Gates & Buffett: A Wealth of Information about How Journalists See Money

     The news media were singing the praises of businessmen this week because one executive did something many journalists support: He gave away most of his money.

     Warren Buffett, founder of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and perhaps the world’s foremost investor, earned justifiable praise for his incredible gift of almost $31 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with $6 billion in other charitable contributions. Reporter Dawn Fratangelo described Buffett in glowing terms on the June 26 “NBC Nightly News.” “Bill Gates coined what may be Buffett’s new title: the greatest investor for good,” she said.

     Buffet already held most of that title due to his incredible success in business. He also was a media darling long before joining the ranks of names like Rockefeller and Carnegie. He is a bit of a billionaire maverick – a Democrat who has served as adviser to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). But it’s his stance on money that pleases the press most.

     Buffett has said he wouldn’t pass on all his money to his children because he doesn’t believe in “dynastic wealth.” He has advocated for higher taxes and to keep the estate tax. He even told ABC’s Ted Koppel “if it’s class warfare, my class is winning,” during a May 21, 2003, interview.

     When things looked bad for Buffett, the media were there to support him. He was a witness in a financial scandal involving insurance giant AIG. But media types didn’t let that taint him. Bill Weir of ABC’s “Good Morning America” described Buffett as having  “a reputation as a paragon of integrity who makes money the old fashioned way,” in an April 11, 2005, broadcast.

     The result of that investigation, according to the Feb. 7, 2006, Los Angeles Times, left Buffett unscathed but included charges for three former Berkshire Hathaway executives “in a $500-million book-cooking scheme.”

     If you didn’t know better, you would think the media loved wealthy businessmen. Buffett’s friend Bill Gates received the same kind of media treatment when Gates announced that he was going to retire recently. CBS “Evening News” anchor Bob Schieffer declared that Gates “perhaps more than anyone opened the Internet to people in every part of the world.”

     Except such praise wasn’t always the case for Gates. On the March 3, 1998, CBS “Evening News,” then-anchor Dan Rather suggested Microsoft needed to be reined in by the federal government. “Some policing may be needed along the information superhighway,” he said, adding that “fellow-travelers say Gates is trying to run them off the road.”

     Two years later, on June 6, 2000, CBS again criticized Gates during the Microsoft monopoly trial. “60 Minutes II” reporter Charlie Rose told viewers of a “videotaped deposition that showed him to be evasive and even arrogant.” The story went on to describe the private life of the world’s richest man, including “one of the most extravagant residences ever built.”

     Then something happened. In 2000, Gates and his wife Melinda launched a charitable foundation “to help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world,” according to its Web site.  

     Suddenly one of America’s most-hated men was giving away his money to media-friendly causes. It wasn’t long before Gates and his wife were seen in the company of U2 star Bono, promoting aid to Africa and sharing the Time magazine Person of the Year Award. Time acknowledged Gates’s past as “the great predator of the Internet age,” but forgave him. Nancy Gibbs of Time nearly deified the trio: “For being shrewd about doing good, for rewiring politics and re-engineering justice, for making mercy smarter and hope strategic and then daring the rest of us to follow.”

     What a difference a few years and several billion dollars make. But it didn’t have to be that way.

     Suppose Buffett had done everything exactly the same way, with one exception: instead of giving his money to the Gates Foundation, he gave it to something the media don’t embrace.

     How about a church? Or why not a pro-life group? Picture for a second the news stories that would have followed a $31-billion donation to any sort of conservative group.

     Suppose Gates had never made “mercy smarter” and, instead, continued building his business empire for another couple decades. He’d still likely be one of the world’s most-hated men.

     Buffett and Gates deserve to be commended for their efforts. Not only are they helping people in need, but they have exposed the truth about journalists’ attitude toward money – people who have it shouldn’t keep it. Money can’t buy you happiness … but it sure can get you some great news coverage.

Dan Gainor is a career journalist and The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow. He is also director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute