8/27/21: I've updated this with more recommendation for what Solutions Journalism should do to avoid these conflicts of interest in the future.
My second email to the Times, quoted by Schwab, pointed out how “Having a NYT columnist who is funded by Gates who regularly hypes controversial Gates-funded projects without any disclosure of conflict of interest could be compared to running columns on the environment by someone who runs an organization funded by Exxon/Mobil.”
“to build the first Wiki-style platform that packages solutions-journalism (specifically NYTimes Fixes columns) into mini-case-studies for educators around the world to embed in, and across, the curriculum,” in collaboration with Marquette University.
In 2012, Tom Paulson, a former Seattle Times
reporter with called Humanosphere questioned this arrangement. As explained by a colleague, “Paulson’s fear was that
Solutions Journalism was just a fancy way to disguise the desire (by donors,
NGOs and others) for success stories, for promoting particular products or
In response, Bornstein insisted to Paulson that neither he
nor Rosenberg had received any financial benefit from this grant,
as “NY Times
prohibits them from accepting grant money (for work done at NYTimes) and they
are unpaid collaborators with Marquette, allowing them to repurpose their
columns and to help them think through the process."
Yet whatever reservations the NY Times may have had about allowing them to receive money from Gates seems to have quickly disappeared. In 2013, Bornstein and Rosenberg incorporated Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), and the next year,
columns where Bornstein or Rosenberg had written about Bill and Melinda Gates, the Gates Foundation, or Gates-funded organizations, without any mention they were being paid on the side by the Foundation through SJN. He
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.”
Though Bornstein and Rosenberg told Schwab they had asked their editors at the Times to add disclosures to their columns, their editors apparently felt less reason to do so.
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 to update the Times website? Really?
Tina Rosenberg also told Schwab that there were six columns that related to Gates-connected projects that in her mind did not need any disclosure, including her 2016 profile of Bridge International Academies, as “Bill Gates personally helps fund the project” and “ SJN’s ties are to the Gates Foundation, not to Bill Gates himself, so no disclosure is needed.”
a column in May 2013 and again in June 2016I have previously written how their 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.
Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education to the Liberian president, stating that if the government outsourced its educational system to a for-profit company, the country would be committing 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.”
included “Bill Gates (personally), Khosla Ventures, the Omidyar Network, the
Zuckerberg Education Venture and Learn Capital, which counts Pearson as a
Her subsequent claim
to Schwab that her favorable reporting on BIA did not involve a conflict of
interest because she was receiving funding from the Gates Foundation rather
than Bill Gates himself is bizarre, in my view.
Contrary to the editors'
apparent laissez faire attitude to Rosenberg, Bornstein, and SJN, Schwab relates how this
past July, the NY Times had suspended a sports reporter when it was
revealed that she was co-authoring a book with former Olympic swimmer Michael
Phelps while covering Phelps for the paper. And after BuzzFeed News reported in March that NY Times columnist
David Brooks had received a salary from the Aspen Institute, the Times added disclosures to six of his columns about the work of the Institute, and made
him resign his paid position with the Institute.
After that occurred, Tim once more went back to the NY Times, to ask them why they hadn’t at the very least added any disclosures to the columns by Bornstein and Rosenberg that hyped Gates grantees:
I contacted Kathleen Kingsbury, the editor of the opinion section. I had previously contacted Kingsbury in 2019 and got no response. Kingsbury told me that the Times was finally adding belated financial disclosures to Bornstein and Rosenberg’s previously published columns. She noted in March that new disclosures had been appended to four columns, and the Times was working through a technical hurdle to correct two additional columns.
Again, the notion
that “technical hurdles” prevented them to adding disclosures to their website is literally incredible.
In March 2021,
the NY Times did add a disclosure to a 2018 Bornstein column that praised the online program, PowerMyLearning,
which has received $11.3M from the Gates Foundation. The column now ends with the following note:
March 18, 2021
The Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation funds some of the work profiled in this article. The foundation is
also one of the funders of the Solutions Journalism Network, which employs Mr.
Bornstein. The story selection process for Fixes is independent and is not
influenced by S.J.N. funding.
there is no such disclosure on
another column Bornstein wrote about PowerMyLearning in 2012, even though the company had received $5M from the Gates
Foundation the year before.
Nor are there any disclosures on two different
columns by Tina Rosenberg in 2013, both in support of “flipped classrooms,” in
which students are assigned to watch instructional videos at home and then
spend class time doing problem solving.
second column focused specifically on the videos of the Khan Academy, which received $5.5 million from the
Gates Foundation in 2010 & 2011. “Flipped classrooms” at
the time was Bill Gates’ favorite education reform; in the same year, he gave a speech calling it the “biggest
untold story of education technology”.
Moreover, there is still no acknowledgement of any kind in a 2015 Rosenberg column praising the online/hybrid math program called School of One, now run by a company called New Classrooms and first developed in New York City schools, even though the company had raised $11 million from the Gates Foundation by that point. Nor is there any mention in her column of several published research studies showing that its program had yielded null or negative results.
Yet even so, mere disclosures should not be enough. No journalist who has a regular column in the NY Times should be allowed to report on the investments of either Bill Gates or his Foundation, while continuing to benefit financially from his wealth. This should be true for the other billionaire venture philanthropists who help finance Solutions Journalism as well, including Chan Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, and others.
Another red flag is how even as the organization has expanded, its reliance on a very few donors has appeared to worsen over time. According to Solutions Journalism’ audited financial statements, in 2017, 55% of their grant revenue was provided by three donors. By 2019, one donor was responsible for 53% of their grants. Who this donor is remains a secret.
If Solutions Journalism reporters are going to continue hyping the projects of their funders, to avoid the appearance and reality of conflicts of interest in the future as much as possible, they should do the following:
1- Disclose how much funding they receive from each of their donors on their website.
2- When writing about the investments or favorite policies of their donors, disclose this within the text of their columns, and explain why this does not represent an insuperable conflict of interest.
3- Make sure that they include in their reporting any of the contradictory pieces of evidence that exist which suggest that these policies or companies do not work as well as their promoters/investors claim.
4-Write up a guide to other journalists, including those they train, on how to avoid such conflicts of interest in the future, or at the least, maintain maximum transparency by disclosing them in the text of their articles and ensure that their reporting is as clear-headed and bias-free as possible.
In any case, it is quite astonishing that the NY Times has continued to refuse to address the conflicted issues of Bornstein’s and Rosenberg’s columns, given how they so quickly made David Brooks resign his position at the Aspen Institute. Indeed, their own published ethical standards say the following:
"… it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias. …Staff members may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other inducements from any individuals or organizations covered by The Times or likely to be covered by The Times. …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….”
Solutions Journalism also needs to adhere to its own principles –especially as it is engaged in “training” reporters throughout the country in how to write about social and educational policies in a credible and objective fashion. As I pointed out in 2016, the following claim is posted on their website:
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
We believe that it would be a disservice
to society to exclude critical reporting on social innovations funded by these
sources. On the other hand, it is critically important that such relationships
not conflict with the principles of independent journalism. ..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.
A separate page on their website, called Ethics code, proclaims: Journalists should… Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.