Facebook CEO Pledges $100 Million to Newark Schools

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to announce a $100 million donation to Newark's long-troubled public school system -- on the very same day as the premiere of a new film that critics say portrays the 26-year-old billionaire in a negative light.

Zuckerberg will announce the $100 million gift Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Show during an appearance with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, according to multiple pressreports.

Later that night, the much-anticipated new film about Facebook's controversial origins, The Social Network -- penned by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher -- will debut at the 48th New York Film Festival.

Coincidence? A Facebook spokesman declined to comment, saying: "We don't have anything to announce at this time."

A School System in Need

Newark's school system has long been one of the most troubled in the nation -- in 1995, the state seized controls of Newark's schools after declaring them a failure. Christie is expected to to give back some of that control to Booker, or at least give him a bigger role in the reviving the school system, according to press reports.

Newark's school system has 40,000 students -- and an abysmal 50% graduation rate. Zuckerberg is worth an estimated $6.9 billion -- which represents his one-third ownership stake in Facebook, which is valued today at $23 billion.

Zuckerberg's donation is huge and generous, but due to the timing, the gift will inevitably be seen by some as an attempt by the young CEO and his company to combat the image presented by the movie. Critics have said the film (I haven't seen it) portrays Zuckerberg in an unflattering light.

In her review, CNET reporter Caroline McCarthy says that in the film's interpretation, "Zuckerberg himself really is the devil--or, to delve more into the Intro to Mythology class you might recall from college, more the 'trickster god' than the devil, a Hermes or Loki with little regard for the status quo, as preoccupied with unmaking as with creating."

Not exactly Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.

Unexpected Benefactor for Newark

Zuckerberg is an unexpected benefactor for Newark's poverty and crime-ravaged public school system. He was born in Westchester County, moved to California to build Facebook, and "has no particular connection to Newark, but in July he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor's plans for the city," according to The New York Times.

The gift is by far the largest in the school system's history and has the potential to be matched by another $100 million that Booker is raising from private foundations, according to The Wall Street Journal. That $200 million would account for about 20% on the school system's budget, which is just shy of $1 billion annually, the paper says.

As for the film, Facebook says it's "fiction," and really, only the people involved will likely know the full truth about how Facebook was born. We know it was and remains mired in controversy, after twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss sued Zuckerberg for stealing the idea for Facebook from them -- a campaign they continue to wage in the court of public opinion -- not to mention law -- to this day.

The truth is, Zuckerberg, who is worth nearly $7 billion dollars, deserves credit for his very generous donation. But given the fact that he was a billionaire six months ago and will be one six months from now -- and there are 365 days in a year -- he shouldn't be surprised that some would view the timing of the announcement with suspicion.

It seems obvious to assume that Facebook would realize that the gift will be viewed in some quarters as a nakedly transparent attempt to combat the film's negative portrayal of Zuckerberg. In that regard, one wonders if Facebook would ever have planned what appears on the surface to be such a blatant image buff job. I expect Oprah to ask Zuckerberg about the timing on Friday.
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