The Monopoly On Your Mind, Part 2: Billionaires Bet Big On The News
by Rebecca Strong Apr 28, 2022
In a recent Twitter survey I conducted, nearly 90% of people rated their trust in mainstream media as either “very low” or “low.” And is it any surprise? Ever-mounting media consolidation has narrowed the perspectives the public is privy to, ownership and funding of these corporations are riddled with conflicts of interest, crucial stories keep suspiciously getting buried, and big tech companies are outright censoring and demonetizing independent outlets trying to break through the noise. The media is supposed to function as a power check — and a means of arming us with vital information for shaping the society we want to live in. It’s never been a more important industry. And it’s never been more at risk. In this series, I’ll tackle each factor threatening the media’s ability to serve our democracy — with input from journalists, media critics and professors, and other experts.
Earlier in April, I kicked off this series with a piece about the problematic history of media consolidation. Read Part 1 here.
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” A. J. Liebling, 1960
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, he made a written promise to employees: “We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.” It was an admirable commitment, but as they say, actions speak louder than words. Here are a few editorial decisions that were made in the years following that acquisition:
- The Post ordered “no pardon” for whistleblower Edward Snowden — after not only using him as a source for its groundbreaking NSA stories but then accepting a Pulitzer for that series.
- One month after the editorial board demanded that Snowden’s leaks on U.S. spying come to a halt, Amazon became a beneficiary of that spying when it won a contract to host CIA data. The Post refused to provide disclosure of this when covering the CIA.
- WaPo stories about Uber routinely failed to disclose that its owner, Bezos, had billions of dollars worth of stock in the car-sharing company.
- Closely following the 2016 presidential election, the Post promoted research by the ultra-shady anonymous group PropOrNot, which unjustifiably blacklisted hundreds of independent news sites, denouncing them as Russian agents or assets. (Ironically, PropOrNot’s “fake news” detection system later lost credibility and was deemed to be fake news itself. The WaPo quickly distanced itself from the operation.)
- At the end of 2016, The Washington Post falsely reported that Russian hackers penetrated a U.S. electricity grid. In actuality, Burlington Electric had searched its computers and found malware on a laptop that was not connected to the grid, but the Post never bothered to contact the Vermont utility provider before publishing the piece. After Burlington Electric provided a statement clarifying what happened, the Post updated the headline — but the revised headline still claimed Russian hackers were responsible.
That’s not at all to say that these occasional missteps were Bezos’ fault, nor that there weren’t any positive outcomes from that acquisition as well. At the time that Bezos purchased The Washington Post, it had been facing years of declining revenues. His capital allowed the company to drastically increase staff, and within three years, become profitable again while doubling its Web traffic. That’s no small feat in today’s journalistic apocalypse. But while billionaires who buy legacy newspapers are often presented as benevolent saviors of a dying industry, might it be naive to assume these are really just acts of civic charity with no invisible strings attached? What’s stopping these moguls from using publications as a mouthpiece to promote their own personal interests, amplifying or burying stories accordingly?
This isn’t just an unfounded fear — owners can, and sometimes do, meddle. In 2019, former New York City mayor and Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Michael Bloomberg announced he’d be running in the presidential race — and sent a memo to 2,700 Bloomberg journalists prohibiting them from doing any investigative stories on him or his campaign. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who quietly snapped up The Las Vegas Review-Journal for $140 million in 2015, is also often cited as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a rich and powerful man owns a prominent newspaper. When Adelson requested that Review-Journal reporters start monitoring the judge handling a lawsuit threatening his casinos, it became pretty clear that he planned to use the newspaper to further his own agenda.
“At a minimum, the outlet should be completely transparent and reveal these conflicts of interest — in Adelson’s case, his casino and real estate developments, local public subsidies in support of these projects, lawsuits in which he was embroiled — where there’s a danger of news being distorted in ways that could benefit the owner at the public’s expense,” Rodney Benson — a sociologist and NYU professor of media, culture, and communication — told me in an interview. “And the fact that an increasing number of owners, whether individuals or corporations, now come not from news media but from Silicon Valley and other industries means that the threat of conflicts of interest is only going to grow.”
