Why you might think like Bill Gates about global health

Video still of Bill Gates during a Washington Post interview

Perhaps you read some of the same publications as Bill Gates, like the New York Times or Slate. You tune into NPR and watch the PBS NewsHour, part of the sacred ritual of thoughtful Americans becoming informed citizens.

From Slate, we know time is running out to eliminate drug-resistant malaria. The Gates Foundation believes this too. But is the foundation’s logic irresistible or did Slate run an infomercial for the foundation funded by a $40,000 grant? The story (including a trip to Thailand) was paid for by Malaria No More which has received $20 million in Gates Foundation grants.

Media matter. As Bill Gates observed, even Theodore Roosevelt’s reform program “wasn’t really successful until journalists at McClure’s and other publications had rallied public support for change.” Now Gates has rallied public support for malaria eradication in Slate, and President Obama tentatively endorsed it in the State of the Union.

It’s not just Slate or only global health. Carefully restricted Gates Foundation grants to NPR, the PBS NewsHour, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and other news organizations shape what gets covered, what doesn’t, when and how.

The Gates-funded PBS NewsHour just began a new series on education called “Making the Grade.” The first episode is difficult to distinguish from an earlier Gates Foundation video on postsecondary education. In the NewsHour version, Gates-funded journalists and academics deliver the messages of the foundation’s postsecondary strategy, but neither the foundation nor its funding role are mentioned. 

Trusted media organization receiving Gates Foundation grants are not following good journalistic practices. And like improper food labeling, undisclosed funding misleads news consumers about what they are actually getting.

Readers got nothing on Ebola from the Gates-funded Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting until more than half a year after the crisis broke. Pulitzer Center stories appear in an array of top-shelf outlets like the New York Times, Nature, and the Economist, where the center’s first article on Ebola eventually came out. Although restricted Gates funds paid for 59 of 240 Pulitzer Center stories over a 30-month period, neither readers nor perhaps even the editors publishing them could tell which were actually Gates-funded. 

NPR, with its Gates grant, cut staffing for covering climate change in order to expand and transform its global health coverage into an upbeat, advocacy-oriented approach, the opposite of muckraking. Gates funding of this specific initiative is not disclosed. While NPR gives the impression that the Gates Foundation just writes a check to support all of NPR’s good work, it doesn’t.

NPR’s restricted Gates grant actually requires NPR to contribute unrestricted money towards Gates-initiated projects. Ironically, listener donations might be funding broadcast of the Gates Foundation’s news values on public radio.

Which is perhaps why you think like Bill Gates when it comes to global health.

Slate: not so clean

In late December, CNN ran an op-ed advocating malaria eradication, written by the CEO of the advocacy group Malaria No More. In January, a week later, Slate too proclaimed “The World Can Eliminate Malaria.” The article delivered Malaria No More’s messages but was written by a Slate staff writer—funded by the Gates-backed Malaria No More. Jackpot: advocacy runs as news from a credible source.

Nightline veteran Dan Green orchestrates the Gates Foundation’s media and communications grant portfolio. Speaking in 2011 on the “media metamorphosis,” Green observed that with the demise of old media, many news organizations “don’t have a global health reporter anymore.” Consequently, when journalists cover global health, “they need more guidance.” For advocacy groups, according to Green, this created “an enormous opportunity for you to educate those reporters about what it is they need to be thinking about.”

The Malaria No More grant provided reporters with ample guidance:

During the tour, participants will conduct site visits to clinics and treatment centers, attend briefings with health officials and disease experts, hear from organizations working to eliminate the disease and meet with local journalists covering the issue.

In return:

Participants will be expected to produce stories based on the information gathered and contacts made during the tour.

Slate staff writer, Joshua Keating, while possessed of formidable reporting chops, focuses on international affairs and does not appear to write much about malaria for Slate. When domain expertise is short, journalists are at the mercy of their sources. When a journalist’s sources are curated by an advocacy group, the result is not journalism.

Technically, Keating’s trip wasn’t directly funded by Malaria No More. Indeed, it is unlikely Slate would have accepted money straight from an advocacy group. Instead Malaria No More funded the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ). Passing the money through ICFJ, which called the five-day trip a “fellowship,” seemed to overcome any journalistic scruple. As Slate science editor, Laura Helmuth, wrote me:

Josh Keating’s editors were all fully aware of his trip and how it was funded, and we fully support him and the reporting that came out of his trip and his story in Slate.

