I’ve always liked think tanks, and I’ve worked for quite a few of them over the years. [1]

So I read Christine Rosen’s cover story in the Weekly Standard about New America’s firing of Barry Lynn with keen interest. At issue was this question: Did New America fire Lynn because he criticized Google, a major donor to New America, on antitrust grounds?

Rosen’s article is highly unusual because Rosen worked for New America for two years researching technology issues. “I used to joke that I was a token at the think tank not because of my conservative political views (though the overwhelming majority of folks at New America lean left) but because of my skepticism about the blue-sky promises made by technology companies,” she writes.

In addition, last year New America placed a half-page ad in the Weekly Standard urging conservatives to apply for their fellowships. But looking at their list of fellows, I don’t see anyone I’d call conservative or libertarian. (However, two of their board members, Reihan Salam of National Review and New York Times columnist David Brooks, are not liberals.)

Given that New America’s major donors (i.e. the ones who have given seven-figure gifts) include such hard-line liberal foundations as the Ford, Gates, Hewlett, Lumina, and Open Society Foundations, I could easily see why they found no one on the right acceptable.[2]

Over the years, I’ve heard of people being sacked from think tanks for all sorts of reasons, including sexual harassment, being an overwhelming jerk, and spending two years doing no work at all.

But the idea that you could be sacked for promoting ideas donors don’t like is a line that should never be crossed.

The facts of the case are these: Barry Lynn was increasingly critical of Google’s political and economic clout. Then,

Curiously absent from the discussion were any quotes either from Google or its president, Eric Schmidt, who has served as chairman of the New America board for many years. Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy Schmidt give seven-figure gifts to New America both as a couple and through The Schmidt Family Foundation.[3] In addition, Google is a seven-figure corporate contributor.

Rosen also looks at other cases where the firewall between donors and scholars appear to be breached.

As she notes, the Washington Post, in a long investigation of Brookings in 2014 (which I wrote about here) found one minor case of real estate developers in Atlanta appearing to have broken the Brookings firewall.

In 2013 Ken Silverstein published two articles in The Nation (which appeared here and here) where he charged that the liberal think tank Center for American Progress had a secret “Business Council” whose members it did not disclose. He said that one of the members of this council was FirstSolar, which had received loan guarantees from the Energy Department for its Antelope Valley project. According to Silverstein, a Center for American Progress fellow subsequently testified to Congress that the Antelope Valley project was a good idea.

Liberals accuse right-wing think tanks of being controlled by their donors, but I’ve never heard of any case comparable to New America. The two closest cases are the resignation of Jim DeMint as president of the Heritage Foundation in May and the battle over control of the Cato Institute in 2012. I don’t know enough about the Heritage case to give a good explanation as to why DeMint resigned. As for Cato, that case is complicated because the think tank was owned by four shareholders, and Charles and David Koch owned half the shares. Many Cato fellows resigned, but when the Cato corporate structure was reorganized so that the Kochs relinquished control, nearly all came back. I think that the Kochs threatened to take over Cato intellectually, but never carried out their threat.

As for Google and New America, I would suspect that the reason Barry Lynn left is two-thirds ideological and one-third personality conflict. But if Google muscled Lynn out, that move backfired, because, from now on, every time a New America fellow issues any sort of statement on regulatory issues of interest to Google, readers would be suspicious about whether the fellow was expressing Google’s corporate line.

In my view, such suspicion would be justified.

[1] My closest affiliation has been with the American Enterprise Institute, where my work includes 7 ½ years as an editor at The American Enterprise and one year as a contractor supplying education research. I’ve done editing for the Hudson Institute, which published two editions of my book Great Philanthropic Mistakes, and also been an editor for the Manhattan Institute, which published my monograph By Their Bootstraps. I wrote one article for Policy Review and spent a month at the Heritage Foundation ghostwriting one chapter of Eric Felten’s The Ruling Class. I’ve done projects for the Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Reason Foundation, and the Institute for Justice.

[2] New America did hire Megan McArdle to write The Up Side of Down, which I reviewed here.

[3] ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer says that there are seven Schmidt Family Foundations, but the one run by Eric and Wendy Schmidt capitalizes “The” in the title.

Photo credit: Truthout.org via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA (visual modifications were made by Philanthropy Daily)