Speaking of conflicts of interest — in 2013, Amazon inked a $600 million contract to host secret data for the CIA. Then, in 2020, the CIA awarded another secret cloud computing contract to Amazon, this one worth up to $10 billion. The Washington Post’s slogan is “democracy dies in darkness,” yet the WaPo failed to disclose these deals in any subsequent coverage of the CIA, as adhering to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics would require. At the time, a RootsAction petition urging the Post to disclose this relationship in their reporting garnered more than 36,000 signatures. When journalist Norman Solomon emailed the WaPo’s then-executive editor Marty Baron about the petition, Baron told him that acknowledging those CIA ties would be “far outside the norm of disclosures about potential conflicts of interest at media organizations.”
“What emerges now is what, in intelligence parlance, is called an ‘agent of influence’ owning the Post — with a huge financial interest in playing nice with the CIA,” former CIA analyst Ray McGovern explained to Solomon. “In other words, two main players nourishing the national security state in undisguised collaboration.”
John Hanrahan, a former reporter for the WaPo and executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism, also told Solomon that particularly since The Washington Post reports frequently on the CIA, readers are entitled to know (and be regularly reminded) that Bezos “stands to benefit substantially” from this contract.
“Even with such disclosure, the public should not feel assured they are getting tough-minded reporting on the CIA,” Hanrahan added in the interview. “Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as majority owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA — and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.”
A key concern with billionaires gobbling up news outlets is that they may use them to suppress any news that could hurt their image or financial interests. Benson says this kind of censorship is rare, and editors will inevitably defend their choices. Still, he adds: “It doesn’t have to happen a lot to make a difference. It just needs to happen at the right moment when news coverage and editorials, or the lack thereof, will most benefit the owner.”
Of course, Bezos isn’t the only billionaire who’s gotten in the news game. Over the past 15 years, a small handful of other tycoons bought the majority stake in some of the U.S.’ most influential national publications, including The New York Times (Carlos Slim), The Boston Globe (John and Linda Henry), Time Magazine (Marc and Lynne Benioff), The LA Times (Patrick Soon-Shiong), and The Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs). The question is, do the benefits of being bought by a billionaire outweigh the potential conflicts of interest?
The upside? Compared to, say, stock market traded owners, individual owners tend to have a stronger commitment to quality news, says Benson, because they aren’t driven by the same pressures to maximize profits and appease shareholders.
“Individual owners can choose to invest in quality journalism with an eye toward a long-term return, instead of just harvesting cash in the short term,” he explains. “Again, you still have the potential for conflicts of interest when the individual owner has outside economic interests, which is often the case. They are good in some ways — generally in their support for quality journalism — and potentially problematic in other ways, such as using their media outlet to promote their interests or their political views. Such abuses of power may or may not happen, but the public should remain vigilant.”
When news broke in 2013 that Glenn Greenwald was leaving The Guardian to launch his own media organization with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, expectations were high — not only because of the sheer talent involved but also because tech billionaire and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar had made a $250 million investment in it. That venture, The Intercept, wasn’t Omidyar’s first foray into journalism: in 2020, he launched the progressive investigative news site Honolulu Civil Beat, and before Bezos snatched up The Washington Post, Omidyar seriously considered buying it. Seeing as The Intercept was in part created to provide a platform for reporting on Snowden’s NSA leaks, it was clear from the get-go that one of the founding principles was transparency at any cost. Its self-proclaimed mission was to “hold the most powerful governmental and corporate factions accountable.”
That’s what made Greenwald’s resignation in 2020 — which he attributed to censorship from his colleagues — so shocking.
In his resignation letter, Greenwald claimed that editors not only refused to publish his latest piece unless he removed “all sections critical of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden,” but also that they forbid him from publishing it anywhere else. The article in question, which has since been published on his Substack, examined how both big tech and the mainstream press suppressed stories on the emails found via Hunter Biden’s laptop, especially those relating to Biden’s alleged business dealings in Ukraine.
“In many cases, these companies editorially decide how to not talk about certain subjects,” Huff told me. “Look at The New York Times — they just admitted they lied about the Hunter Biden laptop story. And this is why Greenwald has to go to Tucker Carlson. The establishment press won’t have these intellectuals on their programs, because they pop their propaganda bubbles. It’s easier to attack these people than to take them seriously. Even though history has shown repeatedly that they’re right over, and over, and over again.”
