The Web Grows Wider

Gates Foundation partnerships with the Guardian and ABC News further complicate global health coverage

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the implications of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s increasingly large and complex web of media partnerships. The first part, published on the author’s personal blog in July and cross-posted with updates to CJR yesterday, described a two-year-old partnership with PBS NewsHour. This installment examines more recent agreements with the Guardian and ABC News.

The independence of the Guardian’s global health journalism has a new guarantor: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Manchester, U.K.-based paper recently announced a global development section co-sponsored by the foundation. Such non-profit funding deals are not unusual in the media today and, like many others, the partnership agreement states that the Guardian has editorial independence.

The Gates Foundation is not just any foundation, however. It is the largest charitable foundation in the world, and its influence in the media is growing so vast there is reason to worry about the media’s ability to do its job. With Gates’s support, the Guardian aims “to hold governments, institutions and NGOs accountable for the implementation of the United Nations millennium development goals,” according to its press release. The site unveiling came in the run up to a September U.N. meeting to assess progress on the goals, which are supposed to be met by 2015.

The project, which is described as an action-oriented, “global development website,” is reminiscent of the Guardian’s 10:10 climate campaign to get people to reduce their carbon emissions. However, neither 10:10 nor the environment section sits within the Guardian’s news section (nor do they or any Guardian section have a site sponsor). But that is exactly where the global development page can be found on the Guardian’s home page. That alone stands to confuse readers and blurs the line between journalism campaign and advocacy campaign.

In the press release, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger described the sponsorship arrangement as compensating for declining coverage. “All too often the mainstream press ignores long-term development stories,” he said. “However, it is essential to have a place where some of the biggest questions facing humanity are analysed and debated, and through which we can monitor the effectiveness of the billions of pounds of aid that flows annually into the developing world. The creation of this website is a natural step for the Guardian, which has always been internationalist in its outlook and passionate about social justice.”

Yet the Guardian has ignored an important, long-term story: the ascendancy of the Gates Foundation in setting global health policy and orchestrating media coverage. In 2006, the paper ran “Super-rich donations are just a drop in the ocean,” which observed of the Gates Foundation’s $3 billion a year in spending:

[J]uxtaposed with UK government spending, these sums of money are a drop in the ocean… [T]he Gates Foundation endowment is about the same as a year’s worth of official UK development aid.

With perhaps a few million dollars in media investments, however, the Gates Foundation has made itself synonymous with global health. As part one of this series detailed, PBS NewsHour struck a similar deal with the foundation in 2008. On Wednesday, ABC News announced that it has partnered with the foundation for a yearlong project investigating global health problems. ABC News is investing $4.5 million in the project and Gates will contribute $1.5 million for overseas travel and production. The New York Times called it “an unusual financial agreement.”

Many first tier news outlets now fly the Gates Foundation flag. With similar highly leveraged investments in the policy world, the foundation has been able to unilaterally set global health policy in areas like malaria, moving the focus from containment to eradication with a single speech in 2007. With what is certain to be only partial attainment of the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Gates Foundation stands to be portrayed as the savior of a failing system. The story could also be viewed as the Gates Foundation attempting to wrest control of the goals from the multilateral institutions and elected governments, which deserve credit for setting them to begin with and for what progress has been made. Not only does Gates Foundation sponsorship close off large expanses of storyline, it appears to have altered the Guardian’s coverage.

Earlier this year, in a piece headlined, “Inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” Guardian contributor Andy Beckett asked, “Is this the future of giving - and, if so, is that a good thing?”

Compare that piece with a profile that the Guardian published three days after announcing its partnership with the Gates Foundation, headlined “Melinda Gates: gods with chequebooks.” As its title suggests, the story verges on hagiography. “Melinda Gates doesn’t so much enter the room as take it by storm … as though she is trying to outpace time itself…,” reads the introductory paragraph. Seemingly concerned about the “playing God conundrum,” the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington cited critics who “wonder why rich people who … have never had to answer to the electorate … should have the right to decide who gets help and who doesn’t.” Gates dismissed the criticism, ironically, by expressing her gratitude for the “free press in the United States and around the world,” which holds the foundation accountable (the criticisms raised by journalists benefited the foundation, she added).

