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 unions.

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.

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

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.)

Note: 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.