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Journalism, Objectivity, and Foundation Funding

February 22, 2011

(David Jacobs is director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center. In his last post, he asked whether diversity can be legislated.)

Megaphone2 Last week, in an interesting article about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's funding  of non- and for-profit media has made it a force in journalism, the Seattle Times asked the question: "Does Gates funding of media blur the line between journalism and advocacy?"

Citing recent Gates-funded pieces aired by ABC, PBS, and Public Radio International (among others), reporters Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim suggested that the foundation's grants to media organizations "raise obvious conflict-of-interest questions: How can reporting be unbiased when a major player holds the purse strings?" But direct funding of media organizations, said Doughton and Heim,

is only one way in which the world's most powerful foundation influences what the public reads, hears, and watches.

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.

The efforts are part of what the foundation calls "advocacy and policy." Over the past decade, Gates has devoted $1 billion to these programs, which now account for about a tenth of the giant philanthropy's $3 billion-a-year spending. The Gates Foundation spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations -- including Rockefeller and MacArthur -- spend in total....

That strategy has caused some experts to express concern about the ability of the world's wealthiest foundation to shape and influence public discourse related to areas in which it has a stake. "Even if we were to satisfy ourselves that the Gates Foundation were utterly benign, it would still be worrisome that they wield such enormous propaganda power," says Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture, and communications at New York University.

It's a discussion we're likely to have more and more frequently, both in and outside the sector, as the wealthy and mega-wealthy continue to devote growing sums to philanthropic causes.

For what it's worth, I don't have a problem with Bill and Melinda Gates' strategy with respect to media. Promoting public education and awareness are legitimate aims of any foundation, regardless of its areas of interest or activities. Nonprofits have a similar duty to get their message out as effectively as they can.

In fact, the real problem in this instance would seem to be with the ethics of the media outlets that accept donations from large foundations whose activities they may have to scrutinize one day. Does it really make sense to fault the Gates Foundation -- or any nonprofit that advocates on behalf of a cause -- for the choices made by media executives who should know better? Gates may be blurring the line, but journalists and media outlets are the ones who choose to step over it.

Where do you stand on the issue? Is the Gates Foundation's funding of media good strategy? Or is it symptomatic of a larger problem?

-- David Jacobs


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Other than some hand-wringing by the experts quoted in the blog post (and from the original Seattle Times article), where's the evidence that any lines are being crossed or media are being unduly influenced?

Also, I think the writers of the Times piece are conflating the issue when they lump their worries about op-ed and opinion pieces with regular reporting. Opinion pieces are just that and people are free to agree or disagree. But no one is fooled into viewing that as straight news coverage.

Frankly, I think we face far greater risk from the Supreme Court's rulings in the Citizens United case. How that ruling is already changing public discourse is something really to worry about.

Bruce- Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

"where's the evidence that any lines are being crossed or media are being unduly influenced?"

I'd say that from a pure ethics perspective, it's a bad idea for any media outlet to be taking funding of any type from an organization that should be subject to press scrutiny. If one of the worries of this type of activity is about giving an organization outsized influence, one of the main checks on that - by design - is a free and untainted press.

As for Citizens United....that's the really hot topic isn't it? Though I understand all of the concerns associated with the ruling, I wonder if the consequences aren't all bad. After McCain-Feingold passed, so much money flowed into those shadowy 527 groups as a go-around. If that practice is ended, I'd count that as a positive outcome.

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    — Melinda Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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