Fully reckoning with Bill Gates means not just
focusing on how he treats women—vital as that is—but also confronting our own
deep-seated worship of wealth and hardwired belief in hero narratives
news first broke that Bill and Melinda French Gates were getting divorced, it
punctured the public image many of us had of the glossy magazine-cover power
couple, seemingly as committed to each other as they were to saving the world.
That revelation, however, probably barely registers in your
memory, as a far more explosive story emerged shortly after, with top news
outlets describing Bill Gates as a serial philanderer, if not a sexual
predator—allegedly seeking out romantic relationships with his subordinates and
failing to investigate sexual harassment perpetrated by a senior employee.
Bill Gates has denied the reports, which are largely based
on anonymous sources. Melinda French Gates, though she continues to co-lead the
Gates Foundation with Bill, has remained noticeably quiet on the sidelines, as
the punishing news cycle continues—led by news outlets that have long lavished
both of the Gateses with praise.
This crush of reporting,
however, hasn’t thoughtfully connected back to the Gates Foundation, or
recognized how the #MeToo allegations surrounding Bill Gates seem
incompatible—or radioactive—next to the foundation’s carefully manufactured
women-forward, equity-centric brand.
This disconnect presents an existential crisis that could
easily end the Gates Foundation as we know it.
If this does come to pass—if, for example, Bill has to step
down—that would be not just a stunning development for the world’s most
powerful philanthropy but also a damning reflection of our obsession with the
cult of personality.
That is, our sudden reassessment of Bill Gates’s personal
character doesn’t reckon with his private foundation’s decades of grossly
undemocratic meddling in political affairs, its colossal failures trying to
manage the pandemic response, its zealous and destructive efforts to monopolize
global health, or the rampant appearance of self-dealing in its charitable
grant-making. We are still far from a place where we can have a serious
conversation about these abuses of power.
the media remain focused on Bill Gates’s “wandering eye,” as The New York Times awkwardly
phrased the #MeToo allegations that he faces of using Microsoft and the Gates
Foundation as his sexual playground.
The ongoing investigation into Gates’s treatment of women
relays a vital story that is absolutely deserving of the attention it is receiving
from journalists. But it can’t be the whole story. Seriously interrogating
Gates’s exercise of power means looking into what may be a much wider set of
For years, we have willingly, even gleefully, allowed Gates
to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, treating him as too
important to criticize. Our democratic institutions—Congress,
the IRS, and Washington state’s attorney general—looked the other way as
the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation acted in a decidedly
uncharitable manner: donating tens of millions of dollars to the private school
the Gateses’ children attended, while also giving millions to advocacy groups
regulation of billionaire charities; donating billions of dollars to
private companies, including some companies in which the foundation is
intellectual property from its grantees and housing it with a patent
troll (a company run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology
officer at Microsoft whose name has also bubbled
up in reports about Jeffrey Epstein); and generating billions of
dollars in tax savings for the Gates family in the process.
The news media, for its part, has not only overlooked
the foundation’s contradictions for most of the past decade but put
its weight behind deifying Bill Gates, often openly trading in fiction and
mythology. The same outlets that are now targeting him previously spent
years inflating his
character—endorsing him as a warm and virtuous sweater-wearing saint of a man,
unimpeachable in his devotion to fixing the world, and highly effective in
these efforts. And they’ve presented this hagiography with a passion that has
routinely betrayed the basic currency of journalism: the facts.
misinformation reached new and troubling levels during the pandemic. When
Gates first catapulted into the Covid limelight, his calling card was having
“predicted the pandemic” in a 2015 Ted Talk, a so-called fact that journalists
have recited ad nauseam over the last year. Gates sounded the alarms, CNN’s
Anderson Cooper reported,
but “no one really listened.”
In reality, countless researchers, writers, and
policy-makers had long been speaking out about and coordinating plans for a
potential pandemic. If Bill Gates were really concerned that a pandemic was
coming, why didn’t he marshal the full resources of his $50 billion foundation
to prepare us?
In fact, the charity gave a minuscule percentage of its
wealth to pandemic preparedness in the years leading up to Covid, mainly a $100
million donation to the Coalition
for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, whose efforts to help fund Covid
vaccine development (that is, subsidizing pharmaceutical companies) have
by criticism that the group hasn’t committed to making sure the poor
will have equal access to vaccines.
