New America Foundation Underscores Moral Hazards of Fundraising

New Orleans  The transactional nature of funding for nonprofits, even highly regarded A-list, Washington and New York City think tanks, that normally might be presumed to be sufficiently sanctified by their peers and immune to pressure within their circles, thanks to the current controversy around Google string pulling and the New America Foundation, are under a much needed microscope. The political and policy dangers that intersect in these transactions are constantly shadowed by moral hazard and worse, so the ham-handed handling of this controversy by New America is especially revealing and instructive in a cautionary way.

If anyone ever expected a free pass on these issues, it might have been New America. They tout their ability as a policy and opinion shop to look at our times and where we are going in a number of specialty areas from foreign policy to technology, and possibly anything else where they stumble on an open checkbook, it seems. They must have felt particularly bulletproof because one of their most popular programs is funding New America Foundation Fellows, many of them are top journalists at major papers and magazines and authors of important volumes. The fast majority of the current fellows are specifically named Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellows through the support of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of the giant Google companies and until 2016, the chairmen of the board of the New America Foundation. News reports indicate that in the years of New America’s operation they have received $21 million from either Google or Schmidt’s personal foundation.

The controversy is easily stated. One of their fellows, Barry Lynn, who was running one of their programs called Open Markets was summarily dismissed and his entire 10-person staff and operation ejected as well. The action by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, seems to have followed within days a complaint from Google’s Schmidt after he began aware that Lynn had posted something in a blog that spoke approvingly of the $2.7 billion fine levied on Google by the European Union regulators for what we would call monopolistic restraint of trade. Slaughter claims one action didn’t lead to another, but it seems it’s like the old Richard Pryor joke about “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I’m sure Slaughter is a fine scholar and obviously a super fundraiser, but her remarks, if anything, seem to confess to the conflict of interest rather than denying it. She claims Lynn was fired for repeated violations of New America’s “strong implicit norms.” Let’s stop there for a minute. There is no union representative in the country who couldn’t win reinstatement over an alleged breach of “implicit norms” of any kind. If these were so-called “norms,” why would a big-time nonprofit CEO making way over half-million a year have not made sure they were explicit and detailed in contracts, agreements, and rules of the road at New America, especially if these were “repeated violations?” On the management side, this would have been “once burned, twice learned,” if this were true.

And, the violation is equally unsettling. Slaughter claims the staff, fellows, whatever owe it to management to provide “a heads-up when you are doing something that could have an impact on the funding for your fellow directors.” Slaughter having already confessed to not being on top of her job as a manager, now is explicitly arguing for both the opportunity to engage in direct censorship and restraint of her staff’s policy work or implicitly asking her staff to self-censor their work, all with the expectation that they are as attuned to the financial impact and donor interests as she is as the chief organizational rainmaker. Wow! No wonder she has some of her current and past fellows circulating a petition to their board to draw a different line. Slaughter is all but saying to her people, if you mess with the money, better be moving towards the door. The way she continually indicts herself in this controversy, I have to wonder how she can survive as head of the institution or the institution can survive with her as its head?

Amazingly she demonstrates how much she has become a captive of the donors and lowered the wall of protection for her organization’s work in additional “oh, poor me” statements that fail to grasp her role or any accountability. She is quoted in the Times saying, “There are unavoidable tensions the minute you take corporate funding or foreign government funding. But the fact is that it’s very difficult to run a think tank these days with just foundation funding.” It is inescapable that she is rationalizing her role, rather than accepting responsibility or acknowledging her job as as head of the night’s watch on the wall for her people. She also seems not to understand that foundation and private donor funding also have the same “unavoidable tensions” and can be equally as transactional when the interests of the donor are unsatisfied. Eric Schmidt’s personal foundation is part of the forest she seems lost in, while trying to monetize every tree.

The head of another think tank in Washington, the Center for American Progress, which has faced similar criticism in the past, reminded her staff that “every institution’s ability to impact the national debate is based on trust.” For the New America Foundation that trust is gone when it comes to Google and the tech monopolies, probably forever. If they have shuttered the program, they need to return the money given by the donors, corporate or whatever. CAP’s Neera Tanden also cautions that nonprofits “never should come close to the line on these issues.”

