Photo: AP

The New York Times’ Ken Vogel released a bombshell report yesterday, quoting emails that appeared to show that the liberal think tank New America had severed ties with its Open Markets team for criticizing Google, a major New America donor. After New America’s president, former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter, decried the story as “false” on Twitter—an allegation she later walked back—New America released a statement saying that Open Markets head Barry Lynn was in fact let go for a lack of “institutional collegiality.”

Later that night, New America released the three emails sent by Slaughter to Lynn, and quoted in the piece, in full. It did not release the emails sent by Lynn to Slaughter.

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Without Lynn’s half of the emails, it’s hard to assess what Slaughter might have been referring to when she criticized his “collegiality,” leaving the reader guessing that what she in fact meant, as alluded to in the first quoted email, sent almost a year previously, was that he had jeopardized funding for the think tank’s other programs. (Disclosure: I have previously appeared on a New America panel to discuss net neutrality and broadband investment.)

The first email quoted by Vogel, and then released by New America, dates from 2016, almost a year before the others. The background of the exchange:

[Lynn’s] Open Markets initiative’s organization of a 2016 conference at which a range of influential figures — including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — warned of the damaging effects of market consolidation in tech. In the run-up to that conference, Ms. Slaughter, in an email to Lynn, indicated that Google was concerned that its positions were not going to be represented, and that it was not given advanced notice of the event.

“We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points,” Ms. Slaughter wrote to Mr. Lynn, urging him to “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”

Splinter reviewed the emails between Lynn and Slaughter, plus one additional email sent by Slaughter—one New America has not published—on June 22, 2016, which raised concerns about how Slaughter would explain that conference when she spoke with Susan Molinari, Google’s chief lobbyist in D.C., the next day. We have asked New America why they didn’t publish this email too. As of publication, they have not yet responded.

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Now the Open Markets team has been reborn as a new non-profit, Citizens Against Monopoly, a 501(c)(3) that has already set up a slick website telling its side of the New America story and encouraging visitors to tell Google to live up to its famous “Don’t be evil” motto. There are unanswered questions about Citizens Against Monopoly, specifically around where its funding will come from and whether it will make those donors public; 501(c)(3)s aren’t required to disclose donors. A representative for Citizens Against Monopoly told Splinter via email that the “Open Markets team does not reveal the names of its donors to the press out of respect to them, though it is not currently taking corporate dollars.” Currently. (Update, 9:28pm: A spokesperson for the Open Markets team emailed Splinter to clarify its statement on corporate donations, saying: “As a policy, Open Markets will not ever be taking corporate funding.”)

This is the problem for D.C. think tanks of all kinds, not just Citizens Against Monopoly or New America. In order to function, they need funding. For fairly obvious reasons, the likeliest sources of funding tend to be billionaires, who have their own agendas and whims, or corporations. And corporations are very willing to throw their cash around D.C.. It’s easy enough to paint the funding of nonprofits as philanthropic support for research, education, and free thinking, even as those nonprofits do undeniably political work. (The best part is: Most donations to 501(c)(3)s are even tax-deductible.)

When does that support become undue influence? Every now and then, reporters will surface an egregious, obvious example of pay-to-play, as the New York Times’ Eric Lipton and Brooke Williams did last year, revealing “assurances from [The] Brookings [Institution] that it would provide ‘donation benefits’” to corporate donors. But most of the time, it isn’t that clear, and the public almost never has access to emails and correspondence that would prove the existence of those kinds of deals.

Which means, most of the time, we are left to deduce influence from financial relationships (which themselves aren’t required to be disclosed), in a way that think tanks find easy to deny. In the second story in Lipton and Williams’s two-part report, they, with Nick Confessore, detailed the even murkier area of paid industry consultants who also work at think tanks, like Roger Zakheim, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who “used research to push for greater spending for new military equipment while working as a lobbyist for Pentagon suppliers like Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, lobbying records show.”

It sounds ridiculous, and nakedly corrupt—at least to anyone whose mind isn’t warped by D.C.’s overriding culture of self-justification and rent-seeking. (And to be fair, rent ain’t cheap here.) AEI is pretty ridiculously bad, as think tanks go. But what if it’s not just conservative snakepits like AEI? What if that very attitude—that financial relationships can’t possibly be evidence of influence—is the same attitude that formed New America’s utterly inadequate response to yesterday’s story?

Google’s response to Sam Biddle and David Dayen at the Intercept shows it doesn’t understand how influence actually works, or is pretending it doesn’t, or just thinks we’re all idiots:

Over email, a Google spokesperson told The Intercept that “Eric [Schmidt] never threatened to cut off funding to New America and that we had no role in eliminating the Open Markets Initiative.” The spokesperson added that she would not deny Schmidt’s “displeasure” with the Open Markets team, “but displeasure and pressure are two totally different things — he did not imply pressure on NAF re: Open Markets. To characterize it that way would be totally inaccurate.”

As Biddle and Dayen point out, “displeasure of one of the most powerful men in the world is, of course, itself a form of pressure.” Just because Schmidt didn’t explicitly tell Slaughter that the group’s funding would be withdrawn if Open Markets continued to criticize Google—not that we know for certain that he didn’t—doesn’t mean that pressure wasn’t exerted. Tacit “understandings” about what is and isn’t acceptable to big donors are just as insidious as explicit threats, if less easy to find smoking gun proof of.

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Yesterday, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, in reference to this story, that think tanks’ “credibility is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences.” That’s true. But preventing corporate influence on think tank (or academic) research can’t begin at the point where that influence is demonstrated in a leaked email. That’s far too late. Without access to their internal communications, isn’t it fair for the public to assume that when a think tank that takes corporate donations, and supports policies that helps those corporations, it does so, at least in part, because of those donations? In taking corporate money but saying trust us, it doesn’t affect our research, a think tank like New America is requires the public to give it an absurd benefit of the doubt—it’s just as risible as politicians who take Wall Street money while saying trust me, I can’t be bought.

There is something in the water in Washington, D.C., that makes the professional classes think that, because things currently work this way, it’s OK for them to defend the way things work, because hey, that’s how things work, you know? Everyone would rather be Francis Underwood than Jonah Ryan. That impulse to play ball to get ahead, even if it means undermining the principles you supposedly stand for—like the cynical deployment of terms like “transparency” in the process of being extremely shady—undermines all the good or important research a think tank does. As much as you might deny it, taking corporate money undermines the integrity of whatever you produce with it. This is the way things work. Who is it really working for?