It’s rare indeed to read a critical article about how Bill & Melinda Gates use their vast wealth to burnish their image as the greatest benefactors of all time. This article by freelance journalist Tim Schwab, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, documents how the Gates have purchased a larger-than-life portrayal of themselves by strategic investments in the media.

With rare exceptions, the Gates’s have subsidized publications likely to write about them and guaranteed that they would be portrayed favorably. By doing so, they have undermined freedom of the press while assuring favorable treatment for themselves.

Schwab writes:

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 outlets such as the Daily Caller, 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.

In Gates-funded articles, the rule seems to be: write whatever you want so long as you don’t criticize Bill or Melinda. Presenting them as saviors of society is good.

Strategic media investments pay off for Bill Gates.

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 CureVax.

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.

The PBS Newshour has received millions from Gates and reliably gushes over Bill and Melinda and their munificence.

In 2011, the Seattle Times published an article critical of the Gates Foundation, then two years later received a generous grant to pay for education coverage, and criticism stopped.

NPR receives Gates largesse, and regularly cites Gates as an authority on everything. The most delicious irony is NPR treating Gates—one of the richest men in the world—as an authority on income inequality and poverty. That’s a good one.

Those of us who concentrate on education are aware that everything Gates has funded in a large way has been an abject failure—from his absurd claim that he had knew how to produce and measure good teachers to his huge investment in the Common Core. We won’t hear about those failures in the Gates-funded media.

What I find most puzzling about the Bill and Melinda is their vanity. Their need to be recognized and praised is boundless. I guess no one ever told them that the highest form of philanthropy is to be completely anonymous: to give without knowing who will receive your gift and to give with no expectation of gratitude. The lowest form of giving is the gift where one expects recognition. Sadly, they use their philanthropy to exercise power, to win praise, and to stoke their needy egos.