Tim Schwab: Charity and the Billionaire Class

Are billionaire-backed philanthropies making the world a better place or are they pernicious sleeper cells? The answer may be one of those “both/and” situations rather than an “either/or.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we examine philanthropic giving with journalist Tim Schwab who investigates high-profile entities like the Gates Foundation, that are working for positive impact but funded by the billionaire class. We peel back the layers on these types of organizations with a particular eye toward their funding of independent media, and explore the question, “Are foundations vestiges of a colonialist mindset offering scraps from the master’s table or are actually important vessels for change?”

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Tim Schwab 0:17  I think it’s really hard for someone to make an argument that Bill Gates needs the kind of wealth that he has.

Narrator  0:28  Are billionaire-backed philanthropies making the world a better place or are they pernicious sleeper cells? The answer may be one of those “both/and” situations rather than an “either/or.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we examine philanthropic giving with journalist Tim Schwab who investigates high-profile entities like the Gates Foundation, that are working for positive impact but funded by the billionaire class. We peel back the layers on these types of organizations with a particular eye toward their funding of independent media, and explore the question, “Are foundations vestiges of a colonialist mindset offering scraps from the master’s table or are actually important vessels for change?”

Alex Wise  1:22  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Tim Schwab. He’s a journalist and author. And his upcoming book is entitled The Good Billionaire. Tim, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Tim Schwab 1:32  Thanks for having me, Alex.

Alex Wise 1:34  Why don’t we first dive into how some of the bigger philanthropists have injected themselves into the media business in maybe not such a innocent way? You wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review recently entitled journalism’s gatekeepers?

Tim Schwab 1:53  Yeah. So um, this is a kind of perennial problem or paradox with the Gates Foundation, which has been the subject of a lot of my reporting. Almost all of my reporting on philanthropy is looking at the Gates Foundation because it is this the sort of height or the zenith of big philanthropy, it’s the largest philanthropy the most influential philanthropy. Everybody knows Bill Gates, he’s widely lionized for his good deeds. And for the billions of dollars he’s given away. But yeah, this perennial problem with the Gates Foundation, and a lot of other philanthropies, I imagine is that they fund so many groups, that it’s hard to get an independent assessment or analysis of, you know, what they’re doing and what the impacts are. And that’s also the case in the journalism surrounding the Gates Foundation, because part of its philanthropic giving is going into the fourth estate into newsrooms. And one of the things I’ve done in my reporting to the Foundation is to look back at all the charitable grants they’ve given, you know, we’re at the two decade mark, it’s definitely long overdue that we start to look back at what the foundation has really done and accomplished. There’s been so much forward looking journalism about its plans, its ambitions, its goals, the money it’s given away. But there has to be some accountability reporting the back end to look back. And in going through all the foundation’s grants, you can’t help but notice as a journalist as I am, how much money gates is putting into journalism. And so I tracked a quarter billion dollars, that’s $250 million. The foundation is given to, you know, not every single newsroom, but a lot of newsrooms, you can track money going to all this isn’t necessarily current, but over the years, they’ve given money to Al-Jazeera,  ProPublica,  BBC, The Guardian, there are regular reporters in the New York Times who have outside employment with the gates funded organization. It’s really kind of top to bottom, you know, even the top tier most prestigious newsrooms, you can find Gates Foundation funding. And, you know, the, in that article I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review. You know, I’m not saying that this, that the influence the Gates has is absolute, but there is I think it does kind of create a certain biases or blind spots and how journalists choose to report on the Gates Foundation. I think that’s one reason, for example, why there isn’t more investigative reporting on the Gates Foundation. Part of that is, with so many kind of juicy targets out there for a journalist to investigate. Why would you look askance at a billionaire who seems to be giving all of his money away? And I think that’s one reason but another reason is, well, maybe the Gates Foundation is funding your newsroom or funding a fellowship or a grant that you’re receiving to do your reporting project. So I think that money does have a real material impact on the journalistic discourse around the Gates Foundation. And I think that’s a big reason why there hasn’t been a more serious journalistic scrutiny of the Gates Foundation over the last two decades, most of the reporting is very descriptive. It’s on critical. It’s forward looking. And so the reporting I’ve done it’s some of the only investigative journalism that’s ever been published on the The Gates Foundation.

