Journalism’s Gates keepers

Bill Gates, chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in 2019. Samuel Habtab/AP Photo

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 organizations such as the Daily Caller News Foundation, 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.

I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism. Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for “Superman” supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a “news site” to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate. 

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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.

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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.”

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.

Over the years, reporters have investigated the apparent blind spots in how the news media covers the Gates Foundation, though such reflective reporting has waned in recent years. In 2015, Vox ran an article examining the widespread uncritical journalistic coverage surrounding the foundation—coverage that comes even as many experts and scholars raise red flags. Vox didn’t cite Gates’s charitable giving to newsrooms as a contributing factor, nor did it address Bill Gates’s month-long stint as guest editor for The Verge, a Vox subsidiary, earlier that year. Still, the news outlet did raise critical questions about journalists’ tendency to cover the Gates Foundation as a dispassionate charity instead of a structure of power. 

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: 

To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.

Two years after the story appeared, the Seattle Times accepted substantial funding from the Gates Foundation for an education reporting project.

These stories offered compelling evidence of Gates’s editorial influence, but they didn’t attempt to investigate the full scope of the foundation’s financial reach into the fourth estate. (For perspective, $250 million is the same amount that Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post.)

When Gates gives money to newsrooms, it restricts how the money is used—often for topics, like global health and education, on which the foundation works—which can help elevate its agenda in the news media. 

For example, in 2015 Gates gave $383,000 to the Poynter Institute, a widely cited authority on journalism ethics (and an occasional partner of CJR’s), earmarking the funds “to improve the accuracy in worldwide media of claims related to global health and development.”

Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride said Gates’s money was passed on to media fact-checking sites, including Africa Check, and noted that she is “absolutely confident” that no bias or blind spots emerged from the work, though she acknowledged that she has not reviewed it herself. 

I found sixteen examples of Africa Check examining media claims related to Gates. This body of work overwhelmingly seems to support or defend Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation, which has spent billions of dollars on development efforts in Africa. The only example I found of Africa Check even remotely challenging its patron was when a foundation employee tweeted an incorrect statistic—that a child dies of malaria every 60 seconds, instead of every 108. 

Africa Check says it went on to receive an additional $1.5 million from Gates in 2017 and 2019. 

“Our funders or supporters have no influence over the claims we fact-check…and the conclusions we reach in our reports,” said Noko Makgato, executive director of Africa Check, in a statement to CJR. “With all fact-checks involving our funders, we include a disclosure note to inform the reader.” 

Earlier this year, McBride added NPR public editor to her list of duties, as part of a contract between NPR and Poynter. Since 2000, the Gates Foundation has given NPR $17.5 million through ten charitable grants—all of them earmarked for coverage of global health and education, specific issues on which Gates works.

NPR covers the Gates Foundation extensively. By the end of 2019, a spokesperson said, NPR had mentioned the foundation more than 560 times in its reporting, including 95 times on Goats and Soda, the outlet’s “global health and development blog,” which Gates helps fund. “Funding from corporate sponsors and philanthropic donors is separate from the editorial decision-making process in NPR’s newsroom,” the spokesperson noted.

NPR does occasionally hold a critical lens to the Gates Foundation. Last September, it covered a decision by the foundation to give a humanitarian award to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, despite Modi’s dismal record on human rights and freedom of expression. (That story was widely covered by news outlets—a rare bad news cycle for Gates.)

On the same day, the foundation appeared in another NPR headline: “Gates Foundation Says World Not on Track to Meet Goal of Ending Poverty by 2030.” That story cites only two sources: the Gates Foundation and a representative from the Center for Global Development, a Gates-funded NGO. The lack of independent perspectives is hard to miss. Bill Gates is the second-richest man in the world and might reasonably be viewed as a totem of economic inequality, but NPR has transformed him into a moral authority on poverty. 

