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PBS finds Gates in mood to talk of health issues

May 07, 2003|Janet Saidi | Special to The Times

Bill Gates sightings on television have been few, far between and somewhat contradictory. For insights into the character of the world's richest human, viewers have had to settle for the likes of rehearsed TV commercials, a cameo appearance on "Frasier" and the occasional puff-piece interview.

One exception was a "Late Night With David Letterman" appearance in 1995 in which Gates teased Dave about having too many assistants and not having a computer. In 1999 (during the government's antitrust case against Microsoft), an ABC News reporter, angry at the elusiveness of his subject, described Gates as a "cutthroat businessman, harshly critical boss, high-tech intellectual contemptuous of those he considers out of the loop."

The Bill Gates who makes an appearance Friday night on "Now With Bill Moyers" comes across as an average, earnest guy who happens to be worth $40.7 billion. Having decided that leaving behind a vast fortune is a terrible thing to do to his children ("I haven't asked 'em their opinion yet," he jokes), he is giving away 95% of it, largely for vaccine research. He is therefore relaxed, though guarded, and eager to share what's on his mind.

And what Gates has on his mind is statistics. One that jumped out at him came from the World Development Report of 1993, in an article reporting that rotavirus kills more than half a million children per year.

"I said to myself, that can't be true," an incredulous Gates tells Moyers in the broadcast. "Why isn't it being covered? You know, and there's a mother and a father behind every one of these deaths."

In a recent phone interview after taping the broadcast, Moyers said he and his staff were struck by how easily Gates passes for an ordinary guy, though with a scary memory for numbers.

"I think if you can look at a percentage and see the human reality behind it, there's something powerful there," said Moyers. "Gates is a man who has the empathy to be struck by a statistic."

Gates, who Forbes magazine recently reported gives away $1 billion annually, also comes across as a very concerned citizen, though more neurotic.

The SARS outbreak has opened a window of interest in global health issues, and Moyers said he and his team jumped at the chance to report on health issues. "Every time over my 30 years [as a journalist] that I've tried to do something on public health -- about hunger, just anything about public health -- I can hear the remote controls going click, click, click, click. It's not that people don't care, they just ... have compassion fatigue."

Taped in front of a live audience at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, this interview is a departure from the hard-edged news delivery of "Now." Moyers is visibly enthralled by his guest, and there's little of the even-handed probing Moyers has employed with guests such as Sen. John McCain, radical historian Howard Zinn or journalist provocateur Christopher Hitchens.

But if anyone can draw out the personal stories from a cagey billionaire, it's Moyers. In a nice personal revelation, Gates admits to having carried around about 10 issues of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for months.

Gates' encounter with health stats seems to have radicalized the billionaire somewhat, although it's a problem he takes on with a results-oriented, gee-let's-fix-it energy reminiscent of the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Mellons and the Fords.

"If we took the world and we just [rearranged] each neighborhood to be randomly mixed up," Gates tells Moyers, "then this whole thing would get solved. Because you'd look out your window and you'd say, 'You know, there's a mother over there whose child is dying. You know, let's -- let's go help that person.' "

*

`Now With Bill Moyers'

What: "Health, Wealth and Bill Gates"

When: 9-10 p.m. Friday on KCET

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