Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The continuing influence of the Gates Foundation on mainstream media reporting and the NY Times in particular

Reporter Tim Schwab just had a must-read piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about how the Gates Foundation provides grants to news outlets such as NPR, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, the Seattle Times, and many others.  These outlets frequently provide favorable coverage of the Foundation and its grantees, and potential conflicts of interest are too rarely admitted by these outlets. 

He tells a particularly disturbing story about how two freelance journalists, Robert Fortner and Alex Park, investigated Gates' outsize influence on international public health policy in 2017 for the Dutch publication De Correspondent and in the HuffPost.  In both instances, the Foundation contacted their editors to try to steer them away from doing stories on this issue and hinted at a financial support if they did.  As Schwab writes:

During Park and Fortner’s investigation for De Correspondent, the head of Gates’s polio communications team, Rachel Lonsdale, made an unusual offer to the duo’s editor, writing, “We typically like to have a phone conversation with the editor of a publication employing freelancers we are engaging with, both to fully understand how we can help you with the specific project and to form a longer term relationship that could transcend the freelance assignment.”

When asked about this, the Foundation sent the following statement to CJR:

“As with many organizations, the foundation has an in-house media relations team that cultivates relationships with journalists and editors in order to serve as a resource for information gathering and to help facilitate thorough and accurate coverage of our issues.’ ”

One of the media organizations Schwab discusses, Solutions Journalism, has received $7.6 million from the Gates Foundation since 2014 to write articles suggesting practical solutions to social problems and train other reporters to do so as well.  Since then, as Schwab points out, SJ has repeatedly produced stories praising projects and companies that are Foundation grantees and/or have received personal investments from Bill Gates himself.   

Solutions Journalism was founded by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg in 2013 and they continue to run the organization and receive six figure salaries as CEO and VP for Innovation respectively. They explain their mission this way:

Our mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. We seek to rebalance the news, so that every day people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.”

Bornstein and Rosenberg also have a regular column in the NY Times called "Fixes", which according to Schwab has run at least 15 favorable stories promoting the work of the Gates Foundation by name, without any mention that the columnists are funded by the Foundation as well. 

I previously wrote about two pieces Tina Rosenberg wrote for the NY Times,  one in May 2013 and again in June 2016, praising Bridge International Academies, a for-profit company based in Cambridge Mass. that operates a controversial chain of private schools in Africa and India.  By most accounts, BIA schools feature shoddy facilities, a scripted curriculum, large classes, uncertified teachers, and tuition that is relatively expensive, especially considering the income levels in the developing countries in which they are located.  And as has been widely noted, Bill Gates has personally invested in this company.

In her 2016 article about BIA, Rosenberg omitted any mention that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education had recently sent a letter to the Liberian president, stating that its plan to outsource some of its public schools to this for-profit company represented a “gross violation” of its education obligations under the Sustainable Development Goal number four, which holds that by 2030, the nation would “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”  The  United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had also opposed the expansion of these privately-run schools. 

Nor did Rosenberg mention an event that had been reported in the Washington Post on June 9  and Canadian news on June 11,  just days before:  that when Education International, an NGO, sent Curtis Riep, a Canadian academic, to Uganda to investigate the conditions in BIA schools, Bridge had placed a ‘wanted ad’ in a Ugandan newspaper, falsely accusing Riep of ‘illegally’ impersonating one of its employees.  This caused him to be briefly arrested before all charges were dropped. Subsequently, it was revealed that Bridge also had plans to use the personal data of its students to market products to families, as criticized by the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Rosenberg also authored a NY Times column in March 2015, praising New Classrooms, a much-hyped company that was spun off from a program in the NYC public schools, where it was called “School of One.”  This blended learning math program has received more than $31 million from the Gates Foundation since 2011, and features students receiving lessons and assessments from a computerized "playlist". Bill Gates has repeatedly praised the value of this program, most recently in April 2016 in a speech in which he called New Classrooms a model that “represents the future not only of math, but a number of subjects.”

While Rosenberg quoted from the sole favorable study that supported this program, a December 2014 research study by Doug Ready of Columbia, she left out this disclaimer in the study:

It is important to stress again that these findings cannot be attributed to TTO [Teach to One, another name for the program] without the use of experimental or quasi-experimental designs. In other words, we cannot state definitively that TTO caused the above-average achievement gains noted above.” 

Just months later,  a more authoritative 2015 study was released– a randomized experimental evaluation by Jonah Rockoff of Columbia, that concluded that “School of One had no statistically significant effects on student achievement—positive or negative–relative to traditional math instruction.”  In 2019,  a three-year federally-funded evaluation of the program’s implementation in Elizabeth NJ schools, entitled “Final Impact Results from the i3 Implementation of Teach to One: Math was released, also showing null results.  Unsurprisingly, neither of these studies have been featured in any follow-up piece in the NY Times or by Rosenberg in her column, which after all, focuses on “solutions” no matter how unreliable they may turn out to be.