Alex Wise  5:13  Yes. I mean, I was thinking about that when you write a piece like this, would you have encountered some resistance to publishing it in a place like an NPR or Pro Publica, or Al Jazeera, etc?

Tim Schwab 5:29  I mean, now, maybe not those specific outlets? Well, NPR for sure. I mean, to answer your question in the general, absolutely. It’s extremely difficult, especially two years ago, when I started this project, it was extremely difficult to get editors interested in critical investigative reporting on the foundation…

Alex Wise  5:47  Maybe you can draw back the curtain and intimate any kind of off the record kind of conversations, you might have had any feedback you might have had in pitching this to places that rejected the idea.

Tim Schwab 5:58  So I got a fellowship to do this to do several big reporting pieces on the Gates Foundation, is this halfway prestigious fellowship. And so when you go to an editor and say, Hey, I’ve got this investigative stories that I’ve done, I’ve had this prestigious fellowship to do them, that’s going to get an editor’s attention. You know, as a freelancer, you send these pitches. And I would go to editors, and they were clearly interested because they saw, the bonafides, that I had the pitch letter, they saw the reporting that I had done. But one way or the other, I even had one outlet that took me out to coffee. That’s never happened to me, where you pitch an outlet and they say, we’re so interested, we want to meet you in person and take you out for lunch. The first time that’s ever happened to me. But if one way or the other, as you go down the line, it just wouldn’t work out. And I’m talking about these are outlets that have taken funding from the Gates Foundation, just one way or the other, it wouldn’t work out. So I think to this day, I’ve never published any anything about the Gates Foundation in an outlet, funded by the Gates Foundation, though I have tried for whatever that’s worth.

Alex Wise  7:07  And in the CJR piece, you have a quote from a NPR reporter, Pam Fesler, who says that NPR is funding from the Gates Foundation was not a factor in why or how we did this story about housing, and low income families, placing lower income families in wealthier neighborhoods and the research that was cited in that article. And that sounds reasonable enough, but as you mentioned, there are just hundreds of NPR stories that are mentioning the Gates Foundation, and it’s hard to find any that are critical. So I guess she may think that it’s not a factor, but you have to kind of work backwards and and then apply logic and say, well, could the converse be true? Is the Gates Foundation above reproach? Is there nothing here to criticize? And I want to dive into some of the other non media areas in a second, but that that kind of stood out to me is like, well, because we may like an organization like an NPR, a pro publica, of some of the best reporting out there, we may kind of drop our guard and not be as critical about what’s influencing their reporting.

Tim Schwab 8:21  Yeah. And I think that what we’re really talking about is a financial conflict of interest when with somebody who’s supposed to be independent, like a journalist, or a judge, or a scientist, or a politician who are supposed to serve the public who’s supposed to be independent, when they have a financial interest or financial tie that compromises that independence. And it’s just like, it’s such a non starter for NPR, which, when I looked at them, I think they had taken $17.5 million from the Gates Foundation had mentioned the Gates Foundation hundreds of times in their reporting, and overwhelmingly by very large margin. I mean, I didn’t do I didn’t look at every single article, to be fair to them. But it’s just so common for NPR to avoid criticism of the Gates Foundation. In that that example, you’re citing was sort of a case in point where you have a Gates funded project about housing. And all of the experts quoted in the article, I think, are a tie financially tied to the Gates Foundation. And then NPR itself is funded by the Gates Foundation. And so it just, it’s really hard for people who are inside that to really step outside of that and see the financial conflict of interest and the sort of bias and blind spot that’s at play. But I think these are this is a very real effect, and it’s not good for journalism. And you know, my own view is that I think we really need to reconsider as journalist taking funding from the Gates Foundation because of it because in various ways, I think it can distort not just what we know about the Gates Foundation, but what we know about a lot of public policy areas where the Gates Foundation works.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  11:05  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to journalist and author Tim Schwab. So I should also disclose to listeners that beyond the host and producer of Sea Change Radio, I am a consultant in the philanthropy space. So I probably have my biases. But it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you, Tim was because I want to learn more about how these big foundations and big philanthropies influence the way we approach altruism in general. I was struck by the beginning of a piece you had in the nation about Doctors Without Borders being under fire. I hadn’t read about that maybe you can kind of summarize that kerfuffle for our listeners.

