Sep 1 2009

Right Ebbs, Left Gains as Media ‘Experts’

Think tank balance still skews right

Special online-only study

Progressive think tanks gained in media prominence over 2008, despite overall think tank citations declining for the fourth year in a row.

The 25 most-cited think tanks in major U.S. media received 13,149 citations in 2008, a 6 percent decline from 2007 levels. The decline primarily hit conservative or right-leaning think tanks, whose share of citations in corporate media fell from 36 percent to 31 percent in 2008 , while progressive or left-leaning think tanks–the only group to actually see an increase in their total citations–went from 17 percent to 21 percent. Centrist think tanks saw little change, still beating both ends of the spectrum with 48 percent of total citations, versus 47 percent in 2007.

The overall decline in think tank citations, now in its fourth year, is quite likely simply a reflection of the changing media landscape. As noted last year, the decrease in citations primarily comes from newspapers, not television; as newspapers fold and those that survive shrink their newshole, the overall news output by the outlets surveyed is decreasing. National and international news–the areas national think tanks would most likely be quoted on–are shrinking the fastest of all. A recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (7/21/08) found that 64 percent of newspapers reported a drop in their international coverage and 57 percent in national coverage, with 61 percent reporting an overall decrease in their newshole over the last three years.

Progressive and left-leaning think tanks took a record five spots in the top 15 most-cited list, and had by far the greatest percentage increase of citations in this annual survey. The most notable increase was in progressive think tanks with an economic focus, which should perhaps come as no surprise in a year that saw first the bursting of the housing bubble and then a deepening economic crisis. While the majority of top think tanks saw a drop in citations from 2007 to 2008, the Economic Policy Institute’s citations increased 56 percent, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ increased 68 percent and the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s 60 percent, while the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies made a return to the top 25 after a long absence by increasing citations 150 percent.

In previous years when left-leaning think tanks increased their citations, those on the center-left generally gained the most (Extra!, 3-4/07). This year, however, center-left think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Urban Institute largely tread water, and it was more progressive institutions that gained the most.

Both the economic crisis and the poor showing of conservative candidates in the 2008 elections appear to have raised questions about the role of conservative think tanks. Former John McCain staffer Douglas Holtz-Eakin has called for “a Center for American Progress for the right” (CQ Politics, 5/23/09). Although the Center got only 70 percent of the citations of the most-cited conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, Holtz-Eakin’s proposal does suggest that existing right-wing institutions aren’t meeting the needs of the conservative establishment–and their 20 percent decline in media citations from 2007 levels indicates they aren’t altogether meeting the needs of the corporate press, either.

Of course, the media’s think-tank pecking order is still largely intact. The think tanks at the top of the rankings are familiar names, led again by the Brookings Institution (which had more than twice as many citations as any other think tank); every think tank in the top 25 has appeared before. Even in this crisis, progressives got 30 percent fewer citations than conservatives did, and half the citations of centrists. We are still a long way from true diversity of news sources.

Citations of Think Tanks in Media


FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations in mainstream media looks at a sample based on lists of think tanks generated by political observers, notably the National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA), Project Vote Smart and the University of Michigan library Political Science Resources list. Because the purpose of the survey is to study 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, such as the Conference Board or the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

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 TV transcript databases. The totals for some groups are corrected for false positives. The numbers for 2007 are based on a new sampling of the database for that year, and may differ from the numbers in last year’s survey because of changes both in the database and in the particular files searched.

The political orientation of think tanks is based on FAIR’s evaluation of each think tank’s published work, its leading personnel and media comments.