Cardiff Garcia in the Financial Times:
On Wednesday morning the New York Times reported that New America, a US think tank, had parted ways with its Open Markets team after Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt complained about a press release.
Google and Schmidt are donors to New America, and Schmidt himself was chairman of the think tank until last year. The press release from Open Markets director Barry Lynn had praised the European Commission’s decision in June to fine Google for breaching EU anti-trust rules. In the aftermath of the press release, according to the Times, “word of Mr. Schmidt’s displeasure rippled through New America, which employs more than 200 people, including dozens of researchers, writers and scholars, most of whom work in sleek Washington offices where the main conference room is called the ‘Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab.’”
Given that the Open Markets program’s mandate included analysing the political power and societal influence held by potential monopolists and oligopolists, there’s an obvious irony in its having been discarded because of a company’s decision to wield this same influence.
New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter has responded to the New York Times report, saying that Google had not “lobbied New America to expel Open Markets because of this press release”, and that Lynn has now been fired for “his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality”. Slaughter doesn’t deny or address her alleged emails to Lynn reported by the Times, including one in which she wrote: “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points… just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”
Like some many stories of this ilk there’s a blizzard of counter-claims. I’ve not gone through everything in detail but here’s the FT:
In any case, unless more detail emerges, it’s hard to accept the assertion from New America that the decision to split from the Open Markets group had nothing to do with the content produced by the team. Why would a problem of coordination be punished so severely, with expulsion no less? The email from Slaughter to Lynn on June 23rd — “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others”, she writes — is especially damning.
And The Register:
The fact is that if the financial relationship with Google and Schmidt wasn’t there, and if Slaughter wasn’t an old friend of Schmidt’s, there would not have been any concern over Lynn’s statement in the first place. It was, after all, a personal statement from a think tank: hardly draft legislation or anti-trust charges.
That Lynn felt the need to push his statement out without going through Slaughter, and the fact that she had such a strong reaction when he didn’t, combined with the virtual certainty that Schmidt called soon after to express his annoyance, is as clear an example of soft money influence as you will ever find.
Slaughter concludes her post by saying: “But for us, organizations like us, and the media who cover us, let’s start by speaking truth, even when it’s complicated and messy and hard.”
So here’s the complicated, messy truth: Google fired Lynn because his fierce criticism made it through to the outside; and Slaughter, as CEO of New America, was complicit in giving a corporate giant undue influence over an organization whose job it is to keep an eye on such abuses of corporate power.