Tim Schwab 11:50  So there’s an ongoing complaint from 1000, current and former staff members of Doctors Without Borders. So I think people know this group, it’s a humanitarian group that gives out works on public health in poorest parts of the world, to very large organization. I think it’s like a billion dollar years, it has lots of employees, but it’s based in Europe, and a lot of current and former staff members are saying that that European base, that there’s a colonial gaze, and its work, where and there’s institutional racism that comes out of the way it’s organized, where you have a white, European centric leadership, that doesn’t treat like the employees out in the field, and these poor countries who are from these poor countries who are doing the same work, that they’re treated kind of as, like a second or third tier employees. So there’s been this kind of interesting, I mean, unfortunate, but hopefully productive movement within Doctors Without Borders to, to start to reckon with that institutional racism in the organization.

Alex Wise  12:58  So the criticism against Doctors Without Borders is that they’re Euro centric. But here in America, we have a for profit healthcare system. So wouldn’t it be even worse, looking at things through the American Health Care philanthropies where they’re tied to the for profit system, whether they like it or not?

Tim Schwab 13:18  Yeah, I mean, the criticism that Doctors Without Borders is facing though it’s more around an imbalance of power. And so whether it’s a US base or European based organization, they’re, you know, what this field of like humanitarianism and global health is pushing back against is this idea about white savior ism that comes out of this power imbalance that’s implicit in these fields, where you have, you know, a wealthy white nation, a wealthy white institution, NGO, that exists to serve the poor people of color in the world. It’s the same thing with the field of global health, maybe your listeners haven’t heard that term, we all know the term public health. And we think about the way that plays out with governments and regulators and private companies. But there’s also this global health, which is a field where, like doctors or borders of the Gates Foundation work, which is, again, it’s kind of defined around you have the haves and have nots, you have wealthy white universities and institutions that are trying to figure out how to improve public health in among the global poor and poor nations around the world. So all of these fields, they really are rooted in there’s a certain colonialism or Neo colonialism route, in the way that they’re practice. And so this article, though, that we’re talking about, that I wrote, that mentions the complaint against Doctors Without Borders, it’s trying to get into that space to talk about the kind of complaints but also this very rich, robust growing, you know, discourse and debate happening to push back on the colonial gaze throughout this work.

Alex Wise  15:05  Right, I guess the complaint could ultimately be that, you know, this Robin Hood mentality is deleterious to those who are most needy because it’s not just the rich helping the poor, it’s it’s funding the rich to help the poor.

Tim Schwab 15:22  Well, that certainly seems to be the Gates Foundation’s model. So you know, again, when I look back on all the grant money that the foundation’s given away, something like 30,000 grants, charitable grants over the last two decades, it’s $70 billion 90% of that money is going to the wealthiest, widest nations to this institutions, NGOs, universities, think tanks, companies based in the United States, and the United Kingdom and Switzerland. You know, you go to the Gates Foundation’s website, and you’re just inundated with these pictures of these, you know, young people, people of color people in Africa. But when you actually look at where the money flows, it’s as just as you said, Alex, is that’s that the Gates Foundation’s model is funding the rich to help the poor. And this gets at this model of colonialization, where you’re depending on experts in the wealthiest whitest nations to figure out solutions for the global poor. And now, that’s the opposite of that. opposite of that would be, you know, really empowering the global poor themselves to come up with their own solutions, and to not constantly be beset by this solution ism proffered by the Gates Foundation and everyone else.

