In October 2008, the same time it awarded the NewsHour funding, the Gates Foundation granted the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) $2 million with a remit to “inform policy making and program development and implementation” for U.S. global health policy. The Kaiser Family Foundation doesn’t specify precisely how it uses these funds and publishes no annual reports on its website. Concerning its spending and governance, the KFF website only alludes to the possibility of such funding:
With an endowment of over half a billion dollars, Kaiser has an operating budget of over $40 million per year. The Foundation operates almost exclusively with its own resources, though we do occasionally receive funds from grant-making foundations, primarily to expand our global programs.
(UPDATE: Asked recently if KFF’s grant had been renewed, a Gates Foundation spokesperson said: “Yes, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a close partner of ours and last year we gave them a five-year, $9.9 million grant to support the important work they are doing to provide independent analysis of US global health policies.”)
Prominent among these programs is KFF’s US Global Health Policy portal. The portal selects and summarizes global health news from more than 200 worldwide sources spanning mainstream media outlets to blogs. KFF sends a daily email news digest to policy makers, opinion leaders and journalists. Also, KFF offers its own original research and analysis, from cheat sheets for journalists to extensive reports on subjects such as the US global health architecture.
Gates Foundation financing of the enterprise is, arguably, hidden. KFF’s daily emails carry no boilerplate mention of Gates funding. The only disclosure on the KFF U.S. Global Health Policy site resides under the “About” link at the bottom right of page, which says only that KFF’s work on global health and the global health gateway receives “substantial support” from the Gates Foundation.
In other respects, however, the influence of the Gates Foundation is more apparent. Not only does KFF have the power to choose what constitutes global health news, but, in summarizing the stories it selects, it can give them a construction of its choosing. In key instances, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s global health news coverage suggests bias both in story selection and preferential treatment of the Gates Foundation.
In May 2009, the Lancet ran two papers and an accompanying editorial offering multiple sharp criticisms of the Gates Foundation. The KFF summary muted the few criticisms it repeated and dismissed the one paper it discussed as “marred by ideological assumptions.” The summary quoted the Gates Foundation as saying “We welcome the article and its findings…” although, as the Lancet editorial noted, the foundation had actually “declined our invitation to respond…” Unusually and perhaps uniquely, KFF did acknowledge in its daily e-mail that it “receives substantial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report.”
In June, USA Today ran a largely positive story on the Gates Foundation. But the article also said:
…the Gates Foundation has been painted by critics and even admirers as sometimes too heavy-handed in saying how its money is used and too prone to listening to the recommendations of experts vs. grass-roots groups when setting its strategies to battle global poverty.
In Kaiser’s rendering, this became: “The article reports on different perspectives about the Gates Foundation’s influence and approach to global health and other work.” While not strictly false, such gentle treatment does appear to be reserved for the Gates Foundation.
A June 19 Lancet story entitled “WHO heads back to the drug development drawing board” became, in KFF’s version, “WHO Scraps Old Drug Development Group, Creates New One,” and featured quotations about “unclear methods, a lack of transparency and signs of industry interference” as well as “suspicions of impropriety.” Although the Lancet story quoted one source as saying “We think this is a landmark decision,” that more positive perspective was not included in the KFF summary.
BMJ recently alleged improper ties between WHO H1N1 advisors and the pharmaceutical industry. KFF quoted the editor-in-chief of BMJ saying “The WHO’s credibility ‘has been badly damaged.’ ” However, four days later, Nature News/Scientific American wrote: