Jun 1 2006

Sidebar: Defining the Think Tanks

[Note: this piece is a sidebar to Study Finds First Drop in Think Tank Cites]

Our primary criteria for labeling the political orientation of a think tank are 1) its self-identification, 2) its stated policy positions and 3) how it is used in the media. The third criteria was applied, for example, to the Cato Institute, which gets far more media exposure for its conservative libertarian positions, such as privatizing Social Security, than it does for its more progressive libertarian positions, like decriminalizing drug possession or slashing corporate welfare.

Some think tank political orientations, like those of the conservative Heritage Foundation and the progressive Economic Policy Institute, are not controversial. Others, such as the Brookings Institution, are more debated, with the group often given—in our view, inaccurately—a “liberal” label. (See Extra!, 5-6/98, for our reasons for accepting Brookings’ centrist self-identification.)

Some other potentially debatable definitions include:

Carter Center: While previous FAIR studies called this group centrist, we labeled it center-left this year. The group’s focus on fair elections, human rights and the reduction of global poverty might fairly be described as a progressive agenda. The group’s analysis, though, is far from radical; its website, for example, blames Nicaraguan economic problems in the 1980s on “the Sandinista government’s failed socialist policies” rather than on the U.S.-backed Contra rebels and economic sanctions. Much of the group’s work involves relatively nonideological medical relief.

Kaiser Family Foundation: FAIR gives Kaiser a centrist label. The group focuses on healthcare issues, with a particular interest in the uninsured. The group tends to assemble information on problems (notably surveys), however, rather than advocating particular solutions. Kaiser’s comparison of healthcare plans put forward by presidential candidates (12/17/03), for instance, made no attempt to indicate which of the plans were preferable. Kaiser is also noted for its study of sexual references in entertainment television, a topic that is hard to place on the political spectrum.

RAND Corporation: Previous FAIR surveys have labeled RAND center-right, based largely on its longstanding relationship to the U.S. Department of Defense. RAND’s analysis of military issues is largely technocratic in nature, however, and the group also carries out research on a wide variety of domestic issues that takes pains to avoid promoting a particular ideology; a RAND report on charter schools (2/21/06), for instance, “dispels many of the arguments from charter proponents or critics.” RAND strongly self-identifies as neutral; its annual report says the group strives to “deliver objective information that offers all political camps a common point of departure.” In this survey, we label it centrist.

Center for Public Integrity: While the group has been labeled progressive in previous FAIR studies, as their focus is the corrupting effect of private money on the political process, it is overwhelmingly used by the media as simply a reliable source for numerical data on campaign contributions. Accordingly, we have relabeled the group centrist in the present study.