Even as the pandemic took off, the Gates Foundation’s media
presence and political influence seemed to far outstrip its actual
philanthropy. As of today’s writing, the Gates Foundation reports only
$1.75 billion in charitable grants for the pandemic.
The charity’s endowment currently stands at $50
billion and Bill and Melinda French Gates’s private wealth is
estimated at around $130
billion. From what we can see, the Gates have $180 billion at their
disposal but have given only 1 percent of that enormous wealth—$1.75 billion—to
tackle the greatest public health crisis in generations. The story we read in
the news, however, is not about the Gateses’ miserly giving but about their
plowing their fortune into saving the world.
Perhaps the most hyperbolic narrative we’ve seen over the
last year are the endless portrayals of the Gates Foundation as the target of
conspiracy theories. This Gates-as-victim narrative appears everywhere. Politico even
suggested that my
reporting on the Gates Foundation’s financial conflicts of interest
for The Nation—based on an analysis of the charity’s investment
portfolio—would encourage more conspiracy theories.
Ironically, the news media’s groupthink and pack journalism
in relaying this narrative draws on the very pathologies driving the conspiracy
theories it inveighs against. In a rational world, wouldn’t journalists give at
least as much attention to interrogating the Gates Foundation’s controversial
work on the pandemic as they do to the fringe conspiracy theories about Bill
Gates putting microchips in our vaccines?
If they don’t, should we really be surprised that people
resort to flights of fancy? Is it really unreasonable for people to question
how a college dropout and one of history’s greatest corporate villains somehow
became one of the most powerful people in the pandemic response? Just because
Bill Gates says he is an expert or asserts himself as a leader on
change or education or global health or agriculture—does not make it
And just because Gates puts on a pastel sweater and says
he’s donating money to good causes doesn’t mean that he’s actually helping the
That point of view actually began to break into the news in
the weeks leading up to the recent #MeToo news cycle, as articles appeared
in The Nation, The New Republic, Current Affairs, Jacobin, The
Intercept, and other outlets profiling Gates’s disastrous mistakes in the
pandemic response, and the ways his self-appointed leadership has presided over
a still-unfolding vaccine apartheid.
The most influential voices in the news, however—like The
New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—never picked up the story.
These outlets are now devoting a great deal of attention to
investigating how Bill Gates treats—or mistreats—women, which is rapidly
turning public opinion against him and may end his long tenure as our
philanthropist in chief. If this reporting does defenestrate him from the ivory
tower of Big Philanthropy, it also seems to leave the window wide open for a
kinder, gentler billionaire to take his place—or at least one whose monstrous
nature has not yet been revealed.
Will the world be significantly better or different if Bill
Gates steps down from the foundation, and Melinda takes the reins of this
deeply undemocratic, totally unaccountable, aggressively nontransparent
political organization—one that zealously solicits accolades for the miserly
sums of money it donates at a glacially slow pace? Or if another “good
billionaire”—Elon, MacKenzie, Mark, or Jeff—decides to fill the void left by
Bill? Would that really be social progress? Or just rinse and repeat?
Do we really believe that these individuals deserve the
political privilege that billionaire philanthropy affords—to remake the world
according to their own worldview, with no checks or balances—because they’ve
managed to become so obscenely wealthy? No matter how well-meaning or virtuous
we fantasize such individuals to be, what can these outrageously rich people
know about the lives of the poor people they claim to help? Is the story in
front of us about a bad-apple billionaire named Bill Gates, or fundamental
flaws with individuals having too much money and too much power?
The current news cycle presents an extremely rare
opportunity to finally raise these kinds of questions, and we should not
squander the moment. We need to continue to investigate how Bill Gates treats
his female employees, but we also have to consider how Gates mistreats all of
us, and erodes our democracy, by grabbing more power than he deserves.
Fully reckoning with Gates means confronting our own
deep-seated worship of wealth and hard-wired belief in hero narratives. If we
really want to fix the world—eliminating inequities in how we educate,
medicate, feed, house, pay, and otherwise treat people—we can’t rely on
billionaires with big ideas.
*Tim Schwab is a freelance journalist based in
Washington, D.C., whose investigation into the Gates Foundation was part of a
2019 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.