back to article A furious think-tank boss, Google, and an academic 'fired' for criticizing ads giant

The CEO accused of caving in to pressure from Google when she fired an academic that was critical of the online giant has fired back. In a blog post titled "When The Truth is Messy and Hard," Anne-Marie Slaughter – the CEO of think-tank New America – claims she did not fire academic Barry Lynn for criticizing Google. Rather, …

  1. Mark 110 Silver badge

    Hmm

    I can see where you are coming from Kieran but I don't have enough information.

    Surely we need to know whether it would be normal practise for Barry to do something like this without running it by Mistress Slaughter first. If he did this all the time and only got pulled up because he criticized his Mistresses mates then fine - I fully agree with the tone of your article.

    If normal practise was to run things through approval before publishing and he swerved it in this case then he is rightfully sacked. He could have made his thoughts known in his own name rather than his employers if he didn't want to have to swerve normal company process. You never drop your boss in the doo doo without being aware of the consequences.

    I take your point though. If Google are actively censoring research on policy that's a bad thing.

    Dont. Be. Evil.

    1. dan1980

      Re: Hmm

      @Mark 110

      "If normal practice was to run things through approval before publishing and he swerved it in this case then he is rightfully sacked."

      Okay, but if seeking approval prior to publishing is required (rather than just a courtesy) then one can infer that Lynn was in the practice of doing this simply due to the fact that this didn't happen earlier.

      Which raises the question: why did he (Lynn) deviate from past practice in this one specific instance? The clear answer is that he believed that, had he sought approval from Slaughter, there was a strong chance that he would have had to censor his piece.

      Whether that censorship would have happened or not is up for debate but it is clear that Lynn was sufficiently convinced that it would - so convinced that he was willing to risk his job.

      The other question that comes up is: why was the response so absolute from Slaughter? She claims that she wouldn't have censored the piece, which implies that the content was not inaccurate, misleading or in breach of their guidelines. So why terminate the relationship over a single* lapse in procedure?

      Take a hypothetical parallel - a company employee commenting publicly via social media. Let's say a company is celebrating 5 years in business and a social media drone posts a tweet or whatever saying how proud the team are to be celebrating their 5th anniversary of selling high-quality widgets but, crucially, that drone doesn't get the required approval of the marketing manager before posting.

      A response is needed, surely, to re-enforce that all staff must have public statements approved but nothing in the post would have violated any content rules and certainly would have been approved.

      In such a situation, is it reasonable to fire someone for that?

      Bringing it back to this case, the real test would be what the consequences would have been had Lynn done the same thing (in not seeking approval) but had published a piece that was supportive of Google and their interests.

      For Slaughter to be believed, it must be shown that Lynn would have been let go in that situation, too.

      * - One can strongly infer that this was an isolated incident and not a pattern as Slaughter would certainly have mentioned this history, painting it as the proverbial last straw. Had that been the case.

    2. LDS Silver badge

      "If normal practise was..."

      Maybe he knew he couldn't follow "normal practice" because he was going to be censored? That's the whole point of the story.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "If normal practise was..."

        But if this undermines your boss, company policy and procedure and you knew that you were likely to get sacked for it, then getting sacked is not a surprise and shouldn't be a reason to go whinging about it.

        If I were a journalist and decided to go to the print room and get them to insert a story into my paper so it wouldn't get seen but the editor first, as I knew it would be censored then it doesn't put me in the right.

        Similarly working for my organisation if I was to post onto our website or twitter feed, knowing that is not allowed, then even if the story was not controversial or false I would still be liable to the loss of my job.

        However, this goes to a really different point - don't accept money from anyone or give money to anyone that may cause a conflict of interest at any point. This applies to politicians, news outlets, NGOs etc. If there is money involved then it automatically creates a relationship of some kind. That isn't news, or even controversial - money or power causes influence - without exception.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "If normal practise was..."

          Is he whinging about being fired? Or about how his former employer deferred to Google?

