The Chokehold

Bill Gates and The Gates Foundation have directed millions of dollars towards major American media outlets like NPR, PBS, ABC, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times, Univision, and The Guardian. The Guardian’s“Global Development” section was made possible by partnering with the Gates Foundation. It gives the foundation tremendous influence on how global health issues are covered, what kinds of solutions are appropriate, and what criticisms to suppress. It equally influences how reporters cover health and welfare issues and what angles they highlight. It was most evident recently when practically all major media–CNN, CNBC, Fox, PBS, BBC, CBS, MSNBC–welcomed Gates to offer his views on the COVID-19 pandemic. He called himself a “health expert” despite lacking any expertise or experience on the subject. [Michele Greenstein and Jeremy Loffredo, “Why the Bill Gates global health empire promises more empire and less public health,” The Grayzone, July 8, 2020.]

In 2008, the communications chief for PBS NewsHour, Rob Flynn, explained that there “is not a heck of a lot of things you could touch in global health these days that would not have some kind of Gates tentacle.” Around that time, the foundation gave PBS NewsHour $3.5 million to establish a dedicated production unit to report crucial global health issues. The foundation also trains the professionals who the media hires to write about health issues. It has invested millions in journalism training and research in crafting media stories. A Seattle Times story revealed that the “foundation’s direct funding for media and media programs, which so far totals nearly $50 million…But rather than providing general support, 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.” [Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim, “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?” The Seattle Times, February 19, 2011]. Today, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic spreading like wildfire across the globe, Gates remained at the forefront of offering “arguments” in defence of patent protection of vaccines and used his considerable media power to control the narrative. [Alexander Zaitchik, “How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines,” The New Republic, April 12, 2021].

The lines between journalism and public relations/corporate marketing continue to blur. Over at the New York Times, we learned that the “paper was actively developing new advertisement formats that further blur the line between news and advertising.” [Ava Sirrah, “The Blurring Line Between Editorial and Native Ads at the New York Times,” MediaShift, October 3, 2017]. According to Ava Sirrah, who revealed these practices, publishers are “increasingly finding ways to partner with advertisers on custom content without being transparent to readers about these deals.” She warned that this “jeopardises the editorial independence of newsrooms as journalists become aware of what advertisers want them to discuss.” [Ava Sirrah, “The Blurring Line Between Editorial and Native Ads at the New York Times,” MediaShift, October 3, 2017]. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the paper since May 2014, has claimed that the traditional news-advertising divide has become a luxury the Times could no longer afford. [Jeff Gerth, “In the digital age, the New York Times treads an increasingly slippery path between news and advertising,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 28, 2017]. One never to ignore a critical revenue source, BuzzFeed launched BuzzFeed Creative, creating video and lifestyle content that resembles its editorial material. Most major news outlets, including The EconomistForbesThe Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post, actively feature such content. [Bob Garfield, “If Native Advertising is so Harmless, Why Does it Rely on Misleading Readers?” The Guardian, February 25, 2014].

The consequences of these practices, something that most publishers seem unconcerned about, are dire. “The gravest threat is to the media themselves,” Bob Garfield, co-host of On The Media and a MediaPost columnist, has argued. “With every transaction, publishers are mining and exporting that rarest of rare resources: trust. Those deals (with advertisers) will not save the media industry. They will, in a matter of years, destroy the media industry, one boatload of shit at a time.” [Tracie Powell, “Native Ads Aren’t as Clear as Outlets Think,” Columbia Journalism Review, December 5, 2013]. Between digital gateways like Google and Facebook and the invasion of the paid and sponsored ‘native advertisements,’ “we are handing the controls of important parts of our public and private lives to a minimal number of people, who are unelected and unaccountable.” [Emily Bell, “Facebook is eating the World,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 7, 2016].

The news isn’t just a business but influences society’s values, priorities, and perspectives on democratic and civic matters. With the agendas set by powerful monied and corporate interests, the very foundations of social cohesion, civic equality, freedom of speech, and political objectives become incoherent. “The media sector shapes public attitudes, the economy, culture, leisure and education,” Serge Halimi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, has warned, “but it is hard to detect any political attempt to check the danger, as though politicians had other priorities and emergencies, and were content to wait and see on this score.” [Serge Halimi, “Big media versus the people,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2015]. He was speaking about the developments in Europe, where influential European media outlets, owned and operated by corporate and industrial interests, “distorted the terms of the debate” around the Greek debt and the attempt of Syriza to stand up EU diktats. Instead, they “tried to create worry in European public opinion about what the cancellation of Greek debt would mean for “every French person.” [Serge Halimi, “Big media versus the people,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2015]. The main news outlets–including those with a taste for post-national sermonizing–found a sure-fire way to contain a continent-wide movement of solidarity with the Greek left.” [Serge Halimi, “Big media versus the people,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2015].