I asked Executive Editor Josh Levin about  Slate’s policy on accepting funding from advocacy groups. Levin did not reply.

Drug resistant malaria is undoubtedly important. But for Thailand, is it more important than dengue? Globally, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis might be far more urgent and deadly, with half a million cases a year. CDC Director Thomas Frieden believes “There can be no delay” in combating drug resistant TB. But Frieden’s views appear on the CDC blog, not in Slate. (Slate has covered the media’s neglect of TB.)

Slate’s malaria piece takes for granted that a single-disease approach to public health is best, without considering whether health systems might be more effective. In addition, current scientific evidence suggests drug-resistant malaria has not spread even within Southeast Asia and faces surprising barriers to taking over in Africa.

For malaria’s considerable importance, neither Slate nor perhaps any media outlet has written about why Rollback Malaria, the global consortium responsible for combatting malaria, disbanded itself in 2015.

For its grant to Slate, Malaria No More got a narrowly focused piece getting out its key messages. Indeed there were four other ICFJ fellowships, so Slate participated in an orchestrated news boomlet. ICFJ would not disclose the names of the other publications, so the impact (and degree of funding disclosure) are untrackable.

The over $200,000 spent on these trips could go a long way towards putting a journalist on the global health beat. But who needs global health reporters if it’s possible to generate “news” that faithfully delivers an advocacy message?

Structural changes in the news industry have made this easier. Said the foundation’s Dan Green, back in 2011: “You have now media organizations that are far more open to innovative partnerships.” Why? Because “their resources are stretched.” As revenue streams for traditional media dried up, enter the world’s wealthiest foundation as innovative partner.

Promise to say you’re independent

With much solemnity, the foundation and its media partners proclaim the full editorial independence of Gates grantees. But Green acknowledged a “fear” felt by Gates-supported news organizations:

...that fear that as my grant ends, will I get renewed and will any foundation funder, or any outside philanthropic funder, say, ‘Hmm. I looked at the stories and they weren’t all that positive, and they weren’t filled with success. Maybe we don’t want to fund that anymore.’

Green insisted it would be short-sighted for funders to take such an approach. And yet the Gates Foundation seeks demonstrable results, according to Green: “We as funders try to think in terms of outcomes. What would be the outcomes we’re hoping for by telling these stories, by engaging with the content creator?”

The foundation engages with content creators not to give readers a puzzle to solve thoughtfully but to deliver pre-specified, actionable messages. “We really think a lot about ‘Is it reaching an audience that we think is an important audience we need to reach?’ ” Green opined in 2013.  “And, if it is, does it have the credibility and the trust so when it puts out evidence-based information that people say, ‘I believe that. I’ll follow what that says?’ ”

Wearing his journalist hat, Green said, “Now you come from journalism and we don’t sit around talking about messaging. Messaging makes us cringe. Because then it makes us feel that you’re using all the journalists as tools for your messages.” Green concluded, forthrightly: “You might say, ‘Yeah, we are.’ ”

Green defended using journalists as tools because “it’s a mistake to think that if your subject that you care about is getting talked about, and stories are being told and information is out there, that is incredibly valuable.” Journalists get to cover global health; the price is carrying the foundation’s messages. It’s painting by numbers, but it’s still painting.

The dissolution of traditional media, according to Green, brought fragmentation and proliferation of information outlets, and created a news environment with fewer facts and more opinions. Some digital media consultants, said Green, recommended that “the louder and stronger your opinion is, sometimes the more people gravitate to you…” However, even Theodore Roosevelt’s  bully pulpit did not suffice to create change. Regarding the loud opinion strategy, Green said “I’m not a huge fan of that necessarily.” Far better that the foundation’s opinions appear as news.

Like Slate’s malaria piece.

The Pulitzer Center—presented by the Gates Foundation

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting frowns on free trips. Pulitzer Center-funded articles appear in elite publications like the New Yorker, Nature, the Economist, the Washington Post, Slate, Foreign Policy, National Geographic etc.