Alex Wise  16:43  Let’s look at some of these solutions. Are the problems so deep in the model of a Gates Foundation that they can’t shift away from some of the more flawed parts of their of their business? What kind of solutions would you maybe suggest to them?

Tim Schwab 17:00  Well, I’ll offer some ideas. But I’ll put the caveat that, you know, I don’t want to fall into the trap that Bill Gates seems to have fallen into where it’s the idea that one person or one individual or one white man should have the power to come up with the solutions. I don’t think that’s the right model. So it’s not about Bill Gates having solutions or Tim Schwab having solutions. But I will say that globally, there is now a very robust call around COVID vaccines. There’s all this discussion now about vaccine inequity, and vaccine apartheid. This isn’t my idea. But this is the idea of more than 100 health ministries around the world and countless experts and activists in working in public health and global health who have called for structural changes in the pandemic response. So the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates are very keen champions of the sort of business as usual strategy in which a handful of pharmaceutical companies have monopoly patents over these COVID vaccines. And this model has really played out in predictable ways in the pandemic, in that, you know, Moderna and Pfizer have prioritized selling vaccines to the highest bidders in the richest markets. So what you know, a lot of activists now are calling for and governments also is waving the patents that they should not we’re in a global pandemic, the stakes are too high. We should waive the patents over COVID vaccines. We should compel the Pfizers and Modernas and Johnson and Johnsons of the world to share their vaccine technology, their know how do the tech transfer, to help scale up manufacturing all over the world so that, you know, in Sub-Saharan Africa, they can be producing their own vaccines and vaccinating their people themselves. That’s a very different model than the Gates Foundation, which is working with and through working very closely with and through Big Pharma to try and deliver solutions. It just has not worked in the pandemic. There were many activists in the front end of the pandemic, who said it wasn’t going to work. And so now again, it’s kind of accountability time.

(Music Break)  19:16

Alex Wise  20:19  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to author and journalist Tim Schwab. So not really looking for your solutions as much as how do we break this cycle? One of the more obvious ideas is to not allow billionaires to exist in the first place.

Tim Schwab 20:36  Yeah, absolutely. That’s the a really fundamental way to address some of these imbalances is I think it’s really hard for someone to make an argument that Bill Gates needs the kind of wealth that he has, it’s I think it’s $130 billion, his personal wealth, you know, why are we in it? Why do we organize our economy in our society, in our democracy, to ever allow somebody to have that kind of outsize wealth? And shouldn’t somebody with that kind of wealth be seen as a totem of, you know, economic and wealth inequality? How can somebody in that position lead this huge humanitarian foundation that is so laser focused on equity, it’s such a non sequitur, it does not follow for somebody with that much wealth, and how much power to be, you know, trying to lead social change in favor of equity. It’s such a contradiction. So I think you’re absolutely right, is we have to go all the way back to, you know, preventing people from acquiring such levels of concentrated wealth in the first place. And so I mean, now here we are, I mean, Bill Gates has already has this wealth, how do you address it? You know, there’s a wealth tax. And there was recently I don’t know that I can’t quote chapter and verse in the details, but just suffice it to say that there are ways that you know, creative ways that you could tax the wealth of the very richest people in the United States are the various richest people in the world. And that starts to chip away at their the fortunes that drive these these billionaire philanthropies.

Alex Wise  22:18  And through your research, Tim, do you find that there’s more of an acceptance of the billionaire class in America because of the political divide, where we have the Warren Buffett’s in the Bill Gates is on one side of the blue team. And then you have the Koch brothers on the on the red team. And so people who read the news, and the people who create the stories behind it, we can kind of just dismiss a lot of this, as you know, this, both sides do it. And both sides have their own billionaires in a country like Japan, which has much more of a a one party rule, the LDP, for many decades are some of the socialist countries and in Scandinavia, they also have billionaires. Are they viewed differently than in America by the mass media and by the populace?