  2. ST Silver badge
    Devil

    She just doesn't [...] understand how soft money influence actually works

    Oh, but she understands that very well. This is nothing more than a lame attempt at cleaning up the self-inflicted mess that blew up in her face.

    The lady doth protest too much.

    1. Rob D.
      Coat

      Re: She just doesn't [...] understand how soft money influence actually works

      No - the journalist protests too much. The original article was long on innuendo and short on fact as well, and this one follows the same pattern - start with an agenda and fit the facts to it. If these articles combined analysis with fact rather than opinion with fact they would carry more weight. For example, plenty of great commentary like this:

      "That Lynn felt the need to push his statement out without going through Slaughter, and the fact that she had such a strong reaction when he didn't, combined with the virtual certainty that Schmidt called soon after to express his annoyance, is as clear an example of soft money influence as you will ever find."

      Confirmation bias at its best - where are the facts that just about fit the story I want to write? Any number of explanations could fit the circumstances and all are only conjecture without relevant evidence and analysis.

      Ref the earlier story: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/08/30/google_soft_money/

      1. ST Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: She just doesn't [...] understand how soft money influence actually works

        > The original article was long on innuendo and short on fact

        No. Actualy, either you're wrong, or you're shilling for Slaughter. The facts are very simple.

        Barry Lynn wrote an article critical of Google. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt complained to Anne-Marie Slaughter - CEO of think-tank New America - about the Lynn article. After hearing Schmidt's complaint, Slaughter fired Lynn.

        That's it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: She just doesn't [...] understand how soft money influence actually works

          Maybe, but maybe it was not following procedure so that Slaughter could defend herself when the phone call came. Maybe it was making your boss look like an idiot whose staff are unmanageable.

          If you are a manager and get called in front of someone with the facts to hand and good reasoning behind a decision then fine, you have to stand on your own two feet. If you are called to account to ask why something happened and you have to admit you had no knowledge of it then it jeopardises your position.

        2. 100113.1537

          Journalistic cherry-picking

          You wrote that these are the facts:

          "Barry Lynn wrote an article critical of Google. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt complained to Anne-Marie Slaughter - CEO of think-tank New America - about the Lynn article. After hearing Schmidt's complaint, Slaughter fired Lynn."

          But these are not the ONLY facts. There is the "fact" that Barry Lynn published the article using his affiliation with the think-tank without his bosses review. There are almost certainly more which may or may not affect your chosen position.

          You have listed three specific actions (not facts) and used them to create your narrative. This is a legal approach to making a case which - almost by definition - is trying to convince an audience of your OPINION. I appreciate that this is what the world now seems to be sued to, but claiming that you are only presenting "the facts" is disingenuous. You have a position (which I have a lot of sympathy with) and you have written your article reporting on the various statements with some balance, but then you have cherry-picked certain parts of this and presented them in such a way as to shut down the discussion (These are the facts!)

          Such dogmatic statements take away from the value of the article.

          1. Peter2 Silver badge

            Re: Journalistic cherry-picking

            I suppose that depends if you beleive that Schmidt's telephone call brought no pressure to bear or not.

            That would then influence your belief as to if other factors raised afterwards are reasons or justifications.

        3. TVU Silver badge

          Re: She just doesn't [...] understand how soft money influence actually works

          "No. Actualy, either you're wrong, or you're shilling for Slaughter. The facts are very simple.

          Barry Lynn wrote an article critical of Google. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt complained to Anne-Marie Slaughter - CEO of think-tank New America - about the Lynn article. After hearing Schmidt's complaint, Slaughter fired Lynn.

          That's it".

          ^ Exactly this and it's an example of Google's Stalinist control freakery tendency which is a common feature of all megacorporations - dissent of any sort is not permitted.

  3. James 51 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I am guessing it is not only Apple that is going to put el reg on its blocked number/email list. Well done chap(ette)s.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It won't make much difference. Google are difficult to reach anyway.

      We got attacked by a Google IP (DOS attack blocking our connection). The usual methods of contacting a company for such an attack fell on deaf ears. The abuse email address said that they get so many emails, that they are not read and there would be no response.