Huff said he was not surprised The Intercept refused to publish Greenwald’s story given Omidyar’s well-known ties to the Democratic party.
“That’s a no-no,” he explained. “It’s especially a no-no because it is a story. It’s a story of power of corruption that goes back to the 2014 coup in Ukraine. It shows how the Bidens were instrumental, and his family personally profited from the regime change when his son was put on the board at Burisma Energy. It’s clear as day.”
Omidyar’s net worth is about 11.3 billion and his average annual income is $866 million — making him one of America’s top earners, right after the co-founders of Google. And his generous political donations over the years clearly demonstrate where his loyalty lies. In 2020, he wrote some big checks to liberal “dark money” groups backing Biden: $45 million went to the Civic Action Fund, a sponsored project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, and his foundation Democracy Fund Voice provided $1.6 million to Defending Democracy Together. (He also contributed 1 million to the Republican Voters Against Trump super PAC.) In 2020, President Biden appointed Joelle Gamble, a former principal at the Omidyar Network, as one of his top economic advisors.
In response to Greenwald’s letter, editor-in-chief Betsy Reed published a statement calling his accusations “preposterous” and “teeming with inaccuracies.” Reed insisted that the intention in editing his work was purely to “ensure that it would be accurate and fair,” and she cited other coverage on The Intercept that’s been critical of Biden as proof that they were pulling no punches.
Anyone who’s been following The Intercept for a while knows that Greenwald isn’t the first reputable writer to leave — and with no love lost. Matt Taibbi comes to mind, as does Ken Silverstein, who was hired in late 2013 and left just over a year later. In a 2015 Politico piece, Silverstein called The Intercept “a slowly unfolding disaster” where “journalism goes to die.” When I spoke to Silverstein, he made it clear that his problems with The Intercept didn’t stem from censorship, but rather bureaucratic hindrances — like a disorganized editing structure and lack of communication from management.
“In a way… I think there was just too much money,” he explained. “That’s a luxury, of course. But I mean, it’s not that hard to create a news outlet. You hire writers and editors and just let them do their work.”
Silverstein assured me that he was never told what he could and couldn’t write about — even when he was going after Democratic politicians and figures. He did note that he still occasionally reads The Intercept, and it’s apparent that editorial decision-makers might be “far more sympathetic to Biden.” Still, he had no experience with censorship or meddling there.
“If that happened, I certainly didn’t know about it,” he added. “But I do think people were at least vaguely aware of what Pierre’s political instincts were.”
Silverstein previously noted that the company’s culture centered on Omidyar — which he found odd, given that he made his billions in tech, not from a spectacular journalistic track record.
“He’d come up every once in a while,” he told me. “And I sort of feel like the less I know about the publisher, the better. I’d rather not have to wonder, ‘God, is this going to piss a higher-up off?'”
As for the circumstances around Greenwald’s resignation, Silverstein said he’d prefer not to comment since he left The Intercept long before it happened.
A 2021 study by Benson and Timothy Neff examined how ownership might affect news coverage — including the tendency to mention or praise owners’ and investors’ interests, a phenomenon they called “promotional economic instrumentalism” (EI). Using a sample of 19 prominent U.S. news outlets, the researchers analyzed mentions of owners and their economic interests. What they found is that privately-held media engage in significant promotional EI. In the case of the WaPo, the majority of mentions were deemed “neutral” (for example, passing disclaimers about conflicts of interest). Still, there were four times more positive mentions of the Post’s owner than negative ones. Potential promotional surpluses were also found at The Boston Globe, where British soccer team Liverpool F.C. — in which the Globe’s owner John Henry has a big stake — appeared twice as frequently as it did in other news outlets.
