The US news media are suffering from low levels of public trust and ongoing attacks from the reigning Republican party and White House. US president Donald Trump has called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” saying he’s in “a running war” with them. Chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon has said media should “keep its mouth shut,” and called it “the opposition party.”
For what it’s worth, the world’s richest man appears to see things differently. In a recent interview with Quartz tied to the release of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, Bill Gates spoke of the importance of the news media in holding politicians accountable for their promises and in helping voters assess policies. “You can’t have a democracy without a media function like that,” Gates said. “If anybody says we don’t need the media, that’s a little scary.”
You can watch Gates’ remarks in the video above. Below is a transcript, lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Quartz: What is your view on the role and importance of the media in our current climate?
Bill Gates: Well, the idea of democracy is that people who are running for office can make statements about how they’ll change things and make statements about what the results will be. And so there’s always this temptation to promise people things that aren’t possible. You know, “Put me in office and everybody will have jobs,” or “Put me in office and at least your crowd, your group will get some good treatment.” And there’s got to be some mechanism by which those statements, people decide, are they correct? What has this person done in the past? What have policies like that done in the past? And it’s not possible for an individual voter on their own to read all these things and check all these things.
So if we define media very broadly to be the things that help voters assess what’s being said, assess how those things have worked, and therefore played their role of picking, on balance, reasonable leaders who pursue reasonable policies—you can’t have a democracy without a media function like that. If anybody says we don’t need the media, that’s a little scary. Yes, some parts of the media may have bias or they may be wrong, but to attack the phenomenon of the media, I’m not sure how many populists of the past have gone to that level.
There are people on all sides of the political spectrum who say that the media is broken all the same. Do you share that assessment?
Well, this idea that everybody watched the same media, the media was completely neutral—we never really achieved that ideal. It’s hard to be neutral, which is why having many media groups and reducing barriers to entry—which the digital technology has done—is a very good thing.
The one thing that’s new that is a little concerning is people seeking out things that are really not giving them the facts… playing to a narrow worldview—that is a concern. Now, do we see it in young people? Where are we seeing that? What does it look like? It’s a new phenomenon and I think we’ll figure out ways [to resolve it], including the fact that it won’t prove beneficial to people to be so separated. Think about right now how we deal with medical care. I do think people have realized, “Wow a lot of people have been over-simplifying this problem or suggesting there’s easy solutions on one side or the other.” And in fact, it’s a very big problem.