      Trying to contact them directly by telephone just went through a tree menu, which basically said go to google.com and look up the service you want help with (I couldn't find any reference to their DOS service), before hanging up.

      I tried a few other addresses and telephone numbers, but no luck. Even tweeting to them, that they were DOSing us didn't get a reply.

      In the end, we managed to get our ISP to block the IP address at their border.

      (The IP address is registered to Google, I would assume that a badly configured piece of kit or a wonky customer cloud instance was probably to blame, but at the end of the day, they were pumping more data down our pipe than it could handle (100mbps down a 10mbps link).)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "In the end, we managed to get our ISP to block the IP address at their border."

        Wow, that would have been my first port of call. That IP would also remain blocked forever more unless it was something important. A large range of addresses, I could understand that it might cause difficulty, but a single IP - I wouldn't have even bother trying the Google route until after it had been blocked.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          An E-Mail to Google doesn't cost anything and lets them known something is screwed up on their network... Getting the IP blocked at the network level costs around $250 a month for the ISPs "DOS Service".

  4. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Lost me here...

    was complicit in giving a corporate giant undue influence over an organization whose job it is to keep an eye on such abuses of corporate power.

    I never had the faintest idea that a Stink Tank has this goal and modus operandi.

    AFAIK, their goal and modus operandi is to supply seemingly objective position for lobbying. They have NO OTHER REASON TO EXIST. OK, I am being unfair here, they have one more - to provide jobs to liberal arts parasites who are too lazy or incompetent to find real work as well as low-load retirement positions for public servants who have served well their real paymasters.

    Any ideas that a Stink tank has anything to uphold as far as moral or factual standards are delusional. It upholds only one thing - producing what is expected from it based on its orientation. Its orientation is chosen not because there is a public good expectation from it. It is chosen so that money can be collected and its founders can retire on the Bahamas one day. As a payment for providing what their paymasters require.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Lost me here...

      Your post is ridiculous.

      Most think tanks don't make huge money. Nobody is retiring to the Bahamas! Most of them can't even afford to fully staff themselves.

      This kind of lazy-thinking, accusatory, bull-shittery is as much a reason that politics is in the state it's in as arseholes like Trump. Impugning people's motives for shits-and-giggles.

      Do some people go into the political realm for bad reasons? Of course they do. Do all people who go into politcs do it for bad reasons? Of course not. Get a grip!

      Sure think tanks have biases. But mostly they're known and that's why they attract the funding they do. Which means it's much less of a problem. Especially if you've got a vibrant mix of different ones.

      Because they're also vitally important. Most political parties are also under-funded. The US is unusual in the vast sums they spend on politics. But even there, most of that cash goes on campaigning. The boring slog of looking at policy is mostly left to government. Governing parties are usually too busy - except for immediate policy work where they use government, and the opposition are usually too poor.

      So think tanks perform a useful role in a weird no-man's land.

      Not that it's not subject to corruption. But it's a space where useful thinking can also happen.

      Look at Greece for a counter-example. Because London has a huge political scene, when Gordon Brown was indulging in a few shennanigans to keep things off the UK balance sheet (like Network Rail, PFI etc.), it was widely covered. Lots of policy wonks of all types look at the politics and economics here. The Greek government managed to run a 10% deficit for several years, and just lie about it. And nobody noticed. And because they don't have the kind of non-party political analysis going on, nobody spotted it, until it was disastrously too late. That, and being in the Euro, then doomed them to at least a decade of a depression as bad as the 1930s.

      Outside analysis of policy is good. Even if flawed.

  5. Mycho Silver badge

    Google has peaked

    I don't have an opinion on the rightness or wrongness of anything. This story just happenned to coincide with a bunch of others about how Google has been being evil recently. Maybe they can turn it around but for now consider selling Google, they're in decline.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Re: Google has peaked

      They're not in decline yet. The reason companies do the whole being evil thing is because it's profitable in the short to medium term.