Given Gates’s large funding role at NPR, one could imagine editors insisting that reporters seek out financially independent voices or include sources who can offer critical perspectives. (Many NPR stories on Gates don’t: here, here, here, here, here, here.) Likewise, NPR could seek a measure of independence from Gates by rejecting donations that are earmarked for reporting on Gates’s favored topics.

Even when NPR publishes critical reporting on Gates, it can feel scripted. In February 2018, NPR ran a story headlined “Bill Gates Addresses ‘Tough Questions’ on Poverty and Power.” The “tough questions” NPR posed in this Q&A were mostly based on a list curated by Gates himself, which he previously answered in a letter posted to his foundation’s website. With no irony at all, reporter Ari Shapiro asked, “How do you…encourage people to be frank with you, even at risk of perhaps alienating their funder?”

In the interview, Gates said that critics are voicing their concerns and the foundation is listening.

In 2007, the LA Times published one of the only critical investigative series on the Gates Foundation, part of which examined the foundation’s endowment holdings in companies that hurt those people the foundation claimed to help, like chocolate companies linked to child labor. Charles Piller, the lead reporter on the series, says he made strenuous efforts to get responses from the Gates Foundation during the investigation. 

“For the most part they were unwilling to engage with me. They were unwilling to answer questions and pretty much refused to respond in any sort of way, except in the most minimal way, for most of my stories,” Piller said.“That’s very, very typical of big companies, government agencies—to try to hope that whatever controversial issues have been raised in reporting will have limited shelf life, and they’ll be able to go back to business as usual.”

Asked about the dearth of hard reporting on Gates, Piller says the foundation’s funding may prompt newsrooms to find other targets.

“I think they would be kidding themselves to suggest that those donations to their organizations have no impact on editorial decisions,” he says. “It’s just the way of the world.”

Two journalists who have investigated Gates more recently cite what appear to be more explicit efforts by the foundation to exercise editorial influence. 

Writing in De Correspondent, freelance journalists Robert Fortner and Alex Park examined the limitations and inadvertent consequences of the Gates Foundation’s relentless efforts to eradicate polio. In HuffPost, the two journalists showed how Gates’s outsize funding of global health initiatives has steered the world’s aid agenda toward the foundation’s own goals (like polio eradication) and away from issues such as emergency preparedness to respond to disease outbreaks, like the Ebola crisis. (This narrative has been lost in the current covid-19 news cycle, as outlets from the LA Times to PBS to STAT have portrayed Gates as a visionary leader on pandemics.)

During the course of Fortner and Park’s reporting these two stories, the foundation went over their heads to seek an audience with their editors. Editors at both publications say this raised questions about Gates attempting to influence editorial direction on the stories.

“They’ve dodged our questions and sought to undermine our coverage,” says Park.

During Park and Fortner’s investigation for De Correspondent, the head of Gates’s polio communications team, Rachel Lonsdale, made an unusual offer to the duo’s editor, writing, “We typically like to have a phone conversation with the editor of a publication employing freelancers we are engaging with, both to fully understand how we can help you with the specific project and to form a longer term relationship that could transcend the freelance assignment.”

The news outlet said it rejected the proposition because of its potential to compromise the independence and integrity of its journalistic work.

In a statement, the foundation said Lonsdale “was conducting normal media relations work as part of her role as a senior program officer. As we wrote to Tim in December 2019, ‘As with many organizations, the foundation has an in-house media relations team that cultivates relationships with journalists and editors in order to serve as a resource for information gathering and to help facilitate thorough and accurate coverage of our issues.’ ”

Park says his editors stood behind his work on both stories, but he doesn’t discount the foundation’s efforts to put “a wedge between us and the publication…if not to assert influence outright, to give themselves a channel through which they could assert influence later.”

Fortner, meanwhile, says he mostly avoids pitching articles to Gates-funded news outlets because of the conflict of interest this presents. “Gates funding, for me, makes a good-faith pitching process impossible,” he says.