But regarding trips, the Pulitzer Center’s ethics policy says journalists “should not normally accept free travel, with the exception of military embeds and other situations in which travel assistance is essential to the reporting.” To further protect its integrity, the center counsels writers to “avoid activities that might interfere with your ability to function as a journalist.” Otherwise, “you may be precluded from working on certain topics for the Pulitzer Center if you're personally involved.”

Although the center closely polices the integrity of worker bee journalists, different standards apply to donors. Many donors write a check with no strings attached, leaving the Pulitzer Center with full editorial discretion. “In recent years,” said Executive Director, Jon Sawyer, “we have consistently gotten 50 percent or more of our budget from unrestricted donations…”

However, the other 50 percent of donations have strings, although the center’s ethics policy seems to guard against any improper influence. The policy asserts: “Donors will not dictate in any way the editorial products of the Pulitzer Center.” But restricted donors, like the Gates Foundation, restrict their grants because they do not believe the Pulitzer Center would, by itself, create the desired editorial products. Influencing the Pulitzer Center’s editorial products is the only reason restrictions exist.

“Over a four-year period our Gates funding has totaled approximately $2.4 million,” said Sawyer. “These were restricted grants but the terms were broad, with funding for a broad range of global health/development topics and educational outreach and full autonomy as to the selection of specific projects, news-media placements and outreach activities.” But the center’s “full autonomy” is over selecting specific projects. The Gates Foundation draws the big picture and contracts out for the needed words and images.

Recall that the Pulitzer Center will disqualify journalists from writing on subjects in which they are personally involved. To guard against donor bias, the center’s ethics policy asserts: “We do not accept donations that raise the possibility, or the appearance, of a conflict of interest.” However, the center’s Gates funding, at minimum, creates the possibility of a conflict. The Gates Foundation is the largest in the world. Most of its donations go to global health and development, the same subjects funded by its grants to the Pulitzer Center. The foundation, far from being policy-agnostic, funds research into policy and advocates for specific approaches to global public health.

This possible conflict of interest is not disclosed to readers nor perhaps even to editors of the publications running stories from the Pulitzer Center. Slate at least disclosed the funding of its story on malaria. Slate didn’t just name the funding intermediary, the International Center for Journalists, it named (sort of) the funder, Malaria No More. Anyone wanting to dig further could discover the Gates Foundation’s $20 million funding of Malaria No More, which advocates for the foundation’s malaria policy, eradication, set by the foundation in 2007.

The Pulitzer Center, with its Gates funding, produced a substantial amount of global health coverage. Over the 30 months of its most recent Gates grant, “we applied Gates funds to support a total of 59 projects,” said Sawyer. “For purposes of comparison, over that same 30 month period we supported some 240 projects overall.” These stories ran with the disclosure of funding provided by the Pulitzer Center. However, one in four is actually the Pulitzer Center presented by the Gates Foundation.

Which 59 projects were Gates funded? Sawyer would not say. He previously mentioned “On some of those [Gates] projects we also drew on funds from other donors.” He emphasized the point: “Also, as point of clarification, our grants to journalists often mix restricted/unrestricted funds.” Sawyer perhaps was suggesting that mixed funding mitigates conflicts of interest. The idea might be that if funding from interested donors passes through intermediaries who stir in some amount of disinterested money, then journalism is not compromised and disclosure is unnecessary.

From the Gates Foundation perspective, however, adding unrestricted funds to those of its restricted grant leverages the foundation’s investment. (It’s possible the grant stipulated that the Pulitzer Center contribute additional funds.) The restricted Gates grant shifted Pulitzer Center resources to more closely match the news values of the Gates Foundation. Maybe not by much; maybe a lot.

Initially, Sawyer wrote me: “Happy to discuss this further. Complicated numbers and we're eager to have it reported accurately.” But when I asked for a spreadsheet listing Gates-funded projects and the funding mix for each, Sawyer did not reply.

Sawyer defended the center’s work: “I hope you'll take the time to read some of the reporting,” he wrote me. “It's quite good!” Read the stories; don’t ask where they came from. But Sawyer is right about quality: the center’s production values are top-shelf, and the finely wrought stories bring attention to a broad array of important but neglected subjects. Slate’s article on the neglect of TB, for example, was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Nonetheless, reporting loses the name of journalism when it comes from restricted funding.

