News Item

Heritage Clones In The Heartland: Local Think Tanks’ “Research” Often Comes Pre-Digested


Conservative think tanks patterned after the highly successful Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (1996 revenues: $16.5 million) and Heritage Foundation (1996 revenues: $28.7 million) opened up around the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s almost as quickly as Scholotzky’s Delis. Like Scholotzky’s, they have now reached saturation. Most states have one, some have several. For example, Colorado has the Center for the New West and the Independence Institute; Illinois has the Rockford Institute and the Heartland Institute; and New York has the Manhattan Institute and the Empire Foundation for Policy Research.

Similar think tanks can be found in the South (e.g., Georgia Public Policy Foundation and John Locke Foundation in North Carolina), Northeast (e.g., Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies in Connecticut and the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Massachusetts), Northwest (e.g., Seattle’s Washington Institute for Policy Studies and Portland’s Cascade Policy Research Institute), Great Lakes Region (e.g., Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan), and Southwest (e.g., New Mexico Foundation for Economic Research and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research).

Although there are a few left-of-center think tanks around the United States, these tend to be underfunded and understaffed, just as the few left-of-center Washington, D.C. think tanks are. For example, the D.C.–based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) had revenues of $654,289 in 1996, or 2.3 percent of Heritage’s. (The Heritage Foundation’s president, Edwin J. Feulner, received $406,052 in salary and another $55,788 in benefits that year–70 percent of IPS’s total budget!)

Like Scholotzky’s Delis, the conservative think tanks offer a very limited menu: They publish reports advocating deregulation, privatization, property rights, school choice and a few other topics. And each produces reports that sound the same as others, just as an order at any Scholotzky’s tastes the same.

For example, between 1994 and 1996, the Washington Institute released State Government Privatization, the Mackinaw Center released Privatization Opportunities for States and an annual Michigan Privatization Report, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation released Privatization: Dispelling the Myths, the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives in Pennsylvania released Privatization of Government Services in Pennsylvania, and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute released The Privatization of Milwaukee County’s Airport, Private Tollways for Wisconsin, as well as Privatizing Welfare in Brown County, Wisconsin. Each describes the advantages of replacing government-provided services with private enterprise.

These reports are released and promoted as though they are social scientific research, even though they have about as much in common with real research as Scholotzky’s Delis have in common with real delicatessens–which is very little. Real research is systematic, blind reviewed, and employs a replicable methodology; these think tank “studies” are none of these. In contrast with research, think tank reports are produced to shift public policy and public opinion to the political right.

As the John Locke Foundation reports (Our First Five Years), it “uses a variety of methods to affect public policy debate in North Carolina. First, the Foundation issues comprehensive ‘policy reports’…and their findings are publicized throughout the state in print, broadcast and public appearances…. In addition, the Foundation distributes a weekly op-ed, ‘Carolina Beat,’ to daily and weekly newspapers.” The purpose of local think tanks is to influence policy using city, regional and state media, whereas their D.C.-based colleagues try to influence policy using national media.

The well-funded local think tanks are able to wield influence out of proportion to their significance. The John Locke Foundation spends nearly a half-million a year producing and promoting its policy positions using money donated by Martin Marrietta Corp., RJR Nabisco and other well-heeled patrons. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute received more than $4.4 million from the conservative Bradley Foundation through 1995 (Journal Sentinel, 10/4/95). The money is spent on research reports and a glossy magazine, Wisconsin Interest, that are distributed free to the media and to public libraries.

Despite the admission that they are out to influence policy and public opinion by wagging the dog, media flock to think tank denizens and their policy reports like crows around carrion. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation reports that it “was cited in more than 300 newspaper and magazine articles in 1994” (Georgia Public Policy Foundation 1994 Annual Report). Most of the citations were from Georgia media, such as the Athens Banner Herald, Augusta Chronicle and Macon Telegraph. The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives likewise reports (The Bottom Line, 9/95) that one of its surveys on school choice, welfare reform and affirmative action repeal “brought over 200 media mentions in newspapers and on radio and television stations statewide.”

