Now we learn that the Sackler family attempted to enlist Michael Bloomberg and his media empire to rehabilitate their public image.
It should note that there is no evidence of any direct actions by Bloomberg on behalf of the notorious opioid pushing family, but it DOES present an image of a media organization whose culture is deliberately and aggressively shaped to provide positive coverage to the billionaire class.
As such, this is something which will not play well in either the primary or the general election:
Long celebrated as civic-minded philanthropists, the Sacklers were becoming pariahs. The billionaire family whose company created and pushed the addictive painkiller OxyContin had managed to escape connection with the opioid crisis for years, but now two magazine pieces were portraying them as pain profiteers. Museums that had sought their donations were being asked about giving the money back. Mortimer D.A. Sackler — son of a co-founder of the company, Purdue Pharma, and a member of its board — was openly furious.
And so he turned to a person he knew and admired in the media industry. A person known as a devoted public health crusader, widely recognized for banning smoking in public places and pushing soda taxes around the country: Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire ex-mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg L.P.
“I am meeting with Michael Bloomberg tomorrow morning at 10 am to seek his help and guidance on the current issues we are facing,” Sackler wrote to Purdue’s top executives in December 2017. “I plan to discuss the following with him: 1. Current narrative vs the truth. 2. What advice does he have on how best to deal with it? 3. Does he have a journalist that he would recommend who could get the FULL story out there”?
Previously undisclosed emails, including some filed in lawsuits against Purdue and others provided by sources, reveal a little-known relationship, forged in part by mutual philanthropic interests, between the Sacklers and Michael Bloomberg. They show that when the Sacklers were facing critical media coverage, they looked to Bloomberg and his news and philanthropic organizations for help. Bloomberg advised Mortimer Sackler on how to handle negative coverage in 2017, and steered the family to a crisis communications specialist who had been his mayoral press secretary. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies staff met with Sackler to discuss launching a joint initiative to combat the opioid crisis.
Now that Michael Bloomberg has joined the Democratic presidential campaign, his history in public life, his role as a news executive and his business history are being re-examined. As his rivals criticize his wealth and accuse him of trying to buy the nomination, his relationship with the Sacklers could prove problematic. Unlike some other candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Bloomberg has not publicly denounced the Sacklers for their role in fostering the opioid epidemic. While “it is not Mike’s usual practice to call out individual companies or company owners,” a spokesperson for Bloomberg Philanthropies said, he has “certainly called out” opioid manufacturers as a group.
When it came to coverage of their family and its business, the Sacklers felt comfortable reaching out. In fall 2014, Theresa Sackler called then-Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones to express concern about a forthcoming Bloomberg Businessweek story.
“Theresa Sackler rang me about a reporter from Bloomberg who is tracking everyone in the Sackler family and is writing what she believes will be an unflattering article referring to Sackler ‘dirty drug money,’” Peyton-Jones emailed Jemma Read, the London-based head of Bloomberg Corporate Philanthropy. “Theresa thinks that MB’s name could be mentioned in the article. She has no wish to interfere editorially in any way, however, she does want to alert Mike to the situation, and I would be grateful if you could make him aware of it.”
Read then emailed Theresa Sackler, asking for the reporter’s name. Sackler responded by identifying David Armstrong, then a reporter on Bloomberg’s investigations team. “We REALLY don’t want to interfere in any journalist’s work,” she wrote. “Just would not wish MB to be embarrassed by his association with the Serpentine Sackler gallery.” Read followed up by emailing Armstrong (now a senior reporter at ProPublica), asking when the story was scheduled to appear.
The piece was dropped from the magazine’s lineup a day before the issue closed and later ran in a shortened version on Bloomberg’s website and terminal. Editors who worked on the story say that it was handled on its journalistic merits, and that such last-minute changes were common.
Aware that Bloomberg Businessweek was working on the Sackler story, Brendan Coffey, then a member of the billionaires team, started to build a model to evaluate their wealth. But he realized it wasn’t a priority for his editors, and didn’t finish the project. “After Mike came back, the wind shifted,” said Coffey, who has since left Bloomberg. “It was a culture of not wanting to upset billionaires.”
That same year, Bloomberg threatened to shutter Bloomberg View, part of the news organization’s opinion section, after getting a call from a friend, the billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson. Paulson was upset about a snarky column that suggested his record-breaking donation to Harvard should have gone to “literally any other charity.” Bloomberg cooled down over the weekend and decided that Bloomberg View could stay open, but the columnist was given a talking to, according to people familiar with the incident.