As Journalism and Democracy Struggle, New America Caves to Google

In my analysis of the role of outside influence peddling on last year’s election, I harped on a number of issues. In addition to focusing on the long-standing right wing noise machine (Breitbart didn’t need Vladimir Putin to learn how to rat-fuck), I also noted that all of our politics is too easily driven by paid influence, whether from Russia, Qatar, or Defense Contractors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to the extent that fake news affected the election, it did so because the United States has allowed a handful of companies — chiefly, Facebook and Google — to concentrate power in Silicon Valley.

So to sum up this part of my argument: First, the history of journalism is about the history of certain market conditions, conditions which always get at least influenced by the state, but which in so-called capitalist countries also tend to produce bottle necks of power. In the 50s, it was the elite. Now it’s Silicon Valley. And that’s true not just here! The bottle-neck of power for much of the world is Silicon Valley. To understand what dictates the kinds of stories you get from a particular media environment, you need to understand where the bottle-necks are. Today’s bottle-neck has created both what people like to call “fake news” and a whole bunch of other toxins.

If we’re going to account for the weaknesses of our democracy, we need to account for the way our discourse gets channeled through two enormous companies whose primary interest is profit, not democracy.

Recent events at New America, which describes itself as “a think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age,” demonstrate the risk.

When one of the leading commenters on the risk of concentration, Barry Lynn, applauded the EU’s judgment against Google — which is a major funder for New America — the think tank pulled his statement and fired him and his team.

The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left.

But not long after one of New America’s scholars posted a statement on the think tank’s website praising the European Union’s penalty against Google, Mr. Schmidt, who had chaired New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar.

The statement disappeared from New America’s website, only to be reposted without explanation a few hours later. But 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.” The episode left some people concerned that Google intended to discontinue funding, while others worried whether the think tank could truly be independent if it had to worry about offending its donors.

Those worries seemed to be substantiated a couple of days later, when Ms. Slaughter summoned the scholar who wrote the critical statement, Barry Lynn, to her office. He ran a New America initiative called Open Markets that has led a growing chorus of liberal criticism of the market dominance of telecom and tech giants, including Google, which is now part of a larger corporate entity known as Alphabet, for which Mr. Schmidt serves as executive chairman.

Ms. Slaughter told Mr. Lynn that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,” according to an email from Ms. Slaughter to Mr. Lynn. The email suggested that the entire Open Markets team — nearly 10 full-time employees and unpaid fellows — would be exiled from New America.

New America insists that Google didn’t pull the plug on some of the most important (and still meager) work criticizing concentration.

New America’s executive vice president, Tyra Mariani, said it was “a mutual decision for Barry to spin out his Open Markets program,” and that the move was not in any way influenced by Google or Mr. Schmidt.

But this is in no way the first time they’ve catered to Google’s preferred policies. I’ve run up against it indirectly in surveillance fights, and others have far more directly.

So here we have a think tank which is doing necessary work carving out space on the left for policy. But it can’t investigate one of the most basic threats to our democracy, because doing so would quickly identify the danger of Google.

I get the need to attract and keep funding. But if this lefty think tank can’t research one of the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump, what good can it do?

Update: Here’s a link to Lynn’s new site

17 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    ew writes:

    “… Recent events at New America, which describes itself as “a think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age,” demonstrate the risk…”

    let me rewrite New America’s suave, self-flattering statement of purpose to describe what i think it should convey:

    New America is social organization we decided to call a” think tank” and “civic enterprise”. New America is committed to finding and glad-handing reliable sources of money to pay its staff and its operating expenses.

    As part of writing our goals and objectives statement, we came up with the idea of referencing “the three p’s” – politics, prosperity, and purpose – to highlight our interests.

    – “politics” refers to the politics we engage in in our search for funding and to the tightrope we walk in not offending any of our sugar daddies or mommies (and of course, to the politics in general that govern our national decision making).

    – “prosperity” refers to keeping up our funding up and increasing our staff, the reach of our documents, and our attendance at conferences and conventions (and of course, to prosperity for americans of all walks of class).

    – “purpose” refers to our maintaining our focus tightly on our survival and increase (biblical term) and on those ideological matters congruent with ours leaders’ and our funders ideological interests (and of course, on the effort to renew a sense of purpose in our national something or another).

    thank you for your generous contribution. *

    *personal legacy (wills) advice available on request.

