This past week Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New America Foundation, fired Barry Lynn. Lynn was the head of New America’s Open Markets project, which had become Washington’s leading center making the case for stricter enforcement of antitrust laws.
New America is heavily funded by Google, and Lynn says he was fired for his anti-Google work. Slaughter says Lynn is wrong, that he was fired for his “repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.” She elaborated on this in a Thursday interview with the New York Times’s Ken Vogel, arguing that Lynn had violated “strong implicit norms about providing a heads-up when you are doing something that could have an impact on the funding for your fellow directors.”
Slaughter seems to regard this as a defense of her actions. But it looks to me like an admission that New America does not, in fact, defend the intellectual independence of its scholars, despite promising on its website that New America’s research is not “influenced in any way by financial supporters.”
New America’s norms are at odds with scholarly independence
This promise of independence is crucial to the credibility of a think tank like New America. But think tank leaders will always be tempted to cheat, encouraging scholars to publish donor-friendly research—or at least avoid publishing openly donor-hostile research—to help with fundraising.
And the problem for think tank leaders who are actually committed to scholarly independence is that it’s difficult to make that promise credible. Every think tank leader tells scholars that they’re free to pursue their research wherever it leads. Some of them mean it. Others are simultaneously dropping hints that there are certain lines that scholars shouldn’t cross. But because they’re only hints, scholars can’t be sure which kind of organization they’re working for–at least before they get fired for crossing one of those invisible lines.
And this is why a think tank president who really is committed to defending scholarly independence needs to be super careful not to send mixed signals. That means never saying things that could be misinterpreted as pressure to avoid antagonizing donors. It also helps to establish processes and norms that re-assure scholars that they don’t need to worry about how funders might react to their work.
Slaughter’s comments about Lynn’s departure make clear that Slaughter has done the opposite of this at New America. She told the New York Times that Lynn had violated “strong implicit norms about providing a heads-up when you are doing something that could have an impact on the funding for your fellow directors.”
In other words, every time Lynn’s group did something Google might not like, Lynn was expected to go around to other groups that receive funding from Google (or Google chairman Eric Schmidt) and give them a “heads up” that their fundraising might take a hit. Nobody likes being the bearer of bad news, so this creates an obvious incentive for Lynn to avoid criticizing Google too often. Forcing program directors to do this, then, is a clear signal from management that scholars should be constantly thinking about which donors their work might offend.
Even more blatant was the email Slaughter sent to Lynn last year, a few days before Lynn sponsored a speech by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) attacking monopolies like Google. “Just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others,” she told Lynn. “We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points.”
Slaughter’s explanation for this is that she wasn’t objecting to Lynn’s substantive work—holding a conference with Warren as a keynote speaker—but about his failure to provide her and Google with adequate notice that the speech was coming. But again, if you think about the incentives this requirement creates, there isn’t much practical difference between the two.
Nobody wants to bring bad news to their boss, and obviously telling Slaughter that the Open Markets team is about to sponsor a conference with Google-bashing speakers counts as bad news. When Slaughter found out about the Warren keynote, she told Lynn to drop everything and write some talking points she could use in a forthcoming meeting with a Google representative. The clear subtext was that Lynn had created a problem for Slaughter, and Lynn needed to help Slaughter clean up the mess.
If your think tank’s scholars spend a lot of time worrying that their work could be bad for donors, then your think tank isn’t doing a good job of defending scholarly independence. And New America’s policies, as described by Slaughter, force program directors to think about this kind of thing constantly if their teams do work that criticizes major New America donors.
Media companies set a higher bar
I think it’s instructive to compare New America’s policies to those of media companies, which face a similar dilemma. Like think tanks, media companies get their credibility from a public perception that their reporting is independent of advertiser and investor pressures. But credible media organizations have much stronger protections for editorial independence than New America does.
Take Vox Media, where I worked until July, as an example. Vox Media counts Comcast as a major investor. Writers for Vox.com (and sister sites like the Verge) are sometimes positively gleeful about criticizing Comcast. I always enjoyed writing articles criticizing Comcast and then putting a disclosure at the bottom of the article that Comcast was a major Vox Media shareholder. It was the strongest possible signal that we could send that we were not, in fact, beholden to our financial backers.
Maybe those articles caused headaches for Vox Media’s CEO, Jim Bankoff, when he met with Comcast representatives. But if so I never heard about it. To the contrary, my editors encouraged me to write more articles like this, because they tended to be popular with readers. Vox’s norms of editorial independence were strong enough that we never worried that criticizing our financial backers could put our jobs at risk.
It would have been considered a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics if Vox’s CEO had asked me or my editor to give him a “heads up” when we ran anti-Comcast articles, to say nothing of preparing talking points for meetings with Comcast or other financial backers. And the problem with this isn’t just that it would have forced us to spend time thinking about how to suck up to Comcast. The larger problem is that Bankoff had the power to fire any one of us if he wanted to. So even if he claimed he was only asking for a “heads up,” we couldn’t help but wonder whether this was really a subtle signal that we should knock it off—or else.
Slaughter seems to consider this kind of thing overkill. “I recognize that the best journalists operate on a different principle — notice seems to imply interference,” Slaughter wrote in a Friday blog post. “But we are not a newspaper, yet we try to uphold the best journalistic standards in our writing.”
I think she’s fooling herself. The news business has the norms it does because the industry has learned, over decades of hard-won experience, that that’s what it takes to safeguard their credibility. News organizations that stray too close to the line tend to blunder into scandals that damage their credibility with the public.
Of course, it’s possible that raising New America’s ethical standards would alienate some of its corporate donors, costing some New America employees their jobs. So having built an empire based largely on corporate money, Slaughter is in an awkward position.
But New America also gets a lot of money from genuinely philanthropic sources like the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Open Society Foundation. The New York Times quotes one of New America’s foundation funders saying that “you want to let the grantees do their work without worrying about how it impacts the funders.” So New America could raise its ethical standards and still raise millions of dollars from these kinds of donors. In the long run I think this would make New America a better, more influential institution.