News Item

What’s In A Label? – Right-Wing Think Tanks Are Often Quoted, Rarely Labeled


For the third year in a row, conservative or right-leaning think tanks in
1997 provided more than half of major media’s think tank citations, according
to FAIR’s third annual survey of major newspaper and broadcast media citations
in the Nexis computer database. Think tanks of the right provided 53 percent
of citations, while progressive or left-leaning think tanks received just
16 percent of total citations.

Half of the ten most-cited think tanks are conservative or right-leaning,
including three of the top four. The centrist Brookings Institution held
the top spot as the most widely cited think tank for the second year in a
row. Three right-wing institutions–the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise
Institute and Cato Institute–maintained their respective positions as the
second, third and fourth most cited. The top four think tanks were each cited
more than a thousand times, and provided 46 percent of all think tank citations.*

Missing Labels

To see how the top four think tanks were identified, a random 10 percent
of their citations were examined. Surprisingly, all four institutions were
not identified at all in a majority of their respective citations.

The most mentioned think tank, the Brookings Institution, was given no
identification in 78 percent of the 229 citations examined. In another 17
percent, it was identified as being located in Washington, D.C. Twice it
was referred to as “liberal,” twice as “non-partisan” and once as “centrist.”

The “liberal” label is inaccurate; Brookings has long had a centrist or
center-right orientation. As far back as the mid-1980s, Fortune magazine
(7/23/84) was approvingly noting that “Brookings Tilts Right.” Current president
Michael Armacost was undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration
and President Bush’s ambassador to Japan. Brookings’ two most prominent analysts
served in Republican administrations. Their most visible foreign policy expert,
Richard Haass, is formerly of George Bush’s National Security Council. Domestic
political analyst Stephen Hess helped edit the Republican platform in 1976,
and served in the U.S. delegation to the U.N. under Gerald Ford.

The Heritage Foundation was not identified in 68 percent of 182 cases; in
a further 8 percent, only its location in Washington was noted. Its political
orientation was noted 24 percent of the time: Forty of these 44 mentions
used the word “conservative,” while four used “right-wing” or “on the right.”
Twice, while labeled as “conservative,” the institute’s support from right-wing
funder Richard Mellon Scaife was mentioned.

Seventy-two percent of the time, the American Enterprise Institute appeared
with no qualifying label. In only 14 percent of the 132 stories sampled was
it identified as conservative. The Cato Institute was similarly not labeled
in 68 percent of the 130 stories sampled. It was identified as “libertarian”
13 percent of the time, “conservative” 6 percent of the time, and twice was
referred to as both “libertarian” and “conservative.” One reference called
the institution “free-market oriented.”

For comparison purposes, we sampled the labeling of the survey’s top progressive
think tank, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). As with the top four think
tanks, EPI received no label more than half the time (52 percent). However,
EPI received an ideological label more often than any of the top four, in
29 percent of the 58 cases sampled. Almost half of the ideological labeling
was “progressive,” “liberal” or “left-leaning,” but slightly more than half
(9 out of 17) referred to EPI as having ties to or receiving funds from labor

In sharp contrast, none of the top four think tanks were referred to as
“corporate-backed” or any similar label. A call to EPI confirmed that they
received a quarter of their funding from labor sources; however, Brookings
acknowledged that nearly one-third of their funding comes from corporate
sources. AEI’s webpage discloses that 40 percent of its budget comes from
corporate donations.

When a think tank representative is used as an expert on a topic, often that
person’s media-framed credibility may be measured by the ideological label
attached to them. By failing to politically identify representatives of think
tanks, or identify the financial base of think tanks, major media deprive
their audiences of an important context for evaluating the opinions offered,
implying that think tank “experts” are neutral sources without any ideological
predispositions. The fact that EPI was the group most often identified
ideologically-and the only one scrutinized in terms of its funding
sources-suggests that even when progressive think tanks are allowed to take
part in the usually center-right debate, the playing field is still not level.

*The Heritage Foundation’s citations were adjusted to reflect the incidence
of “false positives.” Approximately 15 percent of the time, the words “heritage
foundation” occur together in an article in the Nexis database without referring
to the think tank. One think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
was added to the survey this year.

Michael Dolny is the senior research associate at the Center for Criminal
Justice Research at California State University, San Bernardino, where he
also teaches part-time. He can be reached at

Hudson Instituteconservative481396Joint Center for Political
and Economic Studiescenter-left158228Progress and Freedom Foundationconservative122234Reason Foundationconservative/libertarian92133

Think Tank Media Visibility

Think Tank Political Orientation Number of Media Citations (1997) Number of Media Citations (1996)
Brookings Institution centrist 2,296 2,196
Heritage Foundation conservative 1,813 1,779
American Enterprise Institute conservative 1,323 1,401
Cato Institute conservative/libertarian 1,286 1,136
RAND Corporation center-right 865 826
Council on Foreign Relations centrist 755 727
Center for Strategic and International Studies conservative 668 586
Urban Institute center-left 610 655
Economic Policy Institute progressive 576 452
Freedom Forum centrist 531 625
Institute for International Economics centrist 438 288
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities progressive 425 359
Hoover Institution conservative 355 350
Carnegie Endowment centrist 352 502
Competitive Enterprise Institute conservative 290 205
Manhattan Institute conservative 261 227
Progressive Policy Institute centrist 251 279
International Institute for Strategic Studies conservative 177 145
Institute for Policy Studies progressive 172 110
Worldwatch Institute progressive 168 186
Center for Defense Information progressive 158 187

Source: Nexis database search of major newspapers and radio and TV transcripts.
(Numbers for 1996 differ slightly from those published in Extra!, 7-8/97,
due to changes in the Nexis database.)

Think Tank Spectrum

Think Tank Ideology Media Citations 1997 Media Citations 1996
Conservative or Right-Leaning 7,733 (53%) 7,706 (54%)
Centrist 4,623 (32%) 4,329 (30%)
Progressive or Left-Leaning 2,267 (16%) 2,177 (15%)
TOTAL 14,623 14,212

Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding.

More annual Think Tank Monitor surveys.

Original Author: Michael Dolny