The Pulitzer Center website quotes Joseph Pulitzer: “We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.” But Sawyer shed very little light on funding of stories bearing Pulitzer’s name. “Ebola, malaria and other health projects relied in part on Gates, in part on other funding sources,” he said, perhaps again suggesting that mixed funding ameliorated conflicts of interest not disclosed by the Pulitzer Center.

It is true that finding such conflicts is much harder when 59 restricted projects are mixed with 201 that are not. However, in a far from exhaustive search, I came across a speech in which Bill Gates advocated an intervention called seasonal malaria chemoprevention. Later, there is Pulitzer Center article about it, indeed a multi-article project on the subject. Whatever the merits of seasonal malaria chemoprevention, there is no way to determine if its coverage was funded by an interested party.

The Pulitzer Center tells its reporters: “Let the audience know any information about yourself or your sources that might affect its understanding of your work.” Brick-laying journalists are closely scrutinized but the audience has no idea even of the existence of restricted donors shaping the overall news architecture.

The void: Why no Ebola coverage for half a year?

If Gates Foundation influence on malaria, for example, is worrisome, evidence on Pulitzer Center coverage of Ebola raises far more serious concerns: The Pulitzer Center supported no stories on Ebola for more than half a year.

The outbreak began in March of 2014 but no Pulitzer Center stories appeared on Ebola until mid-December. The center’s full name is the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and Ebola is the most important global health crisis since HIV/AIDS. Although funded by the Gates Foundation to cover global health, the Pulitzer Center produced nothing on Ebola for the better part of a year.

I conducted my search for “Ebola” articles using the center’s website. (I asked Jon Sawyer for confirmation of my results. He did not reply.) The first article I found is dated December 13, 2014, “The Fight Against Ebola: Donating the Cure,” appearing in the Economist.

According to Sawyer, the Pulitzer Center received what he described as an “extension” grant of $300,000 from the Gates Foundation. It is possible that the timing of the grant coincides with the onset of Pulitzer Center stories about Ebola.

In difficult to parse grammar, Sawyer said: “Gates extension was continuation of previous grant, support for reporting/outreach on broad range of global health/development issues: choice of projects, journalists and outlets left to us.”

Unsure whether that meant “no,” the extension grant did not fund the center’s Ebola coverage, I asked Sawyer again, several times, if the grant was to cover Ebola. I sought details on timing and who approached whom. Sawyer did not reply.

When I inquired of the Gates Foundation’s Bryan Callahan whether the extension grant was for Ebola, he did not reply. Callahan is the foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Program Advocacy & Communications.

Back in 2011, the foundation’s Dan Green, claimed: “We want people to say ‘We get our money from the Gates Foundation.’ ” Later, writing on the foundation’s blog, Green put transparency first among the guiding principles for media grants. Green also promised “in the coming weeks I’ll post another blog listing all of our current investments in this portfolio.” I asked Green for the listing of the foundation’s current media grants. He did not reply.

I asked Amy Maxmen, who wrote stories on Ebola for the Pulitzer Center, whether she knew if her efforts had been Gates funded. “I don't know where the Pulitzer Center gets their funding,” answered Maxmen, without saying yes or no. “I admit I don't ask.”

Maxmen did assert: “I independently came up with the idea for my reporting on Ebola.” However, Maxmen thinks a lot like the Gates Foundation.

The Pulitzer Center’s Ebola project is entitled “Disaster Science During the Ebola Outbreak.”  The center took care to explain this odd-seeming focus: “Research during a disaster can seem frivolous when there aren’t enough resources to handle the immediate response. But in the Ebola outbreak it's become clear that data collection must happen now.” The Pulitzer Center had ignored Ebola for more than half a year and now focused not on an Ebola response but Ebola research—rather like the Gates Foundation.

Had Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) been the funder of the Pulitzer Center’s Ebola coverage, the stories would likely have come sooner, indeed immediately, and with a different emphasis: the need to act.

In contrast to MSF, the Gates Foundation remained silent on Ebola for months until moments before WHO’s belated declaration of an emergency. Barely beating WHO to the punch, the foundation announced an Austin Powers-sized $1 million dollar grant to “help address the immediate need on the ground.” One day after its token grant, the foundation blogged that meningitis, “could end up being far more destructive than the current Ebola epidemic.” Remarkably, the foundation moved on from Ebola before WHO even declared it to be an emergency.

