The co-chair of the New America Foundation told staffers Wednesday that neither Google nor its executive chairman Eric Schmidt—both donors to the think tank—played a role in the recent ouster from the foundation of an antitrust scholar who had been critical of Google.
“Neither Google nor Eric Schmidt attempted to interfere” with criticism of Google by the researcher, co-chair Jonathan Soros wrote in a letter to New America staff and fellows. “They did not threaten funding, and they did not call for any changes” to research into monopoly power.
The researcher, Barry Lynn, was director of Open Markets, which had been affiliated with New America. Lynn was told that Open Markets would be pushed out of the think tank, shortly after Lynn issued a statement praising a European antitrust ruling against Google and urging US regulators to take action against the search giant.
Soros distributed his letter hours before New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter met with the foundation’s staff. In that meeting, Slaughter said that there was a pattern of behavioral issues with Lynn, but said she could not discuss personnel issues. In the meeting, Slaughter promised to set up a committee to review and establish standards for interaction between donors and New America leadership.
The meeting, and Soros’s letter, follow a story in the The New York Times last week about Lynn’s departure from the foundation. In the letter, Soros, the son of philanthropist George Soros, says the Times article was the result of “a targeted communications campaign,” by Lynn and Zephyr Teachout, a New America fellow who published a related op-ed the same day that the story broke in the Times.
With their comments, Soros says the two researchers had “casually and cavalierly damaged the integrity of an institution.” But he also acknowledges that New America had hurt its own cause with a “flat-footed and sometimes counterproductive” response to the charges and the article. New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter handled the think tank’s immediate response to the Times, initially calling the article “fake news,” before later retracting that claim. She also published emails that she had sent to Lynn, but not his responses, on New America’s website “in the interest of transparency.”
In one email, Slaughter tells Lynn that his actions are “imperiling funding” for his colleagues because Google was not given advance notice of an antitrust conference hosted by New America. That email is “the most damning,” says a New America fellow. “That’s not a reference to being a jerk or yelling at somebody or being an unpleasant colleague. What imperils the organization is pissing off a major donor who will stop funding you.” A different New America employee said that giving advance notice was “not a standard of policy that applied to everyone. It seemed to apply to Barry and to Google.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, which included some tough questions for Slaughter, Alan Davidson, a New America fellow and former top lobbyist for Google, criticized Lynn and praised Slaughter’s handling of the situation.
In his email, Soros emphasizes that he does not believe that the communications campaign was undertaken to hurt New America, but rather to raise funds for Lynn’s new group, which purchased the URL citizensagainstmonopoly.com before the article in the Times.
New America did not immediately respond to request for comment about the meeting.
Here is an excerpt from the letter:
“I must start by observing that the articles of the last week and the
activities that accompanied them were the result of a targeted
communications campaign. The Open Markets team successfully seeded a
sympathetic article in the New York Times. They followed that within
24 hours with multiple affiliated Op-Eds and sophisticated fundraising
efforts, including a purpose-built website and email blasts. It is
likely that there were other elements of this campaign of which I am
I do not believe that the intent of this campaign was to harm New
America. Instead, the continuing campaign appears to be motivated by
two goals: to promote a larger argument about Google’s abuse of – and
potential to abuse – its corporate power, as well as to raise funds
for their new organization. New America appears to be collateral
damage in service of those goals. The idea that Google might interfere
with the independence of a think tank is a compelling narrative that I
myself might find believable absent additional information.
The New York Times remains my go-to news source, and I hold both Barry
and Zephyr in high professional regard, as do many others. Notably,
however, the Times never actually asserted that Google forced the Open
Markets team out, although a casual reader would be unlikely to have
noticed that nuance. Barry and Zephyr, by contrast, showed no such
restraint. When combined with our flat-footed and sometimes
counterproductive response, it is no wonder that the dominant
storyline shifted almost immediately from “Google critic ousted” to
“Google ousted critic.” The essential difference of course is that
while the former is true, the latter is not.”
UPDATED, Sept. 6, 6 pm ET: This article was updated to include comments by a New America employee about the foundation’s policies around advanced notice.