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Nick Kristof’s Bill Gates Problem

For years, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column has relentlessly promoted and whitewashed the controversial projects spearheaded by Bill and Melinda Gates, like for-profit education and exploitative microlending. As governor of Oregon, would Kristof continue serving billionaire interests?

You wouldn’t know from Nicholas Kristof’s columns that the Gates’s preferred solutions to myriad social problems have been hugely controversial. (Michael Kovac / Getty Images)

What exactly is Nicholas Kristof’s relationship with now divorced Bill and Melinda Gates? It’s a question worth asking as the former longtime New York Times columnist starts his run for governor of Oregon.

According to campaign finance disclosures, Kristof easily out-fundraised his rivals for the Democratic primary, raking in $1 million after only a month. Of that total, $50,000 came from Melinda Gates, one of only three individuals to have been so generous to Kristof, and the largest single donation recorded so far.

Bill and Melinda Gates are not quite the image of cuddly, progressive billionaires they’ve worked hard to cultivate. He’s a ruthless monopolist and tax evader who, together with her, used the famous charitable foundation they cochaired to not just avoid paying the government but to funnel that untaxed hoard into corporations their foundation was invested in. The charter school enthusiasts gobbled up so much arable land they became the country’s largest owners of farmland and, true to their vision of trickle-down charity, pushed highly questionable chemical and biotech solutions onto the problem of African hunger. That’s alongside Bill’s personal long-standing obsession with overpopulation in the continent and his uncompromising support for drug patents, which has shaped the Global North’s lackluster response to the pandemic in poorer countries.

Kristof used his considerable perch at the Times to promote the Gateses and their various projects over the years. Sometimes those projects were benign, like the Gates Foundation’s funding of an antiretroviral program against HIV and AIDS in Botswana, an initiative that’s been generally considered a success, and whose chief criticisms have been its top-down nature and lack of transparency.

Others, less so. In 2017, Kristof chided “misguided Americans, including some of my fellow liberals,” for opposing school privatization in the Global South, and extolled the chain of for-profit schools set up throughout Africa by the Gates-funded Bridge International Academies. Despite Kristof’s insistence in the column and one of his books that the company was a success, it’s been widely criticized for a panoply of infractions: gouging poor parents with hidden costs, using unqualified teachers and a cookie-cutter “academy-in-a-box” model, and disregarding local educational standards, to name a mere few. (Kristof did not respond to a list of questions about this and other matters to do with his relationship to the Gateses.)

About a year before Kristof’s column, the company had a researcher arrested while he’d been trying to look into their operations in Uganda. A few months after that, the country’s high court shut down Bridge’s sixty-three schools in the country, citing unsanitary conditions, unqualified teachers, and a lack of proper licensing. Eight months later, when Kristof published his column on the Gates-backed venture, the word “Uganda” didn’t even merit a mention.

In fact, Kristof’s columns have been a veritable lovefest of the two billionaires over the years. Here he is in 2008, suggesting the newly elected Barack Obama create a department of international aid and development and appoint Bill its inaugural head. Here he is ten years later, promoting a Gates-funded livestock service business in Kenya. Then a year after that, with a glowing profile of Melinda, painting her, in line with the couple’s curated image, as saving thousands of lives and advocating for tax fairness.

“My hunch is that Gates will be remembered less for his work on personal computers than for his accomplishments against malaria, AIDS and poverty itself,” Kristof wrote about Bill in 2012. Then a year later, for a Glamour profile of Melinda: “In her obituary . . . it will say that she and her husband changed the course of poverty around the world. And the course of global health and malnutrition.”

You wouldn’t know from any of Kristof’s columns that the Gates’s preferred solutions to these problems have been hugely controversial. Their funding of genetically modified mosquitos, for instance, has been criticized as a reckless and potentially disastrous real-world experiment, while the genetically engineered seeds they’ve pushed onto Africa, besides having dismal consequences where they’ve been tried before, have largely served to solidify farmers’ dependence on Western multinationals while serving up underwhelming results. This has all come alongside the Gates Foundation’s successful lobbying for regulatory and policy changes in the countries where it’s pushed these programs.

Nor has Kristof ever outlined for his readers how the Gateses have a tendency to use their philanthropy to open up business opportunities for themselves in the places they operate in.

Mutual Respect

Long before Melinda Gates gave him more money than many Americans make in a year, there has been an unusual symbiosis between Kristof, the Gateses, and Kristof’s wife, private equity executive Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof is, in fact, directly responsible for the Gates’s philanthrocapitalist ventures in the Global South. According to Netflix’s 2019 documentary about the Microsoft founder, for which Kristof served as a talking head, it was his 1997 column about the belligerence of diarrhea in the Third World that prompted the couple to steer their inconceivable fortune toward the matter of global health.

This isn’t the last time one of Kristof’s columns seemed to inspire the couple. Back in 2010, Kristof promoted microsavings as the “next big direction for microfinance” instead of microloans, less than a year after he’d made the same case in another column. Just a few days later, the Gates Foundation pledged $500 million over five years toward spurring microsavings and moving away from microloans.

