- Interview by
- Luke Savage
The past year and a half have been a roller-coaster ride for the public image of the world’s most famous philanthropist. At the outset of the pandemic, Bill Gates seemed to be everywhere: appearing on news outlets throughout the world and positioning himself, with stunning success, as a leader of the global response to COVID-19. Amid his divorce, allegations of personal misconduct, and renewed scrutiny of his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, Gates’s image was suddenly facing its most serious crisis in at least two decades.
Investigative journalist Tim Schwab has spent much of the past year and half writing on Gates, his foundation, and the way both have leveraged charitable giving to advance an agenda. Last year, he published a lengthy investigation into Gates’s media contributions — a hitherto underexplored part of the Gates empire and the key to understanding Gates’s cozy relationship with the world’s imagemakers.
In this conversation, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sits down with Schwab to discuss Gates’s media strategy, what lies ahead for the Gates Foundation, and how billionaire-led big philanthropy has inserted itself into public interest journalism.
The period of time spanning 2020–2021 has been quite a roller coaster for Bill Gates’s public image. He got some great press at the beginning of the pandemic (we’ll come back to that in a moment) but has recently taken quite a brand hit amid his divorce and some of the revelations that have come out of it.
Can you tell us, broadly speaking, a bit more about this arc and what Gates himself has been up to over the past year or so? And how has the mainstream media narrative around him diverged from an honest reckoning with the facts and his own motivations?
It’s been really an extraordinary couple years for the Gates Foundation. Early in the pandemic, the Gates Foundation inserted itself, in a very central way, into the pandemic response. You saw Bill Gates constantly on CNN, on the media playing expert. He’s weighing in in the New England Journal of Medicine, he’s publishing long op-eds: “I’m going to prescribe what governments should be doing.” This is a private billionaire in Seattle at the highest levels of the scientific discourse, the New England Journal of Medicine, telling governments what they should be doing. And it really showed you how institutionalized his power has become in these areas like global health and vaccines. But he’s also playing an important role behind the scenes. There is a global effort, nominally under the auspices of the World Health Organization — though the World Health Organization doesn’t actually have a lot of power in how this plays out — but this is an effort to get vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics to the global poor. And the Gates Foundation has arguably been the most important voice and actor in that project, though a lot of that power is behind the scenes.
So you have the Gates Foundation playing this huge role in the pandemic response in a number of different ways. And what’s really striking to me, speaking about this arc over the last year, is that it was only in January or February that Bill Gates came out with a best-selling book about climate change. In other words, he’s now at the center of the two most pressing existential issues of the age: a global pandemic and climate change. Then, once again, the media lines up to support Bill Gates. He’s doing op-eds in Time magazine and is getting profiles everywhere. 60 Minutes did a long profile about Bill Gates as this kind of de facto climate change czar.
And then it’s exactly like you said. Suddenly this news out of nowhere comes out that Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced. I didn’t know what to think of that. The official line at the time was, “Well, this doesn’t change anything. This is a personal matter.” And then, all of a sudden, news started coming out about Bill Gates’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, along with allegations that Bill Gates had acted inappropriately toward female subordinates at Microsoft and the Gates Foundation over decades (there are numerous allegations, which he denies). That created this opening where journalists started to take a new interest in the Gates Foundation because of personal scandals: around the divorce, around Epstein, around these allegations of womanizing. Then, at the same time, the pandemic response that Gates was helping to lead for the global poor was going terribly wrong. It wasn’t working, and it’s still not working. I just looked today, and I think it’s only 5 percent of people in low income countries have received their first vaccine dose. This plays into the idea of vaccine inequity and vaccine apartheid.
So whatever plan Gates helped to organize to deliver vaccines to the global poor wasn’t working, and news started coming out about why it wasn’t working. You had a spate of articles this spring looking at this issue of intellectual property and patents, and the Gates Foundation standing in the way of a more equitable manufacturing model, in which you could waive the patents and compel Big Pharma to share the recipes and the know-how. That seemed to fade somewhat and then, more recently, you’re starting to see some new autopsies and investigations into what’s going wrong with this global effort that Gates helped to lead called COVAX. Now, the official narrative is more or less that COVAX failed. There’s some really good reporting about why it’s failed and what’s going wrong. But in that reporting, you don’t see much of a critical lens placed on the Gates Foundation’s role itself, even though they’ve played a big role.
To really put all this into context, for most of the last twenty years, the narrative around the Gates Foundation has been about the billions of dollars it’s given away in the millions of lives it’s saving. So, like you said, this past year has really been a roller coaster.
Conflicts of Interest
Before the divorce, and other news surrounding Gates that’s drawn criticism, there was also one small chink in the armor around the foundation giving an award to Narendra Modi. What exactly is the Gates Foundation’s relationship to Modi? And what exactly went on there?