In a 2013 investigation, Fair and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) critiqued The New York Times for covering Slim — its largest individual shareholder owner – “carefully.” Whereas other outlets may examine Slim’s telecommunications monopoly with a more critical eye, bringing in diverse perspectives and sources, FAIR reporter Zaid Jilani noted that the Times tended to “bend over backward to credit the views of Slim and his defenders.” To that end, a 2015 Times article, “Why Americans Don’t Want to Soak the Rich,” explored all the potential reasons why Americans (supposedly) don’t want to tax the wealthy more heavily. It’s a hot take from a newspaper owned by the 12th richest guy in the world, especially when — as FAIR noted — countless Gallup polls have shown most people believe the rich don’t pay enough in taxes. (In a 2017 interview with The Daily Beast, Slim was asked how he felt about tax plans that would require billionaires to pay the same rate as middle-class people, and he responded: “You don’t need to raise taxes on rich people because they create capitalization and investment.”)
Jeff Cohen, media critic and founder of FAIR and RootsAction, told me that while some billionaires have bailed out newspapers that may have otherwise gone under, the potential pitfalls that come with this model are impossible to ignore.
“It’s a good thing when newspapers are shrinking or going out of business, as the advertiser-driven revenue model of newspapers has fallen apart,” he explained. “But it’s not a good thing that [Bezos] owns WaPo if you believe, as I do, that he is a dangerous force in the political and economic life of our country.”
As evidence of Bezos’ potentially problematic power, Cohen cites the Post’s conspicuously harsh coverage of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries. It’s no secret that Sanders has been openly critical of Amazon’s wages and working conditions, as well as Bezos himself for maintaining “morally obscene” wealth while managing to pay very little in taxes. It may also be worth noting that Sanders has also vocalized disapproval of the CIA. In 1974, he called it a “dangerous institution that has got to go,” and in 1989, he argued that the CIA or other arms of the U.S. government had overthrown every “revolution for the poor people” in Latin or Central America. (More recently, he’s seemingly softened his stance and clarified that he doesn’t advocate outright abolishing the agency, but still has “a lot of problems” with their activities.)
While the Post adamantly asserts that its editorial board remains independent from Bezos’ influence, Cohen says it’s impossible not to raise an eyebrow at the newspapers’ laughable, “let’s-twist-ourselves-into-pretzels” fact-checking of inconsequential details in his otherwise accurate statements.
Case in point: in 2016, WaPo reporter Philip Bump wrote a piece with the headline “Bernie Sanders keeps saying his average donation is $27, but his own numbers contradict that.” Indeed, the Vermont senator’s average donation is $27.89. Would the Post have bothered to nitpick over 89 cents if Bezos didn’t stand to lose so much by Sanders being elected? Reporters also repeatedly bent over backward to deny Sanders’ claims about Bezos being one of the world’s richest people as if this were a refutable fact. In 2016, the Post famously ran 16 negative stories about Sanders (and zero positive ones) in a span of 16 hours. Some readers were left wondering: why wasn’t The Washington Post hairsplitting every one of Hillary Clinton’s claims, too? (Note that while Clinton was Secretary of State years earlier, the State Department awarded Amazon a $16.5 million five-year contract to launch the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative. In 2017, Clinton praised Bezos for — in her words — “saving” The Post, adding that to her knowledge he’d been “hands-off on the editorial and content front,” allowing reporters to “get out there and do investigations.”)
When Sanders himself suggested that The Washington Post’s unrelenting attacks may have something to do with the fact that he’d encouraged taxing Amazon, the executive editor brushed this off as a “conspiracy theory.” Baron insisted: “Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
Benson said he wasn’t surprised by the WaPo’s anti-Sanders coverage — not just at that particular newspaper but also at other mainstream outlets — because of an ideological bias that’s long existed in U.S. journalism. While it’s largely known that the Post is left-leaning, there’s a big difference between neoliberalism and democratic socialism.
“Most though not all elite American journalists, whether at The Washington Post, The New York Times, or elsewhere, are liberal but not on the ‘social democratic’ left,” he explained. “You see the same attitudes in their often condescending coverage of western European welfare states. In the news reporting, though, it’s often a matter of making a judgment about what’s politically realistic or viable in the American context, and they see Sanders as out of step with the mainstream, as not ‘electable.’”
According to Victor Pickard, a media studies scholar, UPenn professor, and author of “Democracy Without Journalism?”, this is partly why billionaire-owned news media are more likely to exhibit subtler forms of censorship — like prioritizing certain issues over others.