      Google will go the way of Oracle, still immensely profitable but without innovation.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Joke

      "Maybe they can turn it around but for now consider selling Google"

      OMG, have we witnessed, gasp peak Google?

      I'm f**king with you.

      They've done far too good a job of hoovering up too much data and making themselves indispensable to most people that the behavior of their creepy Board members won't ruffle most of the flock.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: "Maybe they can turn it around but for now consider selling Google"

        There's a danger for Google in being too successful.

        MS got a slap on the wrist and a fat fine, and just damaged their brand.

        But Google are really important to how the internet works, and hold vast amounts of personal data. You can buy off politicians to ignore all that for a bit. But if/when the public do notice and the pitchforks come ou, those politicians will just turn on you - and could legislate you out of existence. Or break your company up like the Telecoms monopolies.

        It takes effort to become that unpopular. But the data Google have could make them look so terrifying, that they need to be careful and sort out their PR.

        It takes a long time to live down a bad image.

    3. Daggerchild Silver badge

      Re: Google has peaked

      "This story just happenned to coincide with a bunch of others about how Google has been being evil recently"

      Strange - Google have always 'been evil'. And the Reg hasn't had many more "Opinion: Google are evil" pieces than usual, and Reg never misses chinks in the Googlearmor. What have you been reading?

      1. Mycho Silver badge

        Re: What have you been reading?

        The mainstream media.

        Sure, us Reg readers have known this for a very long time, but the ordinary folks outside our bubble have been noticing this latest swathe too.

        Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part. I'm not magically more objective than other humans. Time will tell.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wouldn't it be satisfying

    to see both of them head down in a swamp?

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Wouldn't it be satisfying

      No, it would cause immense hardship to people who have nothing to do with Oracle but whose livelihood is determined by information held on complex Oracle platforms.

      And finding the right documentation for answering an urgent question about complex Oracle platforms (and underlying IBM systems too) is, as I have repeatedly proved beyond refutation, a matter for a Google search, since the internal search provided by each of those manufacturers is pants.

      Not satisfying at all.

  7. Florida1920 Silver badge
    Holmes

    Google's arrogance exceeds its common sense

    Schmidt erred by complaining to Slaughter. If you're going to bankroll a think tank while allowing it to have the appearance of independence, you don't call the CEO to whine when it disagrees with your profit-making ideology. At most, you write or have written a propaganda piece paper that refutes the original claims, then walk away. See "Streisand Effect." The credibility of Slaughter and her tank have tanked. Nice shot, Schmidt!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Google's arrogance exceeds its common sense

      The thing is Schmidt has also shown in other areas he wants to influence, which is often the reason you are 'donating' to think tanks and politicians in the first place.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Re: Google's arrogance exceeds its common sense

        She's a little older than the women Schmidt usually like to "influence", but I suppose it's possible.

  8. Lysenko

    Integrity....

    ... she heard of it. Sounded like a bad idea.

    If you want to uphold "best journalistic standards" in your writing then people need to believe that you are reporting news/facts/research and not just parroting propaganda and that means that you cannot afford to be seen to be giving a break to your funding sources. If she was serious then the message would be closer to:

    "If the article was about any neutral player I would I would generally want the opportunity to give the CEO a heads up as a courtesy before publication, but since it is Google with whom we have a financial relationship and might be suspected of collusion it was absolutely essential to ensure they had no forewarning whatever in order to forestall any suspicions regarding our journalistic integrity."

    Face it lady, you're not a researcher or a journalist. You're just an obfuscated element of a vast corporate PR and lobbying apparatus.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Re: Integrity....

      You should probably read Ms. Slaughter's biography.

      1. Lysenko

        Re: Integrity....

        Lawyer = professional shill, Political Appointee = professional liar. OK. I take your point. Business as usual for the lady in question.

    2. wayward4now
      Linux

      Re: Integrity....

      You all are missing one important fact here ...don't shit where you eat.

  9. The Nazz Silver badge

    Shouldn't she fire herself then?