Yeah, I mean, this became a big scandal. Somebody from the Gates Foundation even publicly resigned and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the inhumanity and injustice in the Gates Foundation claiming to be a humanitarian organization and giving a humanitarian award to Indian prime minister Modi at a time when news outlets around the world were reporting on the controversies and criticisms around human rights violations with the Modi administration. So there was a real contradiction in the foundation’s effort to do that. And it made for a rare bad news cycle for the Gates Foundation. Even NPR, which receives funding from the Gates Foundation, reported on it.
As for the bigger picture, the Gates Foundation has a very large presence in India, an office in India, and they spend hundreds of millions of dollars there. And they really exercise a great deal of influence, especially over public health. They also have a big global program around sanitation, which is what they were ostensibly giving Modi an award for: his work to improve sanitation in India.
Something that I think is generally well understood on the Left is that the kind of charitable giving practiced by someone like Gates is neither an actual solution to global problems nor even an act of individual generosity — but rather a kind of brand-building you undertake if you ascend to his level of wealth and influence.
I could be wrong here, but it strikes me that there’s been less attention specifically paid to how Gates has involved himself in journalism and media specifically. This is something you tackled in what I thought was a very insightful piece last year and, before we get into specifics, can you give us a bit of a rundown of the Gates Foundation’s media contributions?
Yes. They have a very significant relationship with the news media. Every day, there are new articles about the Gates Foundation. Historically, they’ve almost always been favorable or uncritical, and I think there are a few reasons for that. But one important reason is that the Gates Foundation funds the news media. Last summer in Columbia Journalism Review, I looked at every grant the Gates Foundation had given away, and I found that more than a quarter billion dollars is going to journalism: to NPR, to Al Jazeera, to ProPublica, to the BBC, to the Guardian . . .
So to a lot of public interest and progressively inclined media.
Yeah, absolutely. Something like NPR is probably a good example, since it has a generally liberal point of view, which already chimes with the Gates Foundation’s worldview anyway. But now they’ve taken, I think, $22 million from the Gates Foundation, which is really a lot of money for a newsroom. The foundation is funding journalism conferences and journalism fellowships as well as news organizations. And the analysis I did was very conservative, and probably a very serious underestimation, because you can’t actually track all of the money the Gates Foundation has been giving away — there’s this whole black hole of funding that it gives through contracts. It doesn’t disclose where that money’s going. So it’s definitely more than a quarter billion dollars. And since I did my analysis, of course, Gates has given even more. They recently gave $3.6 million to CNN. Which, to me, kind of explains why CNN has been so cozy with Gates during the pandemic.
When you were writing that piece, the Gates Foundation strongly disputed the idea that its contributions in any way impacted or influenced the work of recipient organizations. The organizations themselves tend to reject this, too.
But, you write, “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.” How would you characterize the influence Gates is able to exert through these kinds of donations?
I mean, that’s kind of the standard counterpoint or rejoinder: “We take the money, but it doesn’t influence what we cover.” But, when you start to look at the actual coverage, you see it reliably does introduce a bias or a blind spot. What we’re talking about here is a conflict of interest, and this is the same reliable bias and blind spot you see whenever there are conflicts of interest. It’s like when our politicians take money from big gas and big oil, and then they come out with legislation or with rules and regulations that are favorable or soft on big oil or big gas. We can draw that through line and clearly see its influence. It’s the same with a doctor or a scientist: when they take money from Big Pharma and produce research that is uncritical or favorable to Big Pharma, that’s a reliable bias.
The meta point here is that, for journalists, conflicts of interest are a bread-and-butter issue. They’re something that journalists should be reporting on assiduously. But when you start to take on your own conflict of interest, when the funding for your newsroom is coming from a powerful institution you should be watchdogging, there’s an obvious problem. Most of the foundation’s journalism money is for education and global health, which are also two big fields where Gates works and where the Gates Foundation is a very important actor. So, if you’re a journalist covering global health, the Gates Foundation should be one of your most important targets. But it can’t be if it’s funding your newsroom. The target or the topic of your journalism can’t also be a funder. It’s just a fundamental conflict of interest. Unfortunately, a lot of the reporting in those fields is now funded by Gates — especially global health.
Something that particularly struck me in the piece was something you mentioned called “solutions journalism.” Can you tell us exactly what that is and the role it played in your piece?