“This kind of ‘news red lining’ favors issues important to white communities and wealthier socioeconomic groups as opposed to those issues important to the working class, poor, and communities of color,” he told me.
If you ask most editors whether their ownership impacts decisions about what to cover and what not to cover, Benson said most will tell you it doesn’t happen.
“And just out of their own self-interest, most owners aren’t going to be too heavy-handed, because that undermines staff morale as well as the credibility and ultimately the value of the ‘brand,’” he explained. “And yet with any news outlet where the owner has outside economic interests, the risk is always there of news coverage that either ‘promotes’ good news or ‘suppresses’ bad news about these interests.”
That’s where self-censorship comes in. In a 2000 Pew Research and Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) survey, 41% of journalists admitted they’d either purposely avoided newsworthy stories or “softened the tone” of those stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations. In other words, writers don’t necessarily need their editors to tell them not to pursue a story. Instinctively, they know which ones could put their job success at risk.
Sometimes they’re even told more explicitly what not to say. In 2017, The Washington Post updated its social media policy, banning employees from posting anything that adversely affects its advertisers, suppliers, vendors, or partners. Doing so could result in suspension or termination. A particular clause included in that policy also encouraged staffers to tattle on their colleagues if they violated the new rules.
When WaPo employees were asked to share their thoughts about Bezos’ ownership in a 2018 HuffPost article, the feedback ranged wildly from “I’m grateful Bezos bought the Post, because I probably wouldn’t have a job here without it,” to “Our values are wildly out of sync with his shitty treatment of his own workers.”
“I tend to do less critical thinking about Amazon than I do, say, about Facebook or Google or Walmart, and the reason is fairly obvious: because I am thankful for the opportunity I have, which wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos,” one employee admitted. “Absent a deep, more thoughtful analysis, do I have concerns about Amazon’s impact on the world — labor practices, antitrust law, and the future of small businesses? Yes. And would I say that out loud at work? No.”
Whether they realize it or not, writers hoping to advance in their careers do tend to hesitate before being too critical of their bosses, according to Benson.
“It’s also structural in that the orientation of most reporting is outward not inward,” he told me. “There are not going to be a lot of reporters at any outlet with the responsibility or the bandwidth to keep an eye on the boss. It’s one of the blind spots that every news outlet is going to have: they are rarely going to be the ones to take the lead in cleaning their own house. That’s why competition and robust media criticism are important. But when your boss is a major company like Amazon, and problems emerge, it becomes a matter of professional honor to cover the story as well as or even better than others.”
All that said, Benson points out that the Post has published some quite critical stories about Amazon’s working conditions and anti-union drive over the years. But of course, there are limits.
“It would be crazy to rely on The Washington Post to ferret out everything that is going on at Amazon,” added Benson.
According to Nolan Higdon, a media studies and history lecturer at Merrill College at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author with Huff of the new book “Let’s Agree to Disagree,” the problem again comes back to the increasing concentration of power. With six corporations now maintaining a massive monopoly on what information you’re privy to, it’s a lot harder for the media industry to hold itself accountable. It wasn’t always like this, though. While the government was taking over many different sectors during the 1930s, Higdon says the press was one industry that pushed back, arguing that per the First Amendment, the government should stay out of the way of reporting. In order to serve the public, the press promised to adhere to the capitalist model, with a range of outlets competing against each other for stories and exposing each other when wrong.
“That means that essentially, in 1950, you could have a Bezos own The Washington Post because every town had its own newspaper, and there were tons of different outlets,” Higdon explained in our interview. “So, if Bezos was churning out corporate propaganda, they could all collude and destroy the paper. But now, that model is gone.”
To be clear, a billionaire doesn’t even have to own a news outlet to exercise their influence. Philanthropists like George Soros and Bill Gates have frequently targeted their charitable donations to news media companies, raising concerns about whether accepting their money impacts how they report on their benefactors. In some cases, critics have questioned whether these generous grants are a subtle power play billionaires use to spitshine their public image. For instance, through his separate foundation and institute, conservative entrepreneur Charles Koch has pumped millions into a number of media and journalism institutions — mostly right-wing organizations, like the Daily Caller News Foundation, but also a few left-leaning publishers, like The Atlantic Monthly Group and Ozy Media.
