Global Health Summit, part of Rx for Survival

Tuesday, in New York City, Time magazine, National Public Radio, PBS, Penguin Books and other media will join the likes of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Ted Turner and even Paul Wolfowitz at a celebrity-studded gathering intended to focus worldwide attention on a chronic set of human disasters known euphemistically as "global health."

The event, the Global Health Summit, is part of a media blitz called Rx for Survival, conceived, coordinated and largely funded by Seattle's top two billionaires, Gates and Paul Allen.

"Bill (Gates) has been frustrated that many of these issues in global health are generally ignored by the media," said Joe Cerrell, spokesman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "He believes if people could see these problems firsthand, they'd be motivated to act."

So, with most media unwilling to come to this mountain, the head of Microsoft Corp. is paying to bring the mountain to the media.

In 2002, the Gates Foundation gave the PBS Boston affiliate station WGBH a grant for $6 million to produce a television series and accompanying public education campaign on global health. Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions agreed to donate as much, in-kind, by co-producing the PBS series. The three-part documentary "Rx for Survival" will begin airing Tuesday.

Available with the PBS series is a companion book of the same name, written by former New York Times science reporter Philip Hilts, published by Penguin Books. National Public Radio, which in 2002 received $807,800 from the Seattle philanthropy to encourage more global health reporting, is doing a series of stories this week. Time will make global health its cover story. Other media are expected to get stories from the summit.

It's all for the good of humankind, of course, and Gates can hardly be criticized for trying to raise public awareness of the terrible toll diseases such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and even diarrhea still exact on many in the developing world.

But the Gates Foundation is also a major player in this story. The philanthropy spends nearly as much, well more than a billion dollars per year, as the World Health Organization. Many regard it as the most influential organization in global health today.

So how do media tell this story when a major character is paying for this round of storytelling? Larry Klein, executive producer at WGBH, said when the Gates grant came in, the station set up a panel of outside advisers and built an editorial "firewall" to make sure the philanthropy had no say in the series. The documentary mentions the foundation's support of an AIDS project in Botswana, but that's all.

"We can't ignore them, but we're certainly not overplaying their role," said Klein. The companion book also only focuses on the Botswana project -- mentioning Bill Gates on just one page, as one among many who have recently warmed up to the idea of taking action in global health.

The Gates Foundation's Cerrell said it does appear that when the philanthropy gives financial support to cover global health, media often underplay, or even try to ignore, its leading role in this arena.

"That's fine with us," Cerrell said. "We don't necessarily want to raise awareness of what we're doing. ... We want to raise awareness of the problems and the fact that there are solutions."

[By Tom Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

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