I don’t fully understand it. But the idea is that, instead of focusing on the problems in the world, we’re going to look at what’s working right. It doesn’t fully make sense to me, because anytime I’m reporting on a problem — say, for example, a conflict of interest — the solution is right there: there’s guidelines in place that they could be following, there needs to be more accountability, et cetera. I don’t think there’s a specific need for this new brand of “solutions journalism.” But it’s everywhere in and around the Gates Foundation. And I think part of that has to do with the organization’s big picture worldview. The Gates Foundation has as its brand and its message this notion of “impatient optimism.” They have their own news publication called the Optimist, and the worldview Bill Gates is trying to promote has to do with the idea that everything is getting better all the time (and, of course, that the Gates Foundation is contributing to that betterment through its charitable giving).
I profiled one organization called the Solutions Journalism Network, which has received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation (at the time, the foundation was the largest funder). The real problem with those grants is that the founders and directors of this Gates-funded organization are also frequent contributors to the New York Times, where they frequently write about the Gates Foundation — always in ways that are uncritical or favorable. So, after I did the story and did a follow up story, the New York Times finally issued corrections to disclose their financial conflicts of interest.
When you think about it, articles have been published at the highest level of journalism, the New York Times, about the Gates Foundation from journalists who have ties to it. So that, to me, became a really interesting story that allows you to see how far this influence travels.
The whole idea of “solutions journalism” sounds like something inspired by a very neoliberal view of the world. It seems to me there’s a tendency in big philanthropy to conceptualize social problems as technical puzzles to be solved. Problems are never about imbalances of power. They’re never about the maldistribution of resources, at least not in any kind of structural way.
When you think about everything like that, you can have this narrow focus on a kind of solutionism that, by design, excludes actually looking at structures, hierarchies, and all the rest of it: i.e., the very essence of the things you should be looking at if you’re actually interested in, well, solving problems.
Right, these solutions that they’re looking at in fields like global health are the Gates Foundation’s solutions. There’s never going to be, within solutions journalism, a reporter who steps back and asks whether the Gates Foundation is part of the conversation about solutions, or whether it’s actually the problem. Once you get so involved in this kind of solutionism, and in the Gates Foundation’s worldview, it becomes impossible to step back and really take a big picture look — or to conclude that the Gates Foundation is not always, and maybe even not often, part of the solution. You have to have the independence to be able to step back and see that the Gates Foundation is not a dispassionate, unimpeachable charitable organization. It’s a political organization that has a great deal of influence over public policy. And when it’s funding journalism, it’s not just indiscriminately writing checks and telling journalists to go for it. It’s very carefully advancing its agenda.
As somebody who has been following all this so closely, what do you think lies ahead for Bill Gates? How serious is the crisis currently facing his personal image? In the title of your piece, “The Fall of the House of Gates?”, you included a question mark. So I’m assuming that said fall isn’t something you think is inevitable.
I don’t think you should underestimate Bill Gates. I mean, he almost literally has all the money in the world. And you can’t overstate what can be done with that money. He seems to have weathered the storm with all the allegations surrounding the divorce and the allegations of womanizing. He has had a big presence in all the recent news around climate change. He’s inserted himself there and has just announced he’s building a nuclear facility in Wyoming. Longer term, the Gates Foundation has announced that, within two years, if Bill and Melinda Gates can’t figure out a new balance of power at the Gates Foundation, that Melinda Gates will have to step down, and that Bill Gates will unilaterally be in charge. I mean, that’s just such an obvious illustration of the way that they’re clearly not equals, and that the Gates Foundation is clearly Bill Gates’s project. So that’s something that could be coming up.
The foundation has also said that it’s going to reorganize its board. And this is a pretty astonishing feature of the Gates Foundation: you have a private billionaire, who donated money to his own private foundation that he and Melinda have controlled for all these years. And right now, the only trustees of the Gates Foundation are Bill and Melinda Gates. You think of any organization today — whether it’s a company, a school, or a nonprofit — they’re going to have a diverse and robust board. That’s so important for governance, to have checks and balances. But when you look at something like the Gates Foundation, which has a $50 billion endowment and wields this much influence, it’s so critical that there be checks and balances in place. So they’ve said that they’re going to introduce a new board of directors. Whether it’s actually going to have any power or whether it’s just going to be window dressing, we’ll see.
But fundamentally, Gates is still in crisis mode, trying to figure out how to pivot with everything that’s going on. I do think there are some real, potentially existential crises the foundation is facing, especially around these personal scandals. The foundation has a very public brand around women’s empowerment and gender equity, at the same time that its founder and its leader stands widely accused of misconduct toward women. The CEO of Barclays recently had to step down because of investigations related to Epstein. You’ve also had Prince Andrew, and a number of other corporate figures, whose professional careers have been impacted by revelations about their relationships with Jeffrey Epstein. But for Bill Gates, you know, the world’s leading humanitarian, there have been no real professional consequences for him within the Gates Foundation. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic response plays out vis-à-vis what’s coming next. I think the Gates Foundation is definitely changing. The question is, how significantly is it changing?