Soros is the founder and chair of The Open Society Foundations, into which he has funneled more than $32 billion of his own capital, and which has given millions in grants to media groups, including the following in 2020 alone:
- IFEX: $1,000,000 (to support an independent journalism program)
- International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Inc.: $500,000
- Committee to Protect Journalists: $500,000
- International Media Support: $570,000
- Daraj Media: $395,000
- Media Institute of the Caribbean: $350,000
- Zabarona Media: $349,194
- Group Nine Media (PopSugar, Thrillist, The Dodo): $344,800
- Center for Investigative Reporting: $325,000
- Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Inc.: $325,000
- China Digital Times: $300,000
- Markup News: $300,000
- Coda Media Inc: $300,000
- Global Investigative Journalism Network: $250,000
- Ponte Jornalismo: $214,000
- The Allied Media Action Fund: $200,000
- Taslimi Foundation: $200,000
- Internews Europe: $187,238
- NewsMaker: $180,000
- Media Alternativa Public Association: $155,501
- The New Press: $150,000
- Investigate Europe gemeinnützige SCE mbH: $140,000
- ReThink Media, Inc: $135,000
- Guardian.org foundation: $125,000
- Plop Media Content: $125,000
- ARIJ: $125,000
- Investigative Reporting Project Italy: $115,000
- Umbrella Journalists’ International Network NGO: $115,000
- New Media Advocacy Project Inc.: $100,000
- The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: $100,000
- Ostro, Center for Investigative Journalism (Adriatic Region): $100,000
- I’LAM Arab Center for Media Freedom, Development & Research: $100,000
- MediaNet International Centre for Journalism: $95,000
- The Arena For Journalism In Europe: $80,000
- Center for Media Research—Nepal: $70,000
- International Press Institute: $65,000
- The Conversation Indonesia: $60,000
- National Hispanic Media Coalition: $50,000
- OC Media: $50,000
- Media Council of Kenya: $40,000
- Memetic.Media: $38,600
- Media DoR Association: $37,500
- Media Foundation for West Africa: $31,000
- Centro de Jornalismo Investigativo: $27,000
- Media Development Foundation: $25,000
- Museba Journalism Project: $25,000
(This is just a handful of examples I sussed out while sifting through the database.)
In many cases, these grants have been reserved for specific purposes — and if you scroll through the descriptions, you’ll notice a running theme. For example, the foundation earmarked a $38,6000 donation to Memetic.Media to “counter disinformation in Latin America through the use of memes and infographics.” A $40,000 grant to the Media Council of Kenya was meant to “contribute towards addressing disinformation and bridging the information gaps that currently exist between the citizenry and public officials about the Covid–19 pandemics.” A $200,000 gift to the Allied Media Action Fund aimed to “support policy advocacy on interrupting misinformation and disinformation intended to harm communities of color.” A $27,000 donation to the Centro de Jornalismo Investigativo was intended to “support Agencia Publica’s investigative journalism on disinformation around the Covid-19 crisis.” Finally, Plop Media Content’s $125,000 grant was used to help produce “a series of six educational videos in partnership with comedians and fact-checking initiatives in order to make the public aware of Latin American governments’ anti-democratic responses to the pandemic.”
Soros also recently backed a new public foundation, Good Information Inc., that seeks to “counter disinformation online.” Good Information Inc. is led by Democratic strategist Tara McGowan — the founder of the progressive political advocacy nonprofit ACRONYM, which has been accused of serving as a left-wing propaganda pipeline and is perhaps best known for disastrously messing with the 2020 Iowa caucuses. ACRONYM also funded Courier Newsroom, but when Courier Newsroom initially failed to disclose this backing, Americans for Public Trust filed an FEC complaint in 2020. Good Information Inc. acquired Courier Newsroom for an undisclosed sum.
After NPR received a $1.8 million grant from Soros’ Open Society Foundations in 2010, journalist Alicia Shepard reported on the widespread discomfort with the organization accepting these funds from a “controversial” source. She wrote that while the money is for a “worthy purpose” — to help launch the multimedia Impact on Government project — many journalists and readers alike felt a line was crossed. One NPR staffer said they were “appalled” when an email announcing the Impact of Government project only mentioned the Open Society Foundations and not Soros directly — “as if the company didn’t think it was important or were trying to hide something.”
