When the 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.
Instead, 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 victims—and accomplices.
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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 that fight regulation of billionaire charities; donating billions of dollars to private companies, including some companies in which the foundation is invested; collecting 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.
This 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 been overshadowed 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 Covid—or climate change or education or global health or agriculture—does not make it true.
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 world.
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.