Rosenberg also wrote not one but two columns praising “Flipped Classrooms,” which has also been one of Bill Gates’ favorite concepts – in which students watch video lessons at home such as those from the Khan Academy and then do their homework in class.  The Gates Foundation has given millions to flipped classrooms and to the Khan Academy, despite little research to back up this method of instruction.  

Since I wrote my blog on these Rosenberg’s columns, I noted that Bornstein has written two other pieces for the NY Times, one in 2012 and another in 2018, praising an ed tech software program called PowerMyLearning, which has received more than $11 million from the Gates Foundation since 2011.

Asked by Schwab if he could provide examples of any SJ critical reporting about Gates or the projects they support, David Bornstein responded, “Most of the stories that we fund are stories that look at efforts to solve problems, so they tend to be not as critical as traditional journalism."

Hmm.  If someone is  really interested in producing rigorous reporting on potential solutions to important public problems, wouldn't they want to cast an objective, analytic eye on whether these ideas really work? If not, aren't their columns really PR in disguise?

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the “Fixes” columns in the NY Times is that they rarely mention that many the programs they promote are funded by Gates -- and in none of their columns do they reveal that the authors themselves work for an organization that is dependent on Gates Foundation support. This glaring conflict of interest and lack of disclosure appears to violate both the NY Times ethical standards, as I pointed out in my blog, and the standards of Solutions Journalism itself.  

The Times standards include this statement: 

 "…it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias... Scrupulous practice requires that periodically we step back and take a hard look at whether we have drifted too close to sources we deal with regularly... Staff members may not accept employment or compensation of any sort from individuals or organizations who figure or are likely to figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise… In some cases, disclosure is enough. But if The Times considers the problem serious, the staff member may have to withdraw from certain coverage.”

These rules also pertain to reporters who are not formally on staff: “Our contracts with freelance contributors require them to avoid conflicts of interest, real or apparent."

The lack of disclosure also appears to violate the standards of Solutions Journalism itself. Here is the relevant passage on their webpage entitled Ethics:

“The Solutions Journalism Network is a nonpartisan organization committed to transparency and editorial independence. We do not support or advocate for any particular idea, model, organization, or agenda…. SJN’s grant recipients, whether newsrooms or individual journalists, should adhere to the highest standards of conduct as set forth in by bodies such as the Society of Professional Journalists…We require that our grant recipients remain completely transparent about any potential conflicts of interest that could arise in the context of reporting on an issue of interest to a Solutions Journalism Network funder.” 

In his CJR article, Tim Schwab asked Tina Rosenberg about these apparent, ongoing conflicts of interest in which she and Bornstein promote the work of Gates Foundation and its grantees.  She responded this way:  

“We do disclose our relationship with SJN in every column, and SJN’s funders are listed on our website. But you are correct that when we write about projects that get Gates funding, we should specifically say that SJN receives Gates funding as well....Our policy going forward with the NY Times will be clearer and will ensure disclosures.”  

Yet her response ignores that in many of her columns, there is no mention of her connection to Solutions Journalism, so that even the most interested reader would not be able to make that inference. Only beginning in May 2016 did the NY Times even identify her as a co-founder of SJ.  Moreover, after I raised these same concerns about the lack of disclosure of conflicts of interest on this blog over three years ago, I followed up by emailing the NYT ombudsperson twice, in August and October 2016, without any response. 

Even more troubling is how Rosenberg and Bornstein argue that there is no reason to disclose any potential conflict of interest in her columns praising Bridge International, since Bill Gates did not donate to these schools through his foundation, but directly via his personal wealth:

The writers argue that SJN’s ties are to the Gates Foundation, not to Bill Gates himself, so no disclosure is needed. “This is a significant distinction,” Rosenberg and Bornstein stated in an email.”

This claim represents an astonishing lapse of judgement. So, reporters can continue to praise the “solutions” provided by for-profit companies that Bill Gates has personally investments in, while getting their salaries partly subsidized by his Foundation, without any responsibility to admit to this potential conflict of interest? Meanwhile, his Foundation continues to provide Gates with a hefty tax deduction, helping him to accumulate even more wealth, which then he can invest in other, for-profit companies.  Without transparency, this lack of disclosure could be seen as a kind of money laundering. 

In any case, the NY Times does not seem eager to do its part to provide the minimal amount of candor required.  As Schwab writes:

Months after Bornstein and Rosenberg say they asked their editors to add financial disclosures to their columns, those pieces remain uncorrected. Marc Charney, a senior editor at the Times, said he wasn’t sure if or when the paper would add the disclosures, citing technical difficulties and other newsroom priorities. 

Technical difficulties?  Seems like a substantial, ongoing ethical failure to me. 

1 comment:

MM said...

Thank you for this article; I'm surprised that there are no comments on this.

Having spent the last six months doing a deep dive into the influence of the Gates Foundation, I only this morning discovered the Solutions Journalism Network. I can only surmise that the origin and reach of the SJN is purposely opaque.