After years of fawning coverage in local media, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was backpedaling last week. It had help.
The reason was a two-part investigative story by the Los Angeles Times, begun on Sunday, 1-7-07, and reprinted on the front page of the Seattle Times, which reported that
“…the Gates Foundation has holdings in many companies that have failed tests of social responsibility because of environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights, or unethical practices…. hundreds of Gates Foundation investments – totaling at least 41% of its assets – have been in companies that countered the foundation’s charitable goals or socially concerned philosophy.”
The practices of many of those companies, we learned, “are hurting many of the people its grants aim to help….”
The high-powered local executives running the world’s largest charitable organization, with some $70 billion or more in existing or pledged assets, might not have paid much attention to bad ethical investing. But they act quickly when bad publicity strikes. Wednesday, in an exclusive interview, we learned in the Seattle Times that:
“The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is planning a systematic review of its investments to determine whether it should pull its money out of companies that are doing harm to society…”
So far, so good. Only one problem: the Seattle Times pulled a major punch. It made no mention of one of the major threads of the L.A. Times stories:
“…investing in destructive or unethical companies is not what is most harmful….Worse is investing purely for profit, without attempting to improve a company’s way of operating.”
Gates, in responding to the bad publicity, made no mention of whether it would join the movement in American philanthropy to push companies to change their business practices. By their silence, we could presume the foundation would continue to keep its highly influential hands off the companies it invested in. And the Seattle Times let Gates get away with it.
And, it turns out, there was another problem: talk is cheap, and, it quietly emerged, fully retractable. Two days after that, on Friday, the web site NewsCloud.com broke a story bluntly headlined “Gates Foundation Revokes Pledge to Review Portfolio.” Our beneficent local philanthropists got their message out, and then changed it. Or, as NewsCloud put it:
“Shortly after that [Seattle Times] interview, the Gates Foundation took down their public statement on this [from their web site] and replaced it with a significantly altered version which seems to say that investing responsibly would just be too complex for them and that they need to focus on their core mission: ‘There are dozens of factors that could be considered, almost all of which are outside the foundation’s areas of expertise.’…”
The Seattle Times, however, was not done making up for the error of its ways. Yesterday, our local apologist for all things Bill Gates featured what seemed to be something like an official’s makeup call in sports: a makeup feature for having reprinted the L.A. Times expose the previous Sunday. Sympathetically titled “Gates Foundation faces multibillion-dollar dilemma,” the article literally let our heroes have it both ways:
“As the Gates Foundation embarks upon a review of how its $32 billion endowment is invested, officials insist they won’t change their basic investment philosophy.”
Aside from greatly understating the Gates’ endowment, this sentence raises a rather basic dilemma of its own: what’s the point of “a systematic review of investments” if foundation officials “won’t change their basic investment philosophy”?
Let’s review, then: caught in a well-researched investigative piece, published by one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers, that looked (and was) really bad, a beloved local institution scrambles to put a good face on things. It announces this good face through the ever-pliant hometown paper, which already has probably fired an editor or two for reprinting the expose in the first place. It then promptly issues a meek, Gilda Radneresque “Never mind!,” which our local paper utterly ignores in a makeup feature devoted to those hard, hard, hard choices wealthy philanthropists must sometimes make.
What we have, then, is a massive investment firm (embedded in a multi-billion dollar philanthropy) smoothly reassuring the public while changing its odious practices not a whit; and the hometown paper first publicizing the odious practices and then, obediently, helping make it all right and sunshiney again.
The only losers are the millions of people around the globe victimized by the practices of firms invested in by the Gates Foundation; and local news consumers who think that the Seattle Times, for once, cast an unfettered, critical eye on a feelgood local institution. In both cases, it’s bad news.