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Bill Gates Buys Attention of ABC News?

Written By : Warner Todd Huston
October 12, 2010

On the heels of this Summer’s Old Media attack of News Corp’s donation of $1 million to the GOP, we discover that billionaire Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has given $1.5 million directly to ABC News so that they’ll cover his personal “news” issue; health conditions of the poor.

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Gates has been spreading his money around in more traditional media buys over the last year or so, too. He spent $3.5 million to start a TV production company that is working with PBS to report on global health issues and he’s also spent millions buying newspapers to keep them afloat. Additionally Gates has donated money to journalism schools and other media operations.

But this direct donation to ABC News is a different animal than the other media related spending that Gates has done. This is a direct donation of money to ABC News to buy their attention for Bill Gates’s personal interests. ABC is supposed to be a self contained, independent news agency that funds its own reports governed under its own authority. Gates’s donation really brings this status into question.

As to which program is targeted, ABC is using Gates’s money for its upcoming Be The Change: Save a Life series.

Now it would be different if Gates’s TV production company created its programming and then bought time on ABC to air it. There’d certainly be nothing wrong with that. But this is far different and more troubling. This situation is far different thing, for instance, than corporations donating money to programming on PBS because those are independent productions that PBS merely airs.

It would also be different if Gates just bought the whole of ABC News. There would also be nothing wrong with that. But in this case Gates is buying just a portion of ABC News and using that entity as cover for his own personal issue advocacy, using ABC’s reputation as color of authority for his own issues.

It doesn’t matter if Gates’s issue is the most unconditionally selfless issue ever. Once ABC takes this money we cannot be sure who is pulling the strings nor can we be sure that this barrier now being broken down will open ABC — or even other TV news agencies — to being bought off by any other billionaire. Other billionaires might not be as spotlessly selfless as Gates might be.

Who would be alarmed if, say, George Soros bought part of ABC’s programming for his favorite issues? For that matter, what if the left’s favorite boogie men du jour, the conservative Koch Brothers, bought a portion of ABC’s news programming for their favorite issues to be reported upon? Would anyone trust that reporting?

Another big question is: will ABC News produce these TV reports as if these reports are wholly their idea or will ABC make it clear that these programs are bought and paid for by billionaire Bill Gates?

Even more directly, in order not to upset sugar daddy Gates, will ABC now steer clear of any “reporting” that might reflect badly on Gates, his friends and their interests if they should happen to find any connections between those people and the issues ABC is reporting upon?

Just how are we to know if all the money that Gates donated to ABC has also bought editorial control over that news agency? After all, even if ABC does fully disclose that Gates supplied the funding for this programming can anyone be sure that Gates didn’t also buy the contents and editorial direction of these ABC reports?

I would suggest that donating $1 million to a political party is far less eyebrow raising than someone actually buying off a portion of a news agency in order to get them to report on his own personal issues. It is also unseemly that a news agency has allowed this to happen and is acting as if nothing untoward has happened here.

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