The crisis worsened. As it reached increasingly apocalyptic scale and the world belatedly mobilized billions of dollars, the foundation chipped in $50 million. The announcement committed $10 million to “emergency operations” but also to “R&D assessments.” For the remaining $40 million, “the foundation will provide further details on its funding commitments to on-the-ground operations and to research and development for Ebola drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics.” The foundation was not going to fund the operational response costing billions but research costing millions. The Pulitzer Center’s Ebola coverage, when it finally came, also focused on research.

The center’s Ebola coverage can be seen as favorable to the Gates Foundation which funded the stories, at least in part. Maxmen’s first article, for example, appearing in the Economist, focused on the silver bullet of blood transfusions potentially curing Ebola. It turned out not to work, and new research contributed little to containing the epidemic. However, one of Maxmen’s stories, appearing in Newsweek, criticized the Ebola response as wastefully managed. Undoubtedly. But the foundation had mostly not contributed to on-the-ground efforts which, in the end, worked. 

In the pages of Nature, Maxmen reminded readers of the importance of malaria and that Ebola was disrupting mass administration of anti-malarial drugs.

Another Maxmen piece provided a reporter's timeline of the world's “plodding attack on Ebola.” It pummeled bureaucratic organizations “bogged down in democratic decision-making processes and bureaucratic policies,” perhaps meaning the World Health Organization. The timeline doesn’t mention the inaction of the Gates Foundation. Nor does the article examine the role of the CDC, which only declared Ebola a top-level emergency one day before WHO.

Latest of all, however, was the Gates-funded Pulitzer Center.

The Economist: “We do not publish articles 'supported' by any organisation”

Maxmen's article in the Economist runs without disclosure of Pulitzer Center funding. I asked Economist science editor, Geoffrey Carr, whether the Pulitzer Center disclosed to the Economist any funding of its work by the Gates Foundation.

Carr replied: “We do not publish articles 'supported' by any organisation, and we certainly do not publish anything funded by anyone.” The Economist is journalism at its purest, or at least proudest.

I pointed out that the Ebola story appearing on the Pulitzer Center site was identical to the one appearing in the Economist. (The Pulitzer Center lists 25 articles and 1 photo as published by the Economist.)

Carr changed tunes: He described Maxmen as “a freelance who seems to have some sort of travel and support grant from the Pulitzer Centre.” Carr added: “I don't see any impropriety in this, since we pay our freelances a market rate for their copy.” 

The Economist  does publish articles supported by other organizations, but without disclosing that support to its readers. (In this regard, the Economist is perhaps the perfect vehicle for maximally credible stories with undisclosed conflicts of interest.) Regarding the question of whether any Gates funding of the Ebola article was disclosed to the Economist, Carr wrote: “I will pass your thoughts on to the Editor of the Middle East and Africa section, whose section this story appeared in.”

NPR: Gates and Soda

Think of your brain as a pie chart, the slices representing the subjects you pay attention to, and the size of the slice indicating how much. If NPR programming influences your pie chart, then your slice on climate change might have shrunk like a receding glacier.

In 2014, NPR cut its environment team to one reporter, according to Inside Climate News, with resources reassigned to “the outlet’s global health and development coverage, which includes a new project launched this summer using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

NPR will not say how much of that project, called Goats and Soda, is Gates-funded. One report said it would “likely not exist” absent Gates funding. But NPR’s Isabel Lara said: “Goats and Soda is possible in large part due to the Gates Foundation grant but it isn't accurate to say that it wouldn't exist otherwise.” Lara is NPR’s Media Relations Director. When asked for details, Lara would only repeat the amount and duration of the grant. “Cannot get more specific than that,” Lara said.

The Gates Foundation’s funding relationship with NPR goes back 15 years. Its most recent grant in 2013 provided $4.5 million to “advance global health and development coverage.”

The Gates initiatives at NPR, however, are not 100%-funded by the foundation. According to Lara: “As is common with many foundation grant agreements, our Gates agreement references NPR’s proposed budget for the initiative which included other resources beyond their investment.” More plainly, the Gates grant requires NPR to help fund the foundation’s projects.