Wisconsin: A Case Study

Like the Commonwealth Foundation, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute conducts an annual survey of public attitudes, which is conducted using scientifically acceptable survey methods, as are other studies that have few public policy implications or ideological significance, such as a study of the Educational Performance of Hmong Students in Wisconsin (12/97). These studies are conducted by professional research firms and academics, and are designed to generate positive publicity for the Institute. For example, the results of the Institute’s annual “Wisconsin Citizen Survey” are described by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (10/2/95, 9/30/96, 8/5/97) and other Wisconsin newspapers nearly every year upon release. More importantly, these studies provide an aura of legitimacy for the propaganda tracts about government spending, deregulation, school choice and environmental education that the Institute also produces.

The reports with important policy implications are invariably written by ideologues rather than detached analysts. For example, when the Institute conducted a study on the relationship between prison incarceration and crimes, it turned to George A. Mitchell, whom the Institute merely described as a “consultant.” In fact, Mitchell is a neoconservative mover-and-shaker in Milwaukee who ran a management firm that helped build the Milwaukee County Jail (Business Journal: Milwaukee, 4/10/89). Mitchell’s study concluded that “increased incarceration is a major reason” for the decline in the crime rate.

When the Institute’s report, Prison Works (8/95), was released, most newspapers failed to mention Mitchell’s biases or his past financial interests in building jails. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about the report (8/7/95) opened with the sentence: “The 1,200 new prison beds approved in the state budget represent only 20 percent of the expected increase needed by the year 2000, and that shortfall may mark the start of a dangerous trend, according to a report to be released Monday.” The article described the report as having been “done by Milwaukee consultant George A. Mitchell and commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a local non-profit think tank.”

When it came to a study on Light Rail in Milwaukee (3/98), the Institute hired Wendell Cox to do the study. The think tank described Cox as “an internationally known consultant” and former appointee to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission who “authored numerous studies, including an evaluation of high-speed rail in Florida and an analysis of the light rail proposal in Chicago.”

What the glowing description of Cox failed to mention was that the Chicago “study” was prepared for the Illinois Taxpayer Educational Foundation (Chicago Sun Times, 5/23/95) and the Florida study was prepared for the James Madison Institute for Public Policy Research (Tampa Tribune, 5/7/97), two right-wing, anti-tax think tanks that also produce propaganda packaged as research. Predictably, Cox found that light rail in Chicago would cost $340 million more than budgeted; in Florida, he claimed that a new, regional rail system could cost taxpayers a whopping $39 billion. In news stories about these and other reports he prepared, Cox is usually referred to as head of “Wendell Cox Consultancy, a St. Louis-based public policy consulting firm” (Chicago Tribune, 5/23/95) or as a transportation “consultant” (Tampa Tribune, 5/7/97; Orange County Register, 11/26/97), rather than as a “public transportation foe.”

In contrast with most of the mainstream media, the alternative Denver Westword (1/24/96) more accurately described Cox as a “privatized-transit guru” who is a “leading advocate of transit privatization–the assignment of public transportation routes to private companies.” Cox achieved this moniker because of his authorship of such Heritage Foundation tracts as Transit Pork Has Few Passengers and How to Close Down the Department of Transportation.

Cox’s report about light rail in southeast Wisconsin concluded that it would be a costly boondoggle. Several newspapers, including the Wisconsin State Journal (3/31/98), merely described the reports’ contents and attributed them to “a public policy consultant.”

In an exceptional case, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Larry Sandler (March 31, 1998), who specializes in transportation issues, critically analyzed Cox’s report–a process rarely undertaken by journalists. Sandler also described Cox as “a longtime rail opponent” rather than as “transportation consultant.”

Sandler says that he approached the story the way he did because “it was clear [Cox] had a preconceived view of the issue. He wasn’t some unbiased observer.” Sandler says that he was “familiar with Cox’s position and his background” and was aware of the previous reports that Cox had produced.

As a result of Sandler’s reporting, Cox’s analysis was dismissed as a “screwy light rail report” in a Journal Sentinel editorial (4/5/98)–and quickly forgotten. This is what needs to be done with most of the reports issued by the Heritage-clone think tanks.

Lawrence Soley is Colnik professor of communications at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is the author of Free Radio: Electronic Civil Disobedience (Westview) and Leasing the Ivory Tower (South End).
Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Corrected Version. As originally published, this article said that Wendell Cox’s report on light rail in southeastern Wisconsin footnoted only two articles on the subject. In fact, it footnoted only two articles on commuter rail, a subsidiary subject of the report.

Original Author: Lawrence Soley