The Murky World of Think Tanks

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

So, you’re listening to the radio — correction, your “portable electronic device” — and catching up on the news, when you come across a story offering a recent scientific study stating that, surprisingly, smoking cigarettes isn’t all that unhealthy! So says the “Tobacco Institute,” anyway. A few facts and figures are tossed out for your edification, and the program moves right on to the next item. Seems pretty official, right? After all, an “Institute” released that study.

Obviously, the public today is quite well-educated on the dangers of smoking, but this wasn’t always the case… and up until 1998, there was a real Tobacco Institute that published a myriad of reports citing “expert” analysis that downplayed the risks of smoking. Coincidentally enough, this organization was both founded and funded entirely by cigarette manufacturers, which understandably had quite a vested interest in keeping Americans from viewing cigarettes as Public Enemy No. 1.

Would listeners have gotten that sort of disclaimer if they’d heard the story on television or radio back in the ’60s? Perhaps… but probably not. Broadcast news is typically a much-abridged version of what you might find in print, and often, the labeling of such “think tanks” gets brushed aside in the interest of brevity. Do most Americans know that the Cato Institute examines issues from a libertarian perspective? Or that the Center for American Progress is a liberal-leaning research organization? When you hear about findings from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are you aware of its close ties to pro-Israeli lobbies?

In 2010, NPR conducted a study of their own news coverage, and found that far more often than not, think-tanks were not presented to its listenership in any context; in particular, the Brookings Institute was cited over 100 times without a single mention of its politics. While Brookings is considered to be one of the more centrist research organizations on Capitol Hill (see the attached footnote), how aware is NPR’s audience of this?

Yet another wrench in the works when it comes to think-tanks is the practice of deceptive organizational names. Often, policies and legislation are saddled with titles that introduce a level of awkwardness for any would-be opponents. (See: “Fairness Doctrine” and “Patriot Act.”) The same is true for some new think-tanks — the findings of the Americans For Prosperity seem much more palatable than if they had come from the Koch Foundation (the conservative Koch brothers are the ones funding AFP), and a similar analogy can be drawn for the George Soros-backed Open Society Institute (representing a liberal perspective). All the more reason for news consumers to keep a close eye on sources that are cited — and to seek out a variety of different viewpoints.


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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.
In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.
Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.