I asked Lara if the “other resources” contributed by NPR included listener donations. She did not reply. However, as at the Pulitzer Center, a restricted Gates grant might be drawing unrestricted funds into the support of the foundation’s news values. Conceivably, listeners are funding NPR’s Gates-designed presentation of global health news.

NPR does not disclose Gates Foundation support for Goats and Soda on its website except, it seems, when Gates or his foundation are the subject. A commentary applauding BIll Gates’ views on solar power, for example, parenthetically disclosed: “As our readers may know, the Gates Foundation is a funder of NPR.” But readers of the laudatory piece on Bill Gates do not know that the Goats and Soda enterprise is mainly and specifically funded by Bill Gates.

Goats and Soda might even be preferentially covering its funder. I asked the author of the commentary, Michael Hayden, if he approached Goats and Soda or vice versa, but he would not say. “Sorry,” Hayden wrote back, “what are you trying to do exactly?”

Unlike NPR’s Goats and Soda, the Guardian puts the Gates Foundation’s logo on all the pages appearing in its Gates-funded development section. Guardian readers do not have to guess what is Gates-funded and what is not. Whether foundation influence extends beyond what it pays for is another question. But a dedicated page describes the funding relationship including the declaration that “content is editorially independent.”

I wrote to Goats and Soda editor, Vikki Valentine, asking whether Gates funding was properly disclosed. Valentine did not reply.

Solutions journalism: turn that frown upside down

Goats and Soda represents not just a switch in coverage from climate to global health. The news production line now turns out a very different editorial product based on a new template, solutions journalism.

In 2012, the Gates Foundation issued a challenge to “find ground-breaking ways to gather and share stories of aid working well.” In the foundation’s view, “The media seems full of stories of corruption, waste and broken systems.”

Responding to the challenge, New York Times writer David Bornstein and colleagues won an initial $100,000 grant from the foundation for an idea called “solutions journalism.” As Bornstein explained:

So much of what we do as journalists is aimed at holding powerful people accountable and identifying failure, which is very important and valuable. But if we stop there, with just identifying failures and the bad actors, it becomes frustrating to people. It’s a broken narrative.

The foundation has supported Bornstein’s efforts with a further $1 million.

Solutions journalism, according to Bornstein, “has more in common with a Harry Potter novel, a quest or struggle, than the traditional journalism narrative.” Harry Potter, of course, is fiction.

Traditional journalists on the global health beat, like Tom Paulson, questioned the solutions emphasis: “A number of journalists, including me, remain concerned that making reporters responsible for emphasizing solutions – along with this Gates push for ‘success stories’ – could undermine basic watch-dogging.”

Paulson leaned toward what he called “cranky” stories. The blog Paulson edits, Humanosphere, ran a story entitled “How Tanzania failed to fix its water access problem.” The piece delivers a very cranky, evidence-based beatdown of the World Bank. The story held powerful people accountable and identified failure. The story was not solutions journalism.

By contrast, a Goats and Soda article on water featured a solution: Bill Gates drinking water “made from poop.” The Gates-funded piece stars Gates and promotes a Gates-funded project. The article’s solutions journalism style, favored and funded by the Gates Foundation, leaves readers with gee whiz wonderment, a sense that there’s an app for the water crisis.

Although the water-from-waste system appears to be the size of small refinery, the story does not delve into what it costs to construct or operate. The price of a gallon of water and whether the system works where there is no sewage system or electricity are not addressed. Broken narratives about the water crisis, however, are avoided.

Change the perception, change the reality

Sally Struthers, circa 1992, told television viewers: “Every year, 10 million third world children don’t live to see their third birthday.” Ten million avoidable child deaths, said Struthers—and that’s on you, viewer. Look: tiny bodies, bloated bellies, skeletal ribs, eyes outlined in flies.

Global Health, 1992 Source: YouTube

Today, moralizing and macabre messages are out. Even the news category “global health” has been left behind. NPR buried its old Twitter handle @nprglobalhealth, pointing followers instead to the new @nprgoatsandsoda. In place of 1990s-era, grim scenes of despair, a Goats and Soda music video shows the modern day “bliss” of living in low-income rural India.

