Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog in July. With a few updates, we are running it as the first in a two part series exploring the implications of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s increasingly large and complex web of media partnerships. This part deals with a partnership between the PBS NewsHour and the Gates Foundation formed in 2008. Part two, running tomorrow, will examine a partnership with the Guardian, a British newspaper, announced in September, and one with ABC News announced on Wednesday.
How did PBS NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez catch the global health bug? Simple, he said in a recent talk answering that exact question. Suarez explained: “The executive producer of the NewsHour, Linda Winslow, came into my office and asked me if I was interested in covering global health for the program and I said ‘yes.’ ”
But the actual reason is, following that conversation, Suarez wrote a proposal for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation resulting in $3.6 million of funding for NewsHour programming on global health. The Gates Foundation also sponsored the event at which Suarez was speaking. The moderator came from the foundation too, posing questions and selecting others from the audience, the funder interviewing a journalist whose global health education it had financed.
Suarez has heard gripes about Gates Foundation funding before. He defended the arrangement as giving an under-reported subject increased coverage while preserving “complete editorial independence.” Continued Suarez: “The foundation doesn’t hold the purse strings, encouraging some stories and discouraging others. And we don’t get approval before we embark on projects.”
But could Suarez’s own internal process for selecting stories and storylines be susceptible to influence? Certainly there are no stories thus far that seem contrary to foundation views. On the other hand, hardly every Gates-funded story examines an issue high on its agenda—obesity in China, for example. Malaria eradication does sit near the top of the foundation agenda. But NewsHour coverage of Tanzania mostly spoke of malaria elimination which targets specific regions rather than worldwide eradication, which is more difficult and controversial.
Suarez went to considerable effort to avoid covering global health projects also funded by his funder. He described this as an accomplishment, given “the remarkable number of pies around the world that the foundation has its fingers in…” However, the ubiquity of the Gates Foundation in global health is itself important. The malaria vaccine trial Suarez covered on his trip to Tanzania, for example, would never have taken place absent Gates Foundation support. The vaccine was shepherded forward by the Gates-funded PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative. Both the event and its coverage are products of Gates money.
Every story has more facets than can be examined. But Gates Foundation funding discourages or even forecloses examination of certain storylines. Suarez can’t credit the foundation for making gigantic contributions to global health, for example. At the same time, the elephant in the room—the Gates Foundation—remains out of frame even as it pays for the camera.
Does that matter if the main effect of Gates funding is to increase awareness of global health? As Suarez pointed out:
A few months ago in Washington, I watched Bill & Melinda themselves give a presentation on global health research to an auditorium packed with a who’s who of Congress, the executive branch, think tanks and the media, not demanding one policy approach or another or recommending one drug protocol or another as much as hammering home the idea that public knowledge creates support for [global health] efforts…
By funding the NewsHour as well as Public Radio International, the foundation heightens general awareness of and support for global health. However, while the Gateses might not have advocated for specific programs, they and their foundation do have distinct policy preferences and require strict compliance. Furthermore, the foundation’s policy-agnostic advocacy efforts link together with its policy-shaping efforts, again by influencing the media.