“I do have problems with it precisely because he is so left-wing and were he on the other side I would still have problems with it,” a long-time NPR producer told Shepard. “I don’t have a problem with people supporting particular causes but I do have a problem when obvious partisanship spills over into your support of those causes.”
Sophie Harman, now a Professor of International Politics, began studying the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) while at the Queen Mary University of London. What she found was that, aside from a few academic skeptics, surprisingly few people had anything negative to say about the foundation, despite its tremendous power.
“Perhaps that’s because their projects are great, but that’s never the case,” Harman told Vox in a 2015 report. “Not all global health projects are 100 percent successful.”
She suggested that perhaps the reason for this overwhelmingly favorable coverage is that reporters are “scared of challenging Gates and the foundation’s role” because “they don’t want to lose their funding.”
After all, why would journalists want to bite the hand that feeds them? That’s one question freelance investigative journalist Tim Schwab has been asking himself ever since he began doing a line-by-line analysis of every charitable grant the BMGF ever made. During his investigations, he found that the Gates Foundation had given more than $250 million to journalism through 2019. A more recent MintPress News investigation revealed that these donations may total closer to $319 million. Just a handful of the recipients of that funding included:
- The Atlantic
- Gannett (USA Today)
- The Guardian
- New York Public Radio
- The Poynter Institute
- The National Press Foundation
- The Conversation
- The Financial Times
- The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund
- Inside Higher Ed
- National Journal
- The Texas Tribune
- The Washington Monthly
- The Seattle Times
Gates has also been generous with his donations to a number of investigative journalism centers and foundations, including:
- The Center for Investigative Reporting
- The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting
- The International Center for Journalists
- The Poynter Institute for Media Studies
- The International Women’s Media Foundation
Additionally, the foundation has dished out considerable funds for training journalists all over the world — including at Johns Hopkins University, Seattle University, Teachers College at Columbia University, University of California—Berkeley, the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies, The World Health Organization, and China’s Tsinghua University. As MintPress News’ Alan Macleod puts it: “Today, it is possible for an individual to train as a reporter thanks to a Gates Foundation grant, find work at a Gates-funded outlet, and to belong to a press association funded by Gates.”
In his 2021 follow-up CJR investigation, Schwab noted that it’s impossible to grasp the full scope of Gates’s media donations since the foundation doesn’t publicly disclose money awarded through contracts — only that which is awarded through charitable grants. MintPress News’ calculations did not cover sub-grants, and other media-related donations that weren’t made directly to press organizations or projects may not have been identified. In other words: Gates-sponsored media outlets and projects probably total a much higher amount.
Past partnerships have included a deal with Paramount Global (then ViacomCBS), which owns CBS News, Nickelodeon, BET, MTV, Comedy Central, and Showtime. Through that partnership, the Gates Foundation was paying the company to insert education-themed messaging into its programming.
The BMGF isn’t entirely hands-off — it can, and does, sometimes dictate that donations are used to fund coverage of topics relevant to the foundation and its motives. For example, Schwab found the Gates Foundation has gifted $17.5 million in charitable grants to NPR since 2000, which are specifically designated for coverage of global health and education. Another issue Schwab uncovered is that stories that cover Gates or his foundation are glaringly devoid of any independent perspectives. For instance, he found that the 2019 NPR story “Gates Foundation Says World Not on Track to Meet Goal of Ending Poverty by 2030” only cited two sources, one of which was the Gates Foundation and the other of which was a rep from the Gates-funded Center for Global Development.
