13 October 2010

Media, Money, Monsanto, and Melinda

The Gates Foundation wants you to know more about global health.  So, they are kicking $1.5 million to ABC for a year long series on the subject (ABC is tossing in $4.5 million of their own as well). 

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Caroline Preston over at Philanthropy.com seems to go with not so good.  While she does not directly opine, Preston focuses on reactions from two opponents.  The first, USC Prof Marc Cooper, is disappointed by the fact that the money was spent on ABC rather than programs.  Second, Robert Fortner, questions how such a project funded by Gates can adequately explore criticisms of the foundation (sorry for being vague, I am trying to be quick and also direct traffic to Preston’s article).

Cooper has a silly concern as the amount of money spent is relatively nothing compared to the size of the Gates Foundation.  The money can easily be replenished through investments in no time.  It is a bit of a Senator Coburn-esque move to worry so much about such a small part of a much larger organization.
However, it is problematic to have media coverage paid for by an individual.  I personally believe that press should be as free as possible.  There is a need for funding, of course, but there becomes a conflict of interest when money comes in from a source who wants their story to be told.  Can ABC really dig into the way that the Gates Foundation works and offer up real pieces that examine what is done?  I would argue no.  It is mostly because Gates want the series to focus on the fact that there are growing global health issues which people need to care about.  To me, it seems to be nothing more than an advocacy campaign at the core of series.

It is natural for the Gates Foundation to want what they are doing in global health to be featured and for it to be seen in a positive light.  If they are shown as anything less than great the investment is a waste.  Questioning the Gates Foundation could lead people to support other initiatives.  They do not want that (who would?).
Bonnie Koenig, whom I respect greatly, disagrees saying,
I am not convinced this is an entirely bad thing. Global Health needs attention in the U.S. and other developed nations for a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and other aid to be maintained by governments. I posed the following question on Twitter when the ABC announcement first came out: If you were a foundation (or a donor with a lot of money) and wanted to put money into educating the public on issues like Global Health where would you put it?
and Lauren(ist) adds
The Gates Foundation wants to raise awareness about their product so they're doing what so many other organizations do--product placement. When a character on a TV show goes out of their way to show me OnStar in their new Buick, I see it for what it is--an ad. But if I'm going to buy a car, I'm still going to investigate my choices. In this case, I might just include the Buick in my research. People want to see that the money Gates, the Global Fund, and OGAC is spending isn't going to waste. What better way to show that global health programs produce results than through a fancy advocacy campaign? Will it be totally truthful? Probably not. But I think most people know they can't believe everything they see on television.
I understand these point, but they are not good enough for me.  Information is one thing, but it can be harmful if it is wrong or presented with the intent to garner support for an organization.  Again, I can understand what is wanted out of such a deal, but believe it to be series that must be watched closely.  For example, I would love to see NBC do a follow up the next day to check facts and flesh out what was not fully explained in each episode. 

I think that we have to do much better in regards to providing education, but it will also require a major social shift.  In my next planned post, I will look at why development/aid is not very important to the United States verses other parts of the Western world.