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Questions asked of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $1b media donation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,known for its battles against global disease, has also become a force in journalism. Now a US newspaper has raised questions about this use of the millions that came from Microsoft. Recipients of the cash include The Guardian.

The foundation's grants to media organisations, such as The Guardian in Britain and ABC in the US, raise obvious conflict-of-interest questions, says an article in the Seattle Times.

The question is a simple one: How can reporting be unbiased when a major player holds the purse strings?

Direct funding of media organisations is "only one way the world's most powerful foundation influences what the public reads, hears and watches," say reporters Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim .

Gates has also invested millions in training programmes for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to put together media messages.

"Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates- funded programmes write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post."

Over the past decade, Gates has devoted $1 billion to these programmes, which now account for about a tenth of the foundation's $3 billion-a-year spending.Gates spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations spend in total.

Much of the money goes to analyse policy questions, such as financing vaccines for poor countries. But the "advocacy" side is "essentially public relations: an attempt to influence decision-makers and sway public opinion."

Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media at New York University found the ability of one wealthy foundation to shape public discourse troubling.

"Even if we were to satisfy ourselves that the Gates Foundation were utterly benign, it would still be worrisome that they wield such enormous propaganda power."

The foundation has embraced genetically modified crops and emphasis on technological fixes for health problems. Will foundation funding of media muffle debates on these subjects?

Miller said that with only three trustees setting the overall strategy — Bill and Melinda Gates and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett — there was something "deeply anti-democratic" about such a concentration of influence, Foundation officials say they're not out to control the way the media cover global disease and poverty, or even the foundation's own programmes. They just want increased visibility for life-and- death issues that are often ignored.

"For us, it's about making sure that these stories get told," said Joe Cerrell, who oversees the foundation's policy, advocacy and communications work in Europe. There's nothing new about powerful organizations attempting to massage media and get attention for their causes.

The foundation's direct funding for media and media programmes so far totals nearly $50 million. Rather than providing general support,however, Gates usually stipulates reporting on the issues it cares about most: diseases such as HIV, malaria and TB; poverty in the developing world; and education in the United States.

The International Center for Journalists got nearly $6 million for a programme that pairs veteran journalists with news organisations in Africa. A ban on midwives in Malawi was reversed after the hazards faced by pregnant women en route to clinics,were pointed out.

A $3.6 million Gates grant allowed America's Public Broadcasting System to cover stories such as river blindness in Tanzania and Mexican programs to improve nutrition among the poor.

$3.3 million went to Public Radio International, $5 million to America's National Public Radio and $1 million to Frontline.

Neither the foundation nor the Guardian will reveal the dollar amount of the deal that helped the British daily establish an online forum on global health and development.

The authors reveal: The Seattle Times received a $15,000 Gates grant through Seattle University for a series of stories on homelessness in 2010.

Marc Cooper, assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism found it "laughable" when media claim Gates money doesn't influence their coverage.

Every grant comes with at least one string attached, he said: the hope that the grant will be renewed. Recipients can be reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.

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