According to Schwab’s investigations, Gates has contributed at least $383,000 to the Poynter Institute — and those funds were earmarked to “improve the accuracy in worldwide media of claims related to global health and development.” Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride, who assured Schwab that no bias resulted from those contributions, said Gates’ money was passed on to media fact-checking sites, including Africa Check. When Schwab examined 16 Africa Check articles centering around media claims about Gates, he found that the vast majority defended Gates and the foundation. Schwab noted that PolitiFact and USA Today — both run by Gates Foundation-funded companies (the Poynter Institute and Gannett) — have on occasion leveraged their fact-checking platforms to defend Gates from what they deem to be “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.” For example, a USA Today report repeatedly insisted that neither Gates nor his foundation has any financial interest in the pandemic or stands to profit from it. Meanwhile, if you take a peek at the Gates foundation’s portfolio, you’ll find investments in Pfizer and CureVac. (That fact-checking piece does include an important disclosure at the end: “Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.”)
Schwab, who is currently working on a book that will expand upon his investigations into the Gates Foundation, says one of his main concerns is that news organizations accepting BMGF grants routinely neglect to disclose these conflicts of interest. Apparently, this trend is plaguing journalism as a whole: in a recent survey I conducted, 50% of journalists admitted they only sometimes disclose conflicts of interest. Alarmingly, 30% said they aren’t even confident they’re fully aware of what constitutes a conflict of interest.
As such, Schwab has taken it upon himself to contact journalists who have omitted these disclosures and point out the need for them. For example, Gates is the biggest bankroller of The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a nonprofit that advocates for “an evidence-based mode of reporting on the responses to social problems” — providing roughly one-fifth of the organization’s funding since it was founded in 2013, according to Schwab. Two of SJN’s cofounders, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, contributed to The New York Times “Fixes” column. While scrutinizing this column, Schwab found they had given ample positive coverage of Gates-funded global health, agriculture, and education programs — without ever disclosing that their organization, SJN, has received millions from his foundation. In response to Schwab’s repeated urging that they belatedly add these disclosures, The Times eventually did so in a handful of the columns.
Schwab’s investigations couldn’t possibly be more timely. From the time the Covid-19 outbreak began, the media has positioned and portrayed Gates as a public health expert — not only doling out safety-related advice but also making predictions about the future of the coronavirus and other potential pandemics. The heavy reliance on his opinions and prophecies raises some questions. Why has the media continued to lean on him as a voice of authority on these subjects when he never went to medical school, nor has he received any formalized medical training? (He received an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree in 2007 from Karolinska University, meaning the institution waived its usual requirements.)
“Documenting Gates’s reach into journalism helped tell me the story of how widely the news media has fumbled its reporting and misinformed the public,” Schwab told me in an interview. “Journalists treat the Gates Foundation as sacrosanct when they should scrutinize it as a structure of power. The foundation has enormous influence over policymaking in a wide range of fields, from U.S. education to global health, and it should be viewed as a political organization.”
According to Schwab, the reason why Gates has largely escaped criticism for these donations is that his financial entanglements are labeled as charity.
“[This] makes it difficult for many of us to see that it’s still an avenue of influence, which is introducing bias and blind spots,” he added. “Many journalists view the Gates Foundation as a well-meaning charitable organization that is more or less unimpeachable in its efforts to help the world. These journalists don’t need to self-censor, nor do they need an editor to censor them — because it would simply never occur to them to investigate Gates.”
Regardless of how much time one spends analyzing every media investment a billionaire makes or grant they give to media organizations, the reality is that it’s next to impossible to make sweeping generalizations about their potential influence on reporting. Ultimately, Benson says some will meddle more than others, so it’s important to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. And the more competitors those outlets have to keep them honest, the better. Ideally, he says media ownership would be a mix of “private owners with adequate transparency and competition, combined with as much nonprofit and public media as possible, reoriented toward greater inclusiveness.”
“I don’t see a single magic bullet in terms of ownership and funding models,” he adds. “Each of them has its shortcomings and blind spots, but together they can complement one another.”
Still, the question remains: how worried should we be about the oligarchy media model? Can we depend on the media to challenge the powerful when they’re the ones paying writers’ salaries? It depends — after all, as Benson and Pickard have pointed out, not all billionaires are benevolent, but then again, not all of them are villains, either. As they say, knowledge is power, and being aware of who has a stake in your go-to news outlets allows you to assess their coverage with a sharper eye toward potential bias and censorship. That way, when a newspaper owned by a billionaire tells you to go easy on the billionaires, you can take it with a grain of salt — and a warranted eyeroll.
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