The US corporate media have performed a similar role and helped raise a “media barrier” that can “block any project counter to shareholder interests.” [ Serge Halimi, “Big media versus the people,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2015]. For example, corporations have played a leading role in speaking against universal healthcare and single-payer healthcare, an issue that most Americans insist they support and have done so for many years. [Bradley Jones, “Increasing share of Americans favour a single government program to provide health care coverage,” Pew Research Center, September 29, 2020; October 3, 2018; Jocelyn Kiley, “Most continue to say ensuring health care coverage is government’s responsibility,” Pew Research Center, October 3, 2018; January 13, 2017; Kristen Bialik, “More Americans say government should ensure health care coverage,” Pew Research Center, January 13, 2017]. By distorting and outright misrepresenting the problem, they have repeatedly confused the issue and acted as mouthpieces for corporate healthcare interests and pharmaceutical lobbies. In many cases, they just ignored the public’s support and mouthed ‘arguments’ against it. Despite widespread public support for them in the last three years, several opinion pieces have spoken out against single-payer healthcare programs.

The New York Times told us, “Don’t get too excited about Medicare for All,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described it as a “preposterous proposal.” At the same time, USA Today kept it simple and claimed that Bernie’s plan was “wrong for America.” [Elisabeth Rosenthal and Shefali Luthra, “Don’t get too excited about Medicare for All,” New York Times, October 19, 2018; Christian Schneider, “‘Medicare for All:’ New name, same old bad idea,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 21, 2018; Marc Siegel, “Bernie Sanders Medicare-for-all plan is all wrong for America,” USA Today, September 20, 2017; ]. The Wall Street Journal was quite clear on where it stood, publishing an opinion piece titled “The False Promise of ‘Medicare for All’” if it wasn’t clear or you did not bother to read the article. [Scott W. Atlas, “The False Promise of ‘Medicare for All’,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2018]. Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru was afraid that the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the US might reignite popular demands, and so penned a panic piece titled “Italy Shows That Medicare for All Is No Cure for Coronavirus.” [Ramesh Ponnuru, “Italy Shows That Medicare For All Is No Cure for Coronavirus,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2020].

Even at the height of the pandemic sweeping across the USA, the New York Times found it necessary to opine, “Can We Please Stop Fighting About ‘Medicare for All’?” The examples are endless, but they point to a concentrated use of the media to project and propagate corporate healthcare and political libertarian messaging to misrepresent and obfuscate the issue and detract from its popularity. It turned out that the media’s arguments against single-payer healthcare relied on guidance from the pharmaceutical industry’s playbook, as revealed in a leaked memo. Prepared by the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, an ad hoc alliance of private health interests, leading pharmaceutical, insurance, and hospital lobbyists formed to discourage support for expanding Medicare. [Lee Fang and Nick Surgey, “Lobbyist Documents Reveal Health Care Industry Battle Plan Against ‘Medicare for All’,” The Intercept, November 20, 2018]. “The memo,” writers Lee Fang and Nick Surgey revealed, “points to early success in shaping media coverage, citing several ‘earned media’ columns.” [Lee Fang and Nick Surgey, “Lobbyist Documents Reveal Health Care Industry Battle Plan Against ‘Medicare for All’,” The Intercept, November 20, 2018]. It reveals how former elected officials were recruited into the campaign and asked to utilise their media access to push the argument that Medicare is a bad policy.” [Lee Fang and Nick Surgey, “Lobbyist Documents Reveal Health Care Industry Battle Plan Against ‘Medicare for All’,” The Intercept, November 20, 2018]. In fact,” Adam Cancryn pointed out, “by earlier this year [2019], virtually every part of the healthcare industry was on board.” [Adam Cancryn, “The Army Built to Fight ‘Medicare for All’,” Politico, November 25, 2019].

The partnership has actively targeted politicians and media personalities and pushed talking points about how single-payer will end employer-based coverage, raise taxes and increase government control. The media’s close relationship with corporate power and political insiders has made it an easy target for targeted messages that push the priorities of the rich and powerful. Democratic and Republican legislators have published numerous Op-Eds in major American newspapers, some of which have been edited and drafted by healthcare industry lobbyists. [Luke Darby, “Health Industry Lobbyists Are Writing Op-Eds for Lawmakers Against Medicare for All,” GQ, December 2, 2019].

The lines between journalists, politicians, government interests, corporate lobbyists, owner interests, and billionaire priorities are increasingly blurred.