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.
Timothy Schwab has written a series
of must-read pieces about the overriding influence of
the Gates Foundation on public policy, and how the Foundation influences the reporting of the issues they are involved in, in
part by helping to bankroll the media .
His latest analysis, published in Columbia
Journalism Review, recounts how in 2016, I emailed the NY Times twice
to ask why several “Fixes” columns written by their reporters Tina Rosenberg
and David Bornstein hyping various Gates Foundation education projects and
investments had no acknowledgements that they themselves received salaries from
the non-profit they co-founded called Solutions Journalism Network, which is heavily
subsidized by the Foundation.
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.”
Yet I received no response of any kind. The 2016 blog post that I linked to in my emails pointed out how the columns by Rosenberg and Bornstein on Gates grantees were biased, with few if any quotes from critics, nor any mention of readily available studies showing that the Gates-funded programs they were promoting had been shown to be ineffective or had a negative impact on educational quality.
The Gates Foundation provides millions of dollars to many journalistic enterprises, which Schwab argued in an earlier 2020 piece helps to explain the kid glove treatment the Foundation has received over the last twenty years. The media outlets that get funding from Gates and regularly cover his education projects and investments include Chalkbeat, Hechinger Report, The 74, and Education Post, as well as K12 school reporting by NPR, Seattle Times, and others. The Foundation also helps to fund the Education Writers Association, which frequently features speakers friendly to various policies favored by Gates.
Gates' support of Solutions Journalism Network started in 2011, when Bornstein and Rosenberg won a $100,000 Gates Foundation “challenge” competition “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, the
organization received $600,000 from the Gates Foundation, from which they paid
themselves salaries of $75,000 each. At the same time, they continued their regular "Fixes" columns for the NY Times/
The SJN 990 for that year reports that Bornstein worked 55 hours per week for the organization as its
Chair, Treasurer and CEO, and Rosenberg 40 hours a week as its Vice President,
which one would think left them little time to work as NY Times reporters, though together they published at least twelve NY Times “Fixes” columns
Since that time, the
organization has raised $7.3 million in total from Gates Foundation. Their most recent Gates grant was $1.7
million in August 2020, and Bornstein and Rosenberg now receive six-figure salaries from the organization, according to its latest 990.
In an August 2020 piece, Tim Schwab noted that he found at least 15 NY Times 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 recounted how he contacted Bornstein, Rosenberg, and their NYT editors, to inquire why there were no conflict-of- interest disclosures attached to these pieces.
Tina Rosenberg responded that “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.
Months went by without any such acknowledgements, and when Schwab asked the Times why nothing had happened, “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.”
Bridge International is a for-profit chain of private schools in India and Africa, run by two Harvard graduates. Rosenberg praised the chain in a column in May 2013 and again in June 2016. I 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.
Rosenberg’s second column, published in June 14, 2016, came at an opportune time for the company –
when the Liberian government was considering whether to hire BIA to run many of
its public schools. It also closely followed
news that BIA had asked the Uganda government to arrest an independent journalist
on trumped up charges who was investigating the quality of their schools . This incident was covered extensively in the
media including in the Washington Post just eight days before
Rosenberg published her piece in the NY Times, though she left it out of her laudatory column.
Absent from Rosenberg’s second
piece was also any mention of the January 2016 letter by 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
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.”
However, Rosenberg did make
sure to add that among several reasons that the Liberian
government should go ahead with their plans to hire BIA, she argued, was that the company had
garnered substantial financial resources
from investors who
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.
As Bill Gates’ personal investments in companies
are largely secret it would be difficult to assess what other columns these two
may have written that might have benefitted his business interests. The Gates Foundation also uses several
pass through organizations such as New Profit, the New Schools Venture Fund, the
Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and
the New Venture Fund to support their favored educational enterprises, without
disclosing where the funding is actually going. Together these organizations have received an
astonishing $553 million from Gates since 2007.
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:
Editors’ Notes: 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.
Independent, transparent, unbiased reporting is especially
important in this time of growing skepticism towards the mainstream media and
attacks on reporters as purveying “fake news.” As Lita Tirak, “Knowledge Curator” of Solutions Journalism proclaimed in a recent blog post, “Trust between the public and the news
media is an indispensable part of a healthy democracy”.