Call it moral hazard, pay-to-play, or whatever, that line is never implicit. It has to be bright and shining. All of our work has to be with our eyes wide open and our guard constantly up.


Mirror Sites, Domain Hosts, and Wikileaks Cyber War

wikiprotestmain-420x0 New Orleans I’ve got to admit that the more there is a bully boy, gang up on Wikileaks by governments, businesses and cowards, the more I’m sympathetic to their situation and the need for all of us to step up some way or another.

My hero of the day is Toronto-based EasyDNS, a domain registration outfit with 55,000 customers, that was misidentified of Twitter and then in various newspapers as hosting Wikileaks’ website.  As most know, the real hosts turned tail and ran for specious reasons, so when the Wikipeople realized that EasyDNS had a set, they asked them to host, and sure enough, Mark Jeftovic, head of EasyDNS, said it was time “to put up or shut up.”  So, they strapped it on for the fight and took Wikileaks on as a customer.  I’m definitely going to give them some of my little business!

In response to rouge individual and government efforts to knock Wikileaks off the web, a couple of hundred people at last report had downloaded and were hosting “mirror” sites.  Ok, techno-peasants, what is a “mirror site?”  According to SearchStorage.Com:

“A mirror site is an exact replica of the original site and is usually updated frequently to ensure that it reflects the content of the original site. Mirror sites are used to make access faster when the original site may be geographically distant (for example, a much-used Web site in Germany may arrange to have a mirror site in the United States). In some cases, the original site (for example, on a small university server) may not have a high-speed connection to the Internet and may arrange for a mirror site at a larger site with higher-speed connection and perhaps closer proximity to a large audience.”

I think we ought to help these mirror sites multiply so that these botnet strategies of pushing unpopular sites off the internet are stopped.  Like it or not, there is very valuable information coming forward from these news reports based on the cables released thus far.  We’re finding out more than we might have wanted about how diplomacy is in service to corporate globalism, and particularly in places like Africa and Latin America we’re gaining valuable policy insights without risk of potential harm.

As for “cyber war,” what a hoot!  It’s like a huge hoax that made the front page, lead story on the New York Times. These are folks watching too many grade B movies on HBO about computers that talk and bombs bursting in air.  We’ve learned even more about cyber-censorship at the state level from reading the news reports, but this cyber war hype is little more than electronic picket signs on some corporate sites by a far flung band of “hacktavists” and other wannabes.  I realize it’s on the edgy side of the law perhaps, but darned if I didn’t wish Anonymous would decide to jump in to support one of ACORN International’s campaigns around Remittance Justice for example.

The Times very respected media columnist, David Carr, had a piece today looking at the issues.  Steve Coll, who now heads the New America Foundation, but while working in the trade did great work that has taught me a lot, was a bit snarky on the whole “Wikileaks is journalism” frontier.  He correctly observes that “established interests and the rule of law tend to come down pretty hard on incipient movements” and then rather than standing up to defend such movements compares apples to oranges by injecting Napster into the conversation as a red herring, since Napster became an avowedly commercial enterprise competing with the music industry it was balkanizing.  He wants an office, an address, and a way to call for an interview without understanding that “incipient movements” have to protect themselves and their survival, before they cater to the 9 to 5 requirements of the press.

Disappointing!  Especially since Julian Assange and Wikileaks clearly went “establishment” in the release of these cables in creating a partnership with major news organizations around the world.  My bet is that they did so in the most “old school” way by connecting with (or hiring) someone who knew how to deal with those very organizations.  I don’t know, but my bet is that Mark Stephens, the oft quoted lawyer from the United Kingdom, who represents Wilileaks and Assange in that country carried some of the weight especially with The Guardian and the connection to the New York Times for the collaborative release.  One article mentioned that Stephens is also the lawyer for the Associated Press.  This is not some legal aid newbie to the bar, but someone who obviously has stature with news outfits and could “represent.”  This is not a lift that Julian made himself, even if he and his comrades orchestrated and approved it.  Who needs an office when you have a high powered lawyer?

We need more deep breaths.  This is good stuff and we need to all do our small bit to crawl up from under the mushrooms where we have been fed dung, and grow a little taller and stronger in some sunlight.