    As part of the (allegedly) real reason for firing Lynn was that he directly misled here.

    But she then admits to a tweet stating that the entire New York Times article was false, ie a misleading, innacurate and false statement made by her.

    Also, is there any real difference between what the US would call "soft money" and what,elsewhere in the world, they call it bribery eg the IOC or FIFA officials? Pursued as a criminal matter, often with large fines to the US coffers.*

    They simply both buy the desired outcome.

    *In a sense, extortion. If you want to do any more business in the US pay up now, or else.

    1. liac

      Re: Shouldn't she fire herself then?

      Whatever happened to accountability? Isn't the captain of a ship responsible for the actions of the crew?

  10. Nolveys Silver badge

    A bit off topic, but

    I just love that this woman's name is "Slaughter".

    1. ratfox Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: A bit off topic, but

      Near Oxford, there's two little hamlets called Upper Slaughter, and Lower Slaughter.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: A bit off topic, but

        A few miles from Cambridge there's a place called Six Mile Bottom.

        1. Nunyabiznes

          Re: A bit off topic, but

          That must really make the rocking world go around.

        2. ahjgta

          Re: A bit off topic, but

          Beaky Littlebottom begat Jolly Littlebottom begat Cheery Littlebottom who is a Corporal of the Watch. She prefers to be called Cheri.

  11. ratfox Silver badge

    A think tank?

    Isn't the very definition of a think tank that it is a lobbying organisation paid to promote the views of its backers? What's so surprising that you would be fired for saying the wrong thing?

    I mean, there's a reason these people are not working for universities, or calling themselves journalists, right?

  12. DavCrav Silver badge

    "She acknowledges that think tanks are not analogous to universities in that there is less institutional independence to funders."

    So in other words, the head of a think tank is directly admitting that you should treat every word out of a think tank's mouth as a press release from whoever is keeping the lights on?

    Well, we knew that already, but I'm surprised that she would be so brazen as to say that.

  13. Sirius Lee

    Here the objective truth does not matter

    An institution like the one run by AM Slaughter needs money and just because of this surely the leader needs to be be more subtle in their handling of matters like these; be much more aware of what the institution's position looks like from the outside.

    Whatever are the objective facts of the case, they don't matter because it has been made too easy to position the institution and Google as an interfering bully. It didn't need to be this way. Google did not need to be so thin-skinned. Slaughter did not need to react in such a pejorative way. For example, the institution could have commissioned another article presenting a different side (assuming there is one). Mr Lynn might have objected and chosen to leave anyway.

    It's hard for me to imagine that AM Slaughter will be in position in, say, 12 months from now because it seems to me her actions have put the institution in the position that it's integrity can be brought into doubt. Not that it's integrity *is* in doubt only that it can be construed that way.

    One of the challenges of leadership is being willing to sacrifice, or at least refashion, past friendships when those friendships could compromise the leaders ability to represent the best interest of the organization they lead. Unless there is something the constitution of the institution that requires all it's output to be reviewed and is a transparent principle which funders can reasonably expect to be able to rely, it seems to me AM Slaughter has failed in a core responsibility of the role of CEO.

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    "Think tanks" always have a "house" PoV. Like many con-sultantancies.

    They are not independent from the people who pay their bills. The question you always need to ask is "What is their house PoV and who funds them?"

    Now a key question would be does this one allow staff to have positions that are contrary of its house PoV?

    If they do, then the people who fund them should realize that can happen. Personally I think if you're pushing X agenda 99% of the time the contrary view makes you look less like a payed shill for company A, or B.

    Advance notice of an official paper that a funder won't like is acceptable, provided the funder can't say "No, you won't publish this, we will shut you down if you do." That's not advance notice, or an opportunity for comment, that's censorship.

  15. Alister Silver badge

    Ooh! Almost a Tom Swifty

    "The blanket claim that the entire story was 'false' contributes to the kind of degradation of our national discourse that I often publicly lament," she lamented.

    You snuck that one in :)

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