Long-term funding of individual media outlets arguably holds them accountable to the Gates Foundation, however. If Pilkington’s interview with Gates were transformed into television form, the segment might be difficult to distinguish from an infomercial. The Guardian brandished its undiminished independence in a September 29 blog entry critical of Gates Foundation investments in genetically modified crops, but that is not enough. Unlike other non-profit funding deals, the Guardian will simply not be able to avoid bumping into its sponsor again and again if it aims to deliver. Covering global development thoroughly will necessarily involve repeated critiques of the foundation’s work, and again, it has cut itself off from storylines—such as the foundation’s various media campaigns—entirely.

As the foundation’s media network grows larger and more complex, the need for caution only grows stronger. Part one of this series showed bias in how the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) selects global health stories for its Gates-funded global health portal. Articles critical of the Gates Foundation were omitted from its widely read daily news digest, and positive ones included. The pattern continues.

On September 7, The Seattle Times ran an article headlined “Gates Foundation acknowledges flaws in report.” The news was unflattering: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has taken another baby step toward increased transparency, acknowledging in its annual report that the world’s largest charitable foundation is too secretive and hard to work with.” KFF skipped this story in its daily roundup. Yet two days later, when the Times published a much more positive story titled “Gates Foundation shakes up science with goal to end malaria,” Kaiser included it.

That digest, e-mailed daily, reaches policy makers, opinion leaders, and journalists. Jennifer Klein, senior advisor on global women’s issues at the State Department, is a reader. In May, at a Kaiser-sponsored event, Klein’s opening words [10:40] were, “Thank you to Kaiser… for your commitment to educating us all about global health. I don’t think I would survive without my daily email update.”

The effect, intentional or not, of Gates funding of the Guardian and other media organizations is to reduce coverage that holds the foundation accountable, even as Melinda Gates maintains that such criticism is welcome and beneficial.

Take the journal The Lancet, which, in May 2009, published an editorial, which asserted that “the Gates Foundation has received little external scrutiny.” The same issue featured two papers that found fault with various aspects of the foundation. The Lancet sought a reply from Gates Foundation but met only a stony silence: “The Lancet was sorry that the Foundation declined our invitation to respond,” concluded the editorial. “Now is an inflection point in the Foundation’s history, a moment when change is necessary.”

One year later, it is The Lancet which seems to have changed. In May, The Lancet assisted in installing the Gates-funded Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) as de facto arbiter of progress on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), knocking UNICEF from its official perch.

The Lancet co-sponsored a symposium in May with IHME on maternal and child health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. The day before the event, The Lancet published an IHME study measuring progress on the child mortality MDG. The study quickly leapt to New York Times headlines. Last week, the UN groups published their figures immediately ahead of the MDG meeting. The New York Times turned a deaf ear. They’d heard it already. As the Guardian reported: “[T]he timing of this report is a no-brainer. But, interestingly, the numbers are not new. The Institute of Health Metrics in Seattle got there first.”

The IHME symposium also drew a lot of criticism, however, when it invited potential detractors to a discussion of child and maternal mortality and then sprung on them a new, extremely complicated paper (with a 219-page web appendix) and offered them a chance to comment the next day. According to symposium panelist Ed Bos of the World Bank:

The symposium and the Lancet article [on child mortality] by Rajaratnam were of course planned to happen around the same time, and while I knew that this was coming, the article was not shared, even when requested, until the evening before. Instead of the full article, I received a one-page summary of the findings, on which I based my comments.

IHME says that it provided all of the panelists with the paper four to five days before the symposium, and other panelists have confirmed that they received it in a timely manner. An article in the May 29 issue of The Economist noted, however, that the some aspects of the IHME’s approach to measuring progress on global health “met with bitter resistance from the old guard of public health.” Its correspondent, who attended the symposium, concluded:

As the old saying among bureaucrats goes, he who controls the numbers commands the power. With luck, that control is passing to people who are getting the numbers right.

However, control might also be passing to the Gates Foundation. IHME is funded by a ten-year, $105 million grant from the Gates Foundation. IHME is now three years into its grant period and will be answering to its funder in a mid-grant review soon enough. So, in effect, must the Guardian. Increasingly, the measurement and coverage of global health are funded by the Gates Foundation in a closing loop while, correspondingly, the capacity for objective assessment is shrinking.

[Correction: A sentence noting that IHME and other panelists at its May symposium received the Rajaratnam paper in a timely manner, deleted due to an editing error, has been re-inserted. The text has also been changed to reflect the fact that IHME is three, not five, years into the period of its grant from the Gates Foundation. We regret these errors.]

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Robert Fortner is a contributor to CJR.