  2. Rugger9 says:

    Greenmail is a time tested method to get the preferred corporate messages out there. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NPR, PBS, etc., all get large amounts of money from Koch Enterprises (I see the ads) and as a result one doesn’t usually find anything on these networks that would offend the hand that feeds them. It’s a business decision made by cowards, and it is not just in the media. ACORN went under because the MSM wouldn’t push back on lies; Shirley Sherrod was turfed out of the Department of Agriculture due to scurrilous rumors (for which IIRC she got a court judgement award); James O’Keefe needs to be in prison (for tapping Senator Landrieu’s phones) as well as bankrupt. But IOKIYAR because the cowards know that Malkin’s flying monkey army will give them bad press if they question what the GOP does, even if it is only temporary.

    It’s a large part of the “both sides” viewpoint, the need to deflect criticism.

    When Silly Billy signed the communications act in 1994 that allowed this consolidation of sources, he prepared the way for this outcome.

    • Phil Perspective says:

      ACORN went under because the MSM wouldn’t push back on lies; Shirley Sherrod was turfed out of the Department of Agriculture due to scurrilous rumors (for which IIRC she got a court judgement award); …

      Both couldn’t have happened with out the cowardice of the Democratic Party.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    No one has better credentials (Princeton, HLS, Oxford doctorate) or is better at caving in to a mega-supporter than Anne-Marie Slaughter.

  4. orionATL says:

    from nytimes:

    “among the most effective – if little examined – tools in google’s public policy toolbox has been its funding of nonprofit groups from across the political spectrum. this year it donated to 170… the number of beneficiaries has grown exponentially… since 2010, when it gave to 45 groups. ”

    this is a long-practiced, well-developed corporate influence-buying strategy. for example, electric utility corporations and oil corporations have been donating to environmental groups for years. their clear purpose is to mute protest from organizations who by their nature have interests at odds with some of the policies of electric utilities or oil companies.

    as far as i am concerned, all of this corporate largess, just like the lobbying of the congress and the state legislatures, fits under president jimmy carter’s comment to the effect that the united states is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy where unlimited political bribery is routinely practised.

    now the question – what does all this say of the morality and integrity of the leaders of these allegedly “public interest” groups like new america?

  5. Kim Kaufman says:

    Funding every non-profit in NYC is how Michael Bloomberg got elected three times as mayor and shut down any dissident voices against his wretched policies. It’s good to be a billionaire.

  6. SpaceLifeForm says:

    If you want to remain independent and retain your freedom, always remember this important tenet of Marxism:

    Never join a club that would have you as a member.

  7. Rapier says:

    Of necessity, of the times that is, New American is run on the model of a modern business corporation and those that rise in corporations have are totally enculturated to the modern business corporation.

    There could have been no other possible choice that New American execs could make but to throw the people overboard.  I mean functionally the proper business/corporate decision.

    The larger the NGO the more linkedin to neoliberal/economic orthodoxy will be its leaders.  Not by chance but by the necessity of the culture itself.  The Google’s of the world will only deal with  linkedin to corporate culture people that is.

    I can’t say this eloquently at the   moment  but I hope you get my drift.

    There is zero chance that national NGO or business corporation, that has a recognizable name in the great capital city, will do anything to harm its benefactors.  Sans big benefactors there are  no  execs on the rise and on the move.

  8. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Totally related, this was Forbes and Google six years ago.

    Burying the news, high-tech style.

    Here is a link to copy of original article that was buried:

    Below is the story about the buried story, by Kashmir Hill, who wrote both.

    But the most disturbing part of the experience was what came next: Somehow, very quickly, search results stopped showing the original story at all.

    Deliberately manipulating search results to eliminate references to a story that Google doesn’t like would be an extraordinary, almost dystopian abuse of the company’s power over information on the internet.

  9. orionATL says:

    finally, another nytimes story on the New America debacle initiated by its leader, ann-marie slaughter:

    from my perspective, what is impressive about this story are the quotes from slaughter denying that google-originating pressure had anything to do with her efforts to dismiss new america scholar barry lynn and his group who have been advocating for far more rigorous and vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws. why slaughter would expect us to believe her flagrantly false denials of google’s egregious intrusion is beyond me.

    one of the major hidden drags on the u. s. economy over the last 30 years has been the extraordinary increase in the concentration of market power in a few giant companies in sector after sector of the economy – the giant banks, for example, or the major airlines, or teevee/internet/cellphone communications.

    these concentrations of market power limit wages, limit worker mobility, limit price competition, limit technological change, severely inhibit new corporations from entering a market, and fund enormous individual wealth beyond any any human being has need for, wealth which distorts and suppresses the natural leadership-correction capabilities of our political system.

    barry lynn looks to me to have been doing good work for america; too bad new america’s leadership failed its opportunity to protect that work.

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