Fortner, who authored CJR’s 2010 story on Gates’s journalism funding, self-published a follow-up in 2016 that examined how Gates funding is not always disclosed in news articles, including fifty-nine news stories the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded in part with Gates’s money. The center also declined to tell Fortner which fifty-nine articles had Gates’s funding. 

If critical reporting about the Gates Foundation is rare, it is largely beside the point in “solutions journalism,” a new-ish brand of reporting that focuses on solutions to problems, not just the problems themselves. That more upbeat orientation has drawn the patronage of the Gates Foundation, which directed $6.3 million to the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) to train journalists and fund reporting projects. Gates is the largest donor to SJN—supplying around one-fifth of the organization’s lifetime funding. SJN says more than half of this money has been distributed as subgrants, including to Education Lab, its partnership with the Seattle Times.

SJN acknowledges on its website “that there are potential conflicts of interest inherent” in taking philanthropic funding to produce solutions journalism, which SJN cofounder David Bornstein elaborated on in an interview. “If you are covering global health or education and you are writing about interesting models,” Bornstein said, “the chances that an organization [you are covering] is getting money from the Gates Foundation are very high because they basically blanket the whole world with their funding, and they’re the major funder in those two areas.” Asked if he could provide examples of any critical reporting about Gates emerging from SJN, Bornstein took issue with the question. “Most of the stories that we fund are stories that look at efforts to solve problems, so they tend to be not as critical as traditional journalism,” he said. 

That is also the case for the journalism Bornstein and fellow SJN cofounder Tina Rosenberg produce for the New York Times. As contract writers for the “Fixes” opinion column, the two have favorably profiled Gates-funded education, agriculture, and global health programs over the years—without disclosing that they work for an organization that receives millions of dollars from Gates. Twice in 2019, for example, Rosenberg’s columns exalted the World Mosquito Project, whose sponsor page lands on a picture of Bill Gates.

“We do disclose our relationship with SJN in every column, and SJN’s funders are listed on our website. But you are correct that when we write about projects that get Gates funding, we should specifically say that SJN receives Gates funding as well,” Rosenberg noted in an email. “Our policy going forward with the NY Times will be clearer and will ensure disclosures.”

My cursory review of the Fixes column turned up fifteen installments where the writers explicitly mention Bill and Melinda Gates, their foundation, or Gates-funded organizations. Bornstein and Rosenberg said they asked their editors at the Times to belatedly add financial disclosures to several of these columns, but they also cited six they thought did not need disclosure. Rosenberg’s 2016 profile of Bridge International Academies, for example, notes that Bill Gates personally helps fund the project. The writers argue that SJN’s ties are to the Gates Foundation, not to Bill Gates himself, so no disclosure is needed.

This is a significant distinction,” Rosenberg and Bornstein stated in an email.

Months after Bornstein and Rosenberg say they asked their editors to add financial disclosures to their columns, those pieces remain uncorrected. Marc Charney, a senior editor at the Times, said he wasn’t sure if or when the paper would add the disclosures, citing technical difficulties and other newsroom priorities. 

Likewise, NPR said it would add a financial disclosure to a 2012 story it published on the Gates Foundation, but did not follow through. (In the vast majority of articles about Gates, NPR makes disclosures.)

Even perfect disclosure of Gates funding doesn’t mean the money can’t still introduce bias. At the same time, Gates funding, alone, doesn’t fully explain why so much of the news about the foundation is positive. Even news outlets with no obvious financial ties to Gates—the foundation isn’t required to publicly report all of the money it gives to journalism, making the full extent of its giving unknown—tend to report favorably on the foundation. That may be because Gates’s expansive giving over the decades has helped influence a larger media narrative about its work. And it may also be because the news media is always, and especially right now, looking for heroes.

A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires–turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates has shown how seamlessly the most controversial industry captain can transform his public image from tech villain to benevolent philanthropist. Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth—not the most admired.

Reporting for this piece was supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to an investment the foundation had made in a company, CureVax. It is, in fact, CureVac. 

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Tim Schwab is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.