Donnelly currently writes for Global Health, a magazine published by the Global Health Council. The council has a three-year, $10 million grant from the Gates Foundation to “to foster policies that accelerate scale-up of cost-effective, proven health approaches and diffusion of best practices and innovation that have policy significance.” The grant was awarded in October 2008, like those won by the NewsHour and KFF. Global Health, which began publication in the winter of 2009, does not disclose Gates funding, as of this writing.
Donnelly said he didn’t know if Gates funding supported Global Health. He recently blogged the Pacific Health Summit for that publication. The invitation-only summit paid most of his airfare with the balance coming from another non-profit receiving Gates Foundation support. “I don’t know who funds the summit,” said Donnelly, other than numerous different organizations. On the summit website, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBAR) sits atop the marquis of the four organizations behind the event, including the Gates Foundation. However, the Gates Foundation paid part or all of NBAR’s share of the Summit, $700,000. Again, the event and its coverage originate from the foundation whose role is larger than it appears.
(UPDATE: Global Health magazine appears to have changed their disclosure practices to include funding sources. The previously referenced blog entries written by John Donnelly simply stated that he “is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.” Now Donnelly’s most recent blog for Global Health says: “John Donnelly is a freelance writer. His trip to Nepal was supported by the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health and the World Health Organization.”)
Is this ubiquity simply a property of global health, a consequence of a generosity both welcome and immense? Should air have to disclose that it is 21 percent oxygen?
I used to write about the Gates Foundation for the Seattle-based Crosscut. I stopped in November of 2009 after Crosscut, following financial struggles and a switch to non-profit status, announced it had received a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation. Some weeks after learning about the Gates grant in Crosscut, I inquired of the editor, David Brewster: “Any thoughts about editorial policy with respect to coverage of the Gates Foundation under Crosscut’s new funding paradigm?” Brewster responded:
No change at all. You should get it out of your head that Gates is funding us, and they insist they would be embarrassed if their funding in any way altered our independent reporting on them.
(UPDATE: Crosscut has since received a $400,000 grant and expects two more.)
The episode is suggestive of the ubiquity of Gates funding in the media, from unknown Crosscut to the PBS NewsHour. The subject of Gates funding is uniformly uncomfortable to those receiving it—which should perhaps suggest that something is wrong. Finally, the effects of foundation funding are quite universal: journalists who need the money seem to believe they can remain objective about their coverage.
John Donnelly says his study of global health journalism examines “what’s going on, how things have changed,” and what the future might look like. Perhaps it will conclude that the objectives of global health might not be harmed by increased transparency of funding sources. Journalism and the processes of an open society, quite obviously, are harmed when money influences coverage invisibly.
Certainly, Ray Suarez should be asking questions of the Gates Foundation, not the other way around.