Has Bill Gates Finally Climbed out of the "Evil" Penalty Box?

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The “Waiting for Superman” movement continues to sweep through the Valley with news that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has donated $100 million to Newark Schools– no doubt encouraged by his COO Sheryl Sandberg who has been a big supporter of the movie and the movement to reform public education.

Some people have insinuated the move was a calculated ploy to whitewash Zuckerberg’s image with the fictional and snarky “The Social Network” coming out and getting rave reviews. Although Zuckerberg sounded more media trained than I’ve ever heard him in his interview this week with Mike and Jason, the idea that he donated a sum that large to rebut at movie that’s widely-documented to be fictional is a stretch. Especially considering this week’s leaked emails and IMs weren’t exactly a smoking gun supporting the whole evil genius theory.

But I’ll tell you who will win big social capital points as “Waiting for Superman” gains steam: Bill “still the richest man” Gates. It’s hard to remember, but Microsoft used to be a widely admired company before the antitrust trial. The tide changed so much that Gates became a de facto pop culture villain whether you were a Microsoft fan or not. Hollywood described him as an evil genius manipulating his college-era-BFF well before Zuckerberg and “The Social Network” were a glint in Aaron Sorkin’s eye. He was creamed with a pie. He was mocked on the Simpsons for “buying out” aka wrecking Homer’s Internet company. And there were many other indignities. His name was pop-culture shorthand for Machiavellian. I’m not saying some of those indignities weren’t deserved. But driving home after watching a screening of “Waiting for Superman” my husband– an avowed Mac zealot– remarked that he suddenly realized he no longer hates Bill Gates.

The goodwill has been building for a while– the TED talks, the mosquito nets, the All Things D chum-fest with Steve Jobs, the truckloads of cash for the poor. But somehow seeing him in this movie, juxtaposed with an emotional story and kids that are hard not to root for, and given the fact that he’s gone out stumping for the film– well, it just Al-Gores-him-up a bit. (Although admittedly, that still may not be enough for Netscape founders and shareholders.)

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