Goats and Soda, 2015

Source: NPR Goats and Soda

Struther’s moral importuning came in television commercials clearly paid for by the Christian Children's Fund. By contrast, what Goats and Soda presents appears as NPR-certified reality, a perception unspoiled by disclosure of Gates Foundation funding.

Very few Struthers-like sermons have appeared in Goats and Soda. Indeed, a story about ethics and the making of blue jeans argued against moralizing. The piece concluded with a quotation from a researcher: “To get people to be more ethical, do not ever present your message as, 'If you're not doing this, you're a bad person...'”

And instead of counting dead children, today we count those who have been saved. Said Melinda Gates at Davos recently, “When we look at the fact that since 2000, childhood deaths have been cut in half, a big percentage of that is because of vaccines.” Quite reasonably, Melinda describes the glass as half full. And the world is doing great on vaccinating children, right?

Omission of bad news is bad journalism—or worse

There is one hiccup: measles vaccination is “falling behind,” according to a story in Goats and Soda. Not to worry, though. Annual measles deaths have fallen from 546,800 to 114,900 since 2000. That’s fantastic—except measles progress actually flattened back in 2007. The good news stopped eight years ago but is still being reported.

More than just measles vaccination is falling behind. Of six targets set in 2010 for global child vaccination, “Just one of these six is on track to be achieved,” according to a report from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE).  At Davos, Melinda Gates chose to speak about the one target that was on track: introduction of new vaccines.

Goats and Soda’s measles story promised to explain “why the world is falling behind,” but did not. Solutions journalism style, however, it covered “new strategies that seem promising” and “other success stories from the front lines.”

By contrast, SAGE explained what had actually gone wrong:

The targets each relate to different vaccines and diseases, but common threads run throughout: failure to extend vaccination services to people who cannot currently access them at all, and failure to strengthen the healthcare system so that all doses of vaccine are reliably provided.

In addition, the total number of unvaccinated children had “basically not changed” and those at greatest risk became more vulnerable: “Looking closer, the number in the lowest bands is getting worse not better,” SAGE reported. However, few or no journalists explored the halt in progress and backslide in immunizing the world's children. How this failure is possible and who is responsible is not a solutions journalism story. Adding to the broken narrative, SAGE wrote: “The habit of missing major vaccination targets undermines global trust in these efforts…” Global trust, however, remains high because no one reads SAGE reports.

In 2000, Gates Foundation mistrust of vaccination efforts led it to create the Gavi Alliance which now runs the world’s child immunization program. Gavi doesn’t keep track of how many children die for lack of vaccination. (This might be like the Department of Labor not counting the number of unemployed.) Instead, Gavi touts “Another record-breaking year in terms of the number of [vaccine] launches,” the same message emphasized by Melinda Gates. 

These introductions, according to Gavi, “made a major contribution to the unprecedented rate of reduction in under five mortality.” Similarly, Melinda Gates said at Davos: “they are getting the vaccines out now very quickly, and that's how we're saving lives.” Readers might conclude that Gavi and the Gates Foundation have been driving down child mortality more quickly than at any time in history. It's a good story, but it isn't true.

The Gates-funded Center for Global Development reported that new vaccine introductions have made no detectable difference in saving lives, finding only “small and statistically insignificant effects for the three high-priced vaccines promoted by Gavi...”

Vaccine coverage, not introductions, is what saves lives. And according to SAGE, immunization coverage has recently shown “no improvement,” leaving the number of unvaccinated children at 22 million. Children that aren’t vaccinated can and do die from preventable disease in large numbers. “1.5 million children die every year of diseases that could be readily prevented by vaccines that already exist,” SAGE reported, based on a 2008 WHO estimate.

Not a problem for solutions journalism.

PBS NewsHour: copying the Gates Foundation's homework

The Gates and MacArthur foundations both support the PBS NewsHour. Although frequently credited together, this is misleading. The two foundations hold very different, indeed opposing worldviews.

Gates grants are, once more, restricted. A $3.6 million grant to the NewsHour in 2008 supported only global health coverage. A current Gates grant directs $320,000 toward stories that “inform the public” about higher education issues. This media spend hits its mark. 

In January, the NewsHour began a new series called “Making the Grade.” The first episode delivered the same messages on higher education as a Gates Foundation video appearing back in November.

