Education Reform

Leonie Haimson: Columnists at NY Times Report on Gates Projects While Benefitting from Gates’ $$$

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Following Tim Schwab’s investigation of financial conflicts of interest at the New York Times, Leonie Haimson describes her efforts to persuade editors at the Newspaper of Record to address a serious ethics issue at the New York Times.

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 agendas.” 

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 that year. 

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.

Haimson goes on to describe the indifference of editors at The New York Times, which has been quick, in other cases, to require its writers to disclose financial conflicts and/or terminate them.

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