Jul 1 2003

Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002

Progressive, domestic think tanks see drop

The center-right slant in media citations of think tanks continued in 2002, with conservative groups receiving 47 percent of last year’s citations, centrists 41 percent and progressives 12 percent–the least representation for the left since 1998.

The top 25 think tanks in 2002 received 25,897 citations in major newspapers and broadcast transcripts, according to a search of the Nexis media database. This is an 8 percent decrease from 2001, bucking the trend of increasing think tank citations since the survey began in 1996.

The centrist Brookings Institution maintained the top spot, garnering about one-sixth of the survey’s citations, while another center-oriented group, the Council on Foreign Relations, leapfrogged several think tanks to finish in second place. The Heritage Foundation, in third place, was the highest-ranking conservative think tank, while the ninth-place Economic Policy Institute was the most prominent progressive think tank.

The decline in think tank citations may seem surprising, given that the year was filled with big news stories, including the continuing aftermath of September 11, the war in Afghanistan and the build-up toward the attack on Iraq. However, over half of the decline can be accounted for by the relative drop in citations of one think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), whose declaration of a recession in 2001 was cited extensively.

Besides NBER, the decline in citations was most notable among think tanks with a domestic focus. These came from across the political spectrum, from conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and Family Research Council, centrist think tanks like NBER and the misleadingly named Progressive Policy Institute, and left-leaning think tanks like the Urban Institute and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Exceptions to this trend included the conservative Manhattan Institute, the centrist Public Policy Institute of California and the progressive Center for Public Integrity.)

Meanwhile, think tanks with a concentration on international issues gained ground. The centrist Center on Foreign Relations increased citations by 55 percent. Right-leaning foreign policy think tanks, such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also increased in exposure.

While this trend was evident among centrist and conservative think tanks that examine foreign policy issues, it did not extend to similar progressive think tanks. The two progressive think tanks in this survey with the most interest in international issues, the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and the Institute for Policy Studies, declined in media exposure, 39 percent and 10 percent respectively. CDI declined 28 percent in citations from major newspapers in 2002, but dropped a precipitous 59 percent in the electronic media.

This finding should not surprise long-time Extra! readers. FAIR has repeatedly documented the near invisibility of anti-war voices in mainstream broadcast media during times of crisis–including during the 1991 Persian Gulf War (5/91), the bombing of Yugoslavia (Extra! Update, 6/99) and the most recent attack on Iraq (5-6/03). This year’s survey is consistent with our observations of think tank citations after September 11, 2001: a decline in visibility of domestic policy think tanks, an increase in exposure for foreign policy think tanks, and an increasing focus on centrist to conservative voices, leaving progressives out of the debate. Given the events so far in 2003, there is every reason to believe that these trends will continue.

Michael Dolny is a visiting lecturer in sociology at California State University, Stanislaus.

Source: Nexis database on major newspaper and radio and TV transcripts.

Note: The numbers for the Heritage Foundation were adjusted to correct for false positives. Approximately 25 percent of the time in 2002 and 29 percent of the time in 2001, the words “heritage foundation” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Washington-based think tank.