The foundation’s video carried forward messages from an earlier blog entry from Bill Gates, who wrote: “The problem is that not enough people are finishing [college]. More than 36 million Americans—a fifth of the working age population—have gone off to college and left without a degree.” The NewsHour segment described the same problem: “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree.”

Given this problem, the question and title of the NewsHour segment was: “Should more kids skip college for workforce training?”

No one from the Gates Foundation appeared in the NewsHour segment. Their parts were taken by people funded by the Gates Foundation. The NewsHour introduced series host, John Tulenko, as a “special correspondent from Education Week.” Education Week’s parent company has received $12.6 million in Gates Foundation funding. Before joining Education Week, Tulenko worked at Learning Matters, recipient of $1 million in Gates grants.

Tulenko interviewed Anthony Carnevale, head of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) and recipient of $9.7 million in Gates grants. CEW’s postsecondary policy appeared as early as 2012 in a Gates-funded report. CEW’s research informs the Gates Foundation’s current postsecondary strategy. It also appeared in Bill Gate’s blog, in the foundation’s video on postsecondary success, and most recently on the Gates-funded PBS NewsHour.

Tulenko also interviewed Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, recipient of $7.8 million in Gates funding. Petrilli, Carnevale and the Gates Foundation argue that too many students go to college and amass debt only to drop out. The solution they propose is that students at risk of dropping out receive advice to consider vocational education instead of going to college.

The only person on the show opposed to re-directing students toward job skills programs was Carol Burris. Burris worried that such career advice would be based on stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes. Of the three academics interviewed, Burris was the only one not funded by the Gates Foundation.

For journalism, however, the question is not whether the Gates Foundation’s postsecondary policy should be followed or not. The issue is that the PBS NewsHour ran a story as news that is not distinguishable from the advocacy of a funder.

The Gates Foundation’s role as funder in the story also was not visible to viewers. The credits for the segment stated that principal support came from the Noyce Foundation. The Noyce Foundation is defunct. And although NewsHour spokesperson Nick Masella said “NewsHour's education funders are listed on our education web page,” the Noyce Foundation is not among them.

I asked Masella why the NewsHour used a “special correspondent” rather than a NewsHour correspondent and whether Education Week contributed funding. Masella did not reply. Similarly, Masella would not say whether its Gates Foundation grant supported the segment, only that: “The PBS NewsHour credits the Gates Foundation every night on our broadcast, as we do with other foundations, in accordance with PBS's funding standards.” 

But the NewsHour gives viewers the impression that the Gates Foundation supports all the NewsHour's good work, when actually Gates money funds stories only on education, stories which do not disclose this restricted funding. By contrast, when the NewsHour covers, for example, rail issues, it clearly states that it receives funding from BNSF. 

More in line with the impression PBS gives to viewers, the MacArthur Foundation does support all the NewsHour's good work. MacArthur's  $1.5 million grant is not restricted. Although MacArthur does issue some restricted journalism grants, according to Kathy Im, MacArthur’s Director of Journalism and Media: “When we have a well-established relationship with a grantee and have confidence in their editorial vision and dissemination strategies, we tend to provide unrestricted support in order to provide maximum flexibility to the organization and its leadership.”

Gates Foundation v. the People of the United States

MacArthur supports journalism in the public interest; the Gates Foundation supports journalism in support of its policy interests. The MacArthur Foundation believes in open society principles; Bill Gates believes institutions of civil society are iffy: “The closer you get to it and see how the sausage is made, the more you go, oh my God!” Gates told the Financial Times. He wondered whether in American democracy, “can complex, technocratically deep things – like running a healthcare system properly in the US in terms of impact and cost – can that get done?”

Imagine, continued Gates, “the idea that all these people are going to vote and have an opinion about subjects that are increasingly complex... Do democracies faced with these current problems do these things well?” Perhaps if they are shown how by their betters.

Whether foundations “do” global health better than democracies and the institutions of civil society is a question that is not asked. Instead of holding the Gates Foundation accountable, a number of influential journalists at trusted news organizations write to foundation storylines and pay down their mortgages with foundation funding.

Muckrakers might have called this corruption. At the Gates Foundation, it’s philanthropy.

Article History
14 February: Section with quotations from Economist science editor Geoffrey Carr added