Tim Schwab 23:11  Oh, that’s a really good question that I don’t know the answer to. But I mean, I’ll say in the US context, I mean, we do have this, you know, enlightened, and increasingly popular discourse around taxing the wealthy, and the threat that billionaires pose to democratic institutions. That is an important trend that I hope continues. But I also in my reporting, you know, this is the American context, I do feel like, we still are driven by these hero narratives, and a deep seated worship of wealth. And that somebody like Bill Gates is this kind of irresistible, heroic figure in that he invented this thing. And he made Microsoft and he made all this money doing it, you know, and at some deep seated level, I worry that we, we believe in the meritocracy of that, that he got what he deserved, because he was so clever, and so ambitious, and so entrepreneurial, but on and then on top of that, he’s somebody who’s going to the story, we’re told this isn’t true, but the story we’re told is that he’s given away all of his money to save the world, and he’s very effective at it. So I think that the combination of those two things, it just makes Bill Gates such an irresistible figure, and that’s why this the you know, the title of my, my forthcoming book is the good billionaire because, you know, up until the recent scandals, you know, involving Jeffrey Epstein and the allegations of womanizing. You know, Bill Gates was the perfect counterpoint any criticism of the billionaire class? This was a guy who could do no wrong, this unimpeachable force of good who was changing the world. Um, so maybe that comes Conversation is changing a little bit with, with some of the scandals that have come out with some of the failures that are emerging in his role in the COVID pandemic response. But, you know, don’t underestimate Bill Gates.

Alex Wise  25:13  Well, the new good billionaire that seems to be getting a whole bunch of very positive presses McKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’s ex wife, who has a pretty admirable model of just trying to give away the enormous amounts of money as fast as she can, it seems like but there’s so much there to give away, it’s pretty hard to even fathom, maybe you can kind of give us a glimpse into the work that Miss Scott is doing?

Tim Schwab 25:46  Well, that means the really, I think the big difference that McKenzie Scott and her philanthropy is she’s kind of writing these No Strings Attached checks. Whereas the Gates Foundation, you know, there’s all they’re very carefully crafted, grants, charitable grants they give, to work on specific things that advance the Gates Foundation’s agenda, or McKenzie Scott’s, if you will. It’s not indiscriminate in any way. But she is writing checks to these groups, including groups that are working on social justice, that’s something you wouldn’t see the Gates Foundation do either. So it is a you could say it’s a more enlightened approach to billionaire philanthropy, but there’s still a welter of contradictions at the foundation of it, including the fact that, you know, McKenzie Scott again is getting richer over time, not poor. And that’s because Amazon stock is just growing so meteoric Lee. So she’s not

Alex Wise  26:38  So she’s not like selling her stock. That would be a pretty bold step to start shedding some of this wealth is if you don’t believe in the principles of investing in an Amazon Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is completely?

Tim Schwab 26:52  Yeah. And in this is the perennial contradiction in billionaire philanthropy is this idea of ill gotten gains, you know, what have been the harms of what are continued to be the harms of Amazon in terms of monopoly power in terms of worker rights, and you can just go down the list. And you know, if I haven’t looked at McKenzie Scott in a few months, but if all her wealth remains in Amazon stock, and she’s, you know, getting richer and richer over time, but then she’s plowing some amount of that back into, you know, good causes or good deeds. I mean, does that mean that model is just so back and forth, it’s just hard to really celebrate that as as a good thing, or in any way really a real model for social change, given the contradictions in it.

Alex Wise  27:39  The topic is one that causes a lot of people to think in a deeper way. And the work you do is really important, and it’s admirable, taking on some of the richest most powerful forces in the world and trying to peel away the veneer. Tim Schwab. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Tim Schwab 28:01 Thanks so much, Alex. Appreciate the time.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Eddie Harris, Solomon Burke and Bob Miller. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com  to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others and tune into Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.