FAIR STUDY: Think Tank Spectrum 2012

Range of debate narrows as the status quo holds

dolny jim demint

Jim DeMint, formerly the fourth-most conservative senator (Voteview.com), now heads the second-most-cited think tank.

Think tank researchers are often cited by news outlets to add context and analysis to a news story. They are often portrayed as objective or nonpartisan observers (Extra!, 5/98), and as Ken Silverstein recently explained in the Nation (5/21/13), that appearance can be quite valuable to corporate donors:

Nowadays, many Washington think tanks effectively serve as unregistered lobbyists for corporate donors, and companies strategically contribute to them just as they hire a PR or lobby shop or make campaign donations.... “If you’re a lobbyist, whatever you say is heavily discounted,” says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University and an expert on political ethics. “If a think tank is saying it, it obviously sounds a lot better.”

If corporate news media have a bias to the left, as conservative critics maintain, one would expect news reporting to feature left-of-center sources more prominently than conservative ones. However, as repeated FAIR studies of the actual spectrum of think tanks cited in the media have documented since 1996, when journalists are looking for analysis they go far more frequently to institutions of the right and center than to the left.

This pattern continues in the latest FAIR survey of citations of think tanks in major U.S. newspapers and on TV and radio: The center-right continued to dominate the spectrum, which even narrowed slightly in 2012.

Last year was largely a status quo period for the top 25 think tanks: There was only one new entrant to the list, and the shares of citations for right-leaning, centrist and progressive think tanks were very similar to 2011 (Extra!, 6/12).

Overall, centrist think tanks held steady with 46 percent of media citations, maintaining the largest share. Right-leaning think tanks gained a percentage point from their 2011 showing, garnering 35 percent of citations, while left-leaning groups dropped a point to 19 percent. (Note that with each new study, FAIR rechecks citations for the previous year with the articles that are currently in the Nexis database, so the percentages may differ slightly from those in last year’s study.)

Looking more closely at ideology, all the think tanks that FAIR identifies as progressive—the Economic Policy Institute, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research—saw declines in 2012 from their 2011 levels, while two of the three think tanks FAIR identifies as center-left—the Urban Institute and the Alan Guttmacher Institute—saw noticeable gains. (The Center for American Progress, the most widely cited center-left think tank, also declined in 2012.) The decline in citations of these economics-focused progressive think tanks indicates that economic critics to President Obama’s left were less visible in the year leading up to his re-election.

In contrast, our 2008 study (Extra!, 9/09) found big gains for progressive think tanks during the last presidential election: The Economic Policy Institute’s citations gained 56 percent in 2008, while the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities saw a 68 percent increase, the Center for Economic and Policy Research 60 percent and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies more than doubled its citations with a 150 percent increase. This suggests that corporate media may be more open to a progressive economic critique when a Democrat is challenging Republican policies than when the Democrat is defending his own record.

The Brookings Institution continued to maintain its position as the single most visible think tank, getting almost 37 percent of all centrist citations in the survey, and 17 percent of citations among the top 25 think tanks. The Kaiser Family Foundation, perhaps boosted by the healthcare debate both in the election and in front of the Supreme Court, surpassed the Council on Foreign Relations as the second-most-cited centrist think tank, with a greater than 35 percent increase in citations from 2011. The centrist Atlantic Council made its first appearance in the top 25 in 2012, with a 50 percent increase in citations from 2011.

The Heritage Foundation remained the most-cited conservative think tank. They made headlines toward the end of 2012 when Sen. Jim Demint resigned his seat from South Carolina to head up the foundation. The American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies were all right-leaning think tanks that finished in the top 10 of think tank citations, although they all garnered fewer citations than in the previous year. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy bucked this trend by posting a notable increase in citations during the election year.

Thus, while there were no dramatic changes in the survey in 2012, the spectrum continued to narrow, particularly for progressive think tanks. Unlike during the last presidential election, where mass media were more open to progressive voices, progressive think tanks suffered declines this election cycle. Apparently, in the age of Obama, mainstream media are less inclined to consider positions to his left.

Michael Dolny, a sociologist, has been doing the think tank survey for FAIR since 1996. He can be reached at mikedolnyis@gmail.com.

Citations of Think Tanks in Media 2012

Determining Think Tanks’ Political Orientation

 One challenge of the think tank survey is attaching a political orientation to each institution. The political orientation of think tanks is based on FAIR’s evaluation of each think tank’s published work, its leading personnel and media commentary.

Conservative think tanks generally favor less regulation of business and lower taxes. They also tend to support larger military budgets and advocate military solutions to foreign policy problems.

A center-right think tank is generally supportive of conservative goals but may differ on important facets of the conservative line. For instance, the Cato Institute, while promoting conservative policies such as privatizing Social Security and lowering taxes, was critical of the Iraq War and the war on drugs, and has questioned corporate welfare. However, media have been more likely to cite Cato experts’ conservative, pro-business positions as opposed to their civil libertarian or anti-interventionist stances, so the group was categorized as center-right.

A progressive think tank typically advocates for a more active role for government in promoting equality and public welfare. Universal healthcare, greater access to education, and stimulating the economy through jobs programs rather than tax cuts would be examples of progressive positions. Progressives tend to support strong environmental regulations, including steps to combat global warming, and to be skeptical of military solutions to international issues.

Center-left think tanks may disagree with their conservative counterparts on issues like taxes and regulations, but differ from progressive think tanks in preferring solutions that are closer to the status quo. For instance, center-left think tanks might look to extend private health insurance coverage to more people but not support a single-payer system. They tend to be more supportive of military action but from a more internationalist position, as when the Center for American Progress (5/5/05) called for replacing U.S. troops in Iraq with NATO forces rather than withdrawing troops altogether. Center-left think tanks attract corporate backing more easily than progressive ones do.

Centrist think tanks are generally status quo–oriented, aiming to produce proposals that will attract bipartisan support; they often provide a home for former officials of both major parties. Note that “centrism” is in relation to the ideological spectrum of the U.S. media and political system, which does not necessarily correspond to the spectrum of opinion among the American public. For example, cutting retirement benefits (“entitlement reform”) is a popular position among self-described centrists, but finds very little support in public opinion polls (FAIR Blog, 4/8/13).

Political orientation is occasionally re-evaluated, sometimes after think tanks have questioned their categorization and sometimes due to changing political configurations. For example, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was previously categorized as center-right, based on its bipartisan connection to both Republicans and the more conservative foreign-policy wing of the Democratic Party. However, given the number of neo-conservative analysts WINEP added during the Bush years and its shift toward Likud Party policies in Israel, a change in orientation to conservative seemed appropriate.


FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations in mainstream media looks at a sample of think tanks based on lists generated by political observers, notably the National Institute for Research Advancement and the Harvard Kennedy School. Because the survey is intended to examine the media’s use of experts to provide context for news events, we remove from the sample those groups that primarily appear in news reports in other roles, such as lobbyists, promoters of cultural events or generators of statistics; thus groups like the Conference Board, Bureau of Economic Research, Family Research Council and Asia Society are excluded.

Rankings are based on the number of stories that refer to the groups in the sample in the Nexis databases of U.S.-based major newspaper articles and U.S. radio and TV transcripts.

The totals for groups are corrected when necessary for false positives. For instance, the phrase “Heritage Foundation” appears occasionally in major newspapers without referring to the Washington-based think tank.