The benefits of the concept have proven fairly narrow and limited, albeit with mixed results, but microsavings are at least not actively harmful. This is more than you can say for microloans, which Kristof also promoted in his columns during the years the Gateses were investing in them. Yet despite the couple’s 2010 pledge to move away from microlending, Melinda, at least, has the past few years promoted and funded a microlending firm accused of predatory, high-interest lending in Africa, and which the Kenyan government recently moved to regulate.

On top of the many times Kristof has interviewed or written about the couple for his Times column — as well as shouting out Bill in particular on his personal Twitter feed — the feeling is clearly mutual. In 2014, Kristof flew to Seattle to take part in a Q&A session at one of the Gates Foundation’s social media meetups, described as “small, in-person events” for those who follow the foundation on Twitter. Incidentally, Kristof’s was one of the only forty accounts Bill followed when he joined Twitter in 2010, and one of the twenty-five he followed when he joined Instagram six years later. Similarly, with Twitter “following” lists ordered roughly chronologically from down to up, Kristof’s presence at the bottom of Melinda’s list suggests he was one of the first accounts she, too, followed upon joining in 2011. She also follows WuDunn.

The couples were clearly fans of each other. Kristof, WuDunn, and Melinda Gates all appeared together on a panel in 2015 at the Smithsonian. Here’s WuDunn quoting Bill in a 2012 speech, and name-checking both Gateses in another speech two years earlier. In 2016, she signed on to a star-studded open letter with Melinda and appeared with her at a Clinton Foundation event. In turn, the Gateses blurbed two of the books the couple have cowritten and held a special exhibition in 2019 at their Discovery Center in Seattle based on one of them, the same book Bill wrote a glowing review of. “I don’t normally do book reviews,” he wrote in the opening.

Gates, Gates Everywhere

Despite their long and friendly association, Bill Gates hasn’t donated money to Kristof’s campaign. That’s probably just as well for another major reason: Gates’s friendship with the late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, perhaps history’s most notorious underage sex abuser and trafficker.

It’s especially inconvenient given Kristof’s prohibitionist stance on the consensual sex trade, which is already worrying sex workers in Oregon. For years, even as he championed the supposed benefits of exploitative sweatshops, Kristof used his column to take a hard-line stance on consensual sex work, conflating it with human trafficking and child abuse. One would think, given this, that Kristof would speak out or express concern about Gates’s association with Epstein, about whom he had written in September 2019.

“The problem isn’t one tycoon but many tens of thousands of men who pay for sex with underage girls across the country,” he wrote then. “And society as a whole reacts with the same indifference that the authorities showed in the Epstein scandal.”

Yet even as his own paper revealed just one month later that Gates had misled the public about having no relationship with Epstein — and just this year we found out this relationship was part of the reason for the couple’s divorce — Kristof himself seems to have reacted with the indifference he decried. He continued to praise Gates on Twitter through 2020, and even approvingly quoted the billionaire in an October 2020 column criticizing Trump’s pandemic response. When the couple’s divorce was announced this year, he expressed his sympathies and wished them both “a fulfilling and happy path forward.”

Meanwhile, though only Melinda has given to Kristof’s campaign so far, some of his other most generous donors have wider Gates connections. Kristof got $7,500 from venture capitalist Mike Slade, a friend of the couple who led the launch of some of Microsoft’s most famous products through the 1980s. He’s also received $10,000 from George Vradenburg — whose Alzheimer’s foundation has been personally funded by Bill, rather than through the Gates Foundation — and another $10,000 from Melissa Zorkin, who cofounded a public relations firm with Microsoft’s former PR director, and has counted the company as a client for the last thirty years. (Kristof has also received $5,000 from former Obama advisor Larry Summers, who, besides hobbling the post-recession economic recovery from the inside, also associated with Epstein, sometimes with Gates present).

Particularly notable is Katherine Bradley, chair of the KIPP Foundation, one of the largest public charter-school operators in the United States, who also donated $10,000 to Kristof’s campaign. KIPP, its various state and local iterations, and projects devoted to its expansion have received nearly $48 million from the Gates Foundation over the last two decades, according to the foundation’s publicly available grant data. The CityBridge Foundation, Bradley’s other project devoted to advancing the cause of charter schools, got a $900,000 grant from the foundation just last year.

In line with the Gateses, Kristof has not only promoted charter schools as the solution while attacking teachers unions in various columns over the years; he’s also repeatedly singled out KIPP specifically for praise. Incidentally, so has the Times editorial board.

Today the Times, Tomorrow Oregon

It’s not unheard of for reporters to develop friendly relationships with their interview subjects. But most reporters don’t end up running for governor, nor do they get tens of thousands of dollars donated to their campaign from the people they cover. And most of those interview subjects don’t happen to be controversial billionaires who have used their wealth to influence public policy around the world.

As a New York Times columnist, Kristof used his position to put a sunny sheen on the controversial activities of the billionaire Gateses, promoting their projects, both benign and controversial, and depriving his readers of facts that cast them in a negative light. It’s fair to ask if his role as a two-way policy pipeline for one or more of the Gateses will continue if he becomes governor of Oregon.