Most of the feature stories published by the Columbia Journalism Review, a mostly-digital biannual “magazine” published and edited by the Columbia School of Journalism and its staff, is sanctimonious media naval-gazing filtered through a lens of cryptomarxist propaganda, written by a seemingly endless procession of washed-up magazine writers.
But every once in a while, just like the NYT, Washington Post and CNN, even CJR gets it (mostly) right. And fortunately for us, one of those days arrived earlier this month, when the website published this insightful piece outlining the influence of the Gates Foundation on the media that covers it.
Most readers probably didn’t realize how much money the Gates Foundation spends backing even for-profit media companies like the New York Times and the Financial Times, some of the most financially successful legacy media products, thanks to their dedicated readerships. For most media companies, which don’t have the financial wherewithal of the two named above, the financial links go even deeper. Schwab opens with his strongest example: NPR.
LAST AUGUST, NPR PROFILED A HARVARD-LED EXPERIMENT to help low-income families find housing in wealthier neighborhoods, giving their children access to better schools and an opportunity to “break the cycle of poverty.” According to researchers cited in the article, these children could see $183,000 greater earnings over their lifetimes—a striking forecast for a housing program still in its experimental stage.
If you squint as you read the story, you’ll notice that every quoted expert is connected to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps fund the project. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll also see the editor’s note at the end of the story, which reveals that NPR itself receives funding from Gates.
NPR’s funding from Gates “was not a factor in why or how we did the story,” reporter Pam Fessler says, adding that her reporting went beyond the voices quoted in her article. The story, nevertheless, is one of hundreds NPR has reported about the Gates Foundation or the work it funds, including myriad favorable pieces written from the perspective of Gates or its grantees.
And that speaks to a larger trend—and ethical issue—with billionaire philanthropists’ bankrolling the news. The Broad Foundation, whose philanthropic agenda includes promoting charter schools, at one point funded part of the LA Times’ reporting on education. Charles Koch has made charitable donations to journalistic institutions such as the Poynter Institute, as well as to news outlets such as the Daily Caller, that support his conservative politics. And the Rockefeller Foundation funds Vox’s Future Perfect, a reporting project that examines the world “through the lens of effective altruism”—often looking at philanthropy.
As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an underexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors. Nowhere does this concern loom larger than with the Gates Foundation, a leading donor to newsrooms and a frequent subject of favorable news coverage.
Of course, even CJR left out certain salient examples of the media’s penchant for protecting Gates. He was reportedly a close friend of Jeffrey Epstein’s, even reportedly maintaining ties after the deceased pedophile’s first stint in prison.
That photo never gets old.
Of course, the Gates Foundation is unusual in the level of heft it exerts, but it’s not alone. The Clinton Foundation has benefited from equally light-touch treatment from the mainstream press, if not more so. Little unflattering reporting was done on the Clinton Foundation until Steve Bannon helped Peter Schweizer produce “Clinton Cash”.
Read some more of the CJR piece below:
The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders. A top-level finding: “There is little evidence that funders insist on or have any editorial review.” Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.
Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity. Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today, the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.
During the pandemic, news outlets have widely looked to Bill Gates as a public health expert on covid—even though Gates has no medical training and is not a public official. PolitiFact and USA Today (run by the Poynter Institute and Gannett, respectively—both of which have received funds from the Gates Foundation) have even used their fact-checking platforms to defend Gates from “false conspiracy theories” and “misinformation,” like the idea that the foundation has financial investments in companies developing covid vaccines and therapies. In fact, the foundation’s website and most recent tax forms clearly show investments in such companies, including Gilead and CureVac.
In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes’s list of the most powerful people in the world. The Gates Foundation can point to important charitable accomplishments over the past two decades—like helping drive down polio and putting new funds into fighting malaria—but even these efforts have drawn expert detractors who say that Gates may actually be introducing harm, or distracting us from more important, lifesaving public health projects.
From virtually any of Gates’s good deeds, reporters can also find problems with the foundation’s outsize power, if they choose to look. But readers don’t hear these critical voices in the news as often or as loudly as Bill and Melinda’s. News about Gates these days is often filtered through the perspectives of the many academics, nonprofits, and think tanks that Gates funds. Sometimes it is delivered to readers by newsrooms with financial ties to the foundation.
The Gates Foundation declined multiple interview requests for this story and would not provide its own accounting of how much money it has put toward journalism.
In response to questions sent via email, a spokesperson for the foundation said that a “guiding principle” of its journalism funding is “ensuring creative and editorial independence.” The spokesperson also noted that, because of financial pressures in journalism, many of the issues the foundation works on “do not get the in-depth, consistent media coverage they once did.… When well-respected media outlets have an opportunity to produce coverage of under-researched and under-reported issues, they have the power to educate the public and encourage the adoption and implementation of evidence-based policies in both the public and private sectors.”
As CJR was finalizing its fact check of this article, the Gates Foundation offered a more pointed response: “Recipients of foundation journalism grants have been and continue to be some of the most respected journalism outlets in the world.… The line of questioning for this story implies that these organizations have compromised their integrity and independence by reporting on global health, development, and education with foundation funding. We strongly dispute this notion.”
The foundation’s response also volunteered other ties it has to the news media, including “participating in dozens of conferences, such as the Perugia Journalism Festival, the Global Editors Network, or the World Conference of Science Journalism,” as well as “help[ing] build capacity through the likes of the Innovation in Development Reporting fund.”
The full scope of Gates’s giving to the news media remains unknown because the foundation only publicly discloses money awarded through charitable grants, not through contracts. In response to questions, Gates only disclosed one contract—Vox’s—but did describe how some of this contract money is spent: producing sponsored content, and occasionally funding “non-media nonprofit entities to support efforts such as journalist trainings, media convenings, and attendance at events.”
Five years earlier, in 2010, CJR published a two-part series that examined, in part, the millions of dollars going toward PBS NewsHour, which it found to reliably avoid critical reporting on Gates.
In 2011, the Seattle Times detailed concerns over the ways in which Gates Foundation funding might hamper independent reporting…
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