Broderick visiting the Facebook campus.
Mendoza, who was convicted of wire fraud in 2010, told The Verge that Facebook was aware of Broderick’s connection to Windward Way, and that the support group was generating admissions for the rehab. When asked how the Facebook page grew so quickly, he declined to explain, saying it wasn’t relevant.
“We’re aware of Matt’s connection to Windward, and we have many other community leaders on Facebook using Groups as a channel to both create a community around a passion or cause, and as a way to financially support that community,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge. “We’re always happy to see Groups and other Facebook tools as forces to build communities and create positive real-world impact.”
The spokesperson went on to mention a rock collection fan page associated with a store that sells rocks, and a group for Unicorn Moms, defined as moms who “couldn’t care less what you think.” That group sells branded merchandise, including a mug that says, “There’s a chance this is VODKA.”
“The Affected By Addiction Support Group on Facebook is essentially mined and operated by admissions counselors at Windward Way.”
The Facebook spokesperson did not respond to a request for clarification that Facebook was comparing branded merchandising to rehab referral.
Both Broderick and Mendoza spoke to The Verge about their desire to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, in addiction treatment ethics.
Mendoza denied that there was an ethical conflict in not disclosing the connection between the publisher and the rehabs. “The only intention is, for people who need help, this is a great facility, and it’s the only one I know will do the right thing for the patient,” he told The Verge. “I’m lucky enough to have these people around me, and Jeremy, who dedicated his people to answering the phone in very effective and ethical ways.”
“Matt’s kind of the quarterback of it. I’m just kind of a passenger in the car. I don’t even speak the little techie language,” Broderick told The Verge, saying that his relationship with Addiction Unscripted wasn’t generating the number of admissions for Windward Way he was hoping it would when they first teamed up. “It’s turned into something that I didn’t intend it becoming, so I’m probably going to be, effective today, severing all ties.”
Shortly after that call, Addiction Unscripted’s treatment center directory and reviews were taken down, and a disclaimer was added to the top: “ADDICTIONUNSCRIPTED.COM IS AFFILIATED WITH WINDWARDWAY RECOVERY, PHONE CALLS FROM THIS SITE ARE FORWARDED TO WINDWARDWAY RECOVERY AND THEIR ADDICTION SPECIALISTS.”
After the call, Addiction Unscripted’s treatment center directory was taken down
Addiction Unscripted was launched as a directory site, using user-generated and commissioned articles to drive leads. According to Mendoza, the company quickly pivoted toward social media, including Pandora and Grindr, along with Facebook.
Mendoza denied that every caller is sent to Windward Way or Casa Capri, only those who are a “good fit.” For example, people who can’t afford the treatment center, either through cash or insurance, are sent to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) treatment locator. Both Broderick and Mendoza said the majority of callers from Addiction Unscripted couldn’t afford Windward Way.
Earlier this week, apparently alerted to questions about his business model, Mendoza published a Huffington Post article defending his choice to partner with a treatment center, though the article doesn’t mention which facility it is. (When asked why he didn’t name the treatment center, Mendoza laughed and said, “I didn't find that relevant. I didn't find it relevant at all. If somebody wanted to find out, it wouldn’t be hard.”)
In the post, Mendoza called for improved ethics in treatment center marketing.
On Facebook, the Affected By Addiction Support Group still has no mention of Windward Way, despite hosting a “call now” button that rings to the rehab. That hotline is also listed in a pinned post of page rules. (“...If you ever need help from an addiction counselor, please call our helpline...or send a private msg to Matthew Mendoza.”) Another rule is no posting “pictures or articles from other websites or treatment centers.”
Addiction Unscripted’s now-deleted directory was an example of one of the strangest legacies of the eternal SEO war; The Fix and Rehab Reviews are both based around these old-school business directories, too.
It doesn’t take much to create your own directory site. WordPress, for instance, has several templates. All you have to do is seed it with thousands of listings and get some traction in Google through links from high-value sites. (Talking to news sites as an “addiction expert” and asking for a backlink is a perennial favorite.) Once the site shows up in Google searches, business owners can be charged for better real estate on the site and more eye-catching listings.
It listed the treatment center’s name and address, but Addiction Unscripted’s phone number
Treatment marketers have it particularly easy, because they can legally copy listings from the free treatment locators offered by SAMHSA. While there’s no doubt it’s much too hard to find treatment in the United States, directory sites don’t tend to help much, since they’re often full of inaccurate and incomplete information.
Addiction Unscripted’s now-deleted directory took things a step further. On any listing that didn’t feature one of its own reviews, it listed the treatment center’s name and address, but Addiction Unscripted’s phone number, and no warning that it rings to a marketing hotline. (The Fix and Rehab Reviews include treatment centers’ real numbers.)
When asked about the lack of disclosure around his business interests, Broderick expressed frustration around what he painted as confusing regulations. “You don’t know it’s wrong until someone, like, all of a sudden someone says, ‘Hey that’s wrong,’ and you’re like, ‘Well, what am I doing wrong? I didn’t know this was wrong!’ Obviously, getting people high, paying people, all the stuff you see in Florida is wrong, but a lot of this stuff is just arbitrary,” he told The Verge.
But these secret connections create a black hole where good journalism should be, according to Schrank, co-founder of The Fix.
“It’s heartbreaking, in a lot of ways. The original intention of The Fix as a watchdog isn’t being executed anywhere,” Schrank told The Verge. Addicts and people who care about them are a huge audience that cuts across many demographics. “Why can’t we sell them mountain bikes and jeans? Why do we have to sell them more treatment?”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.