May 1 1996

The Think Tank Spectrum

For the Media, Some Thinkers Are More Equal Than Others

The media are liberal, CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg claimed in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal (2/13/96). His proof? CBS reporters are allegedly instructed to identify the Heritage Foundation as “conservative”–but in a story on the flat tax, his CBS colleague Engberg failed to label another Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution, as “liberal.”

While Goldberg only provided this one anecdotal example, he could have found more cases. In January 1996, according to a search of the Nexis database, major papers cited Brookings 185 times; only once was the think tank referred to as “liberal.” (The vast majority of mentions included no ideological description.) Heritage was cited 218 times, and in 76 of those references it was called “conservative,” “right” or “Republican.”

But is this inaccurate? Heritage is a leading voice of the conservative movement, and proudly identifies as such. Brookings, on the other hands, neither represents nor claims to represent liberals or progressives.

Backed by corporate funding, including donations from the military and oil industries, Brookings has long had a center-right orientation. As far back as the mid-’80s, Fortune magazine was approvingly noting (7/23/84) that “Brookings Tilts Right.”

“Centrist” was the descriptive label used by Bruce MacLaury, the former Nixon administration Treasury official who was Brookings’ president from 1977 to 1995. Current president Michael Armacost was undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration and President Bush’s ambassador to Japan. One of Brookings’ most prominent analysts, Stephen Hess, helped edit the Republican platform in 1976.

The debate over labels obscures the larger question of which think tanks get to take part in the media’s political discourse. Like so much in media coverage, it’s primarily a center-right spectrum, as the accompanying table shows.

The right and center are well-represented by a plethora of voices, covering both domestic and international issues from a variety of perspectives. In contrast, the most prominent left-oriented think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, came in 15th place–receiving less than 20 percent of the citations of either Heritage or Brookings.

The invisibility of left think tanks is a longstanding phenomenon. In a study of Gulf War coverage, Lawrence Soley found that the progressive Institute for Policy Studies received just 6 percent of Brookings’s citations during the seven months of the crisis (Extra!, 3/91).

The political culture has turned even more rightward than Soley envisioned, however. In concluding his 1992 book, The News Shapers, he noted that “organizations either further to the right [than the conventional wisdom], such as the Heritage Foundation, or further to the left, such as the Institute for Policy Studies, provide far fewer news shapers than ‘Republican centrist’ groups like the AEI or Brookings Institution.”

But while IPS’s lack of coverage in proportion to Brookings has remained fairly constant in recent years–IPS garnered 6 percent of Brookings’ cites in 1990, and 7 percent in 1995–Heritage has rapidly gone from the second tier of think tanks to the top. In 1990, Heritage got about 44 percent of the coverage Brookings got; in 1995, for the first time, Heritage surpassed its centrist rival. Apparently, the media center has moved far enough to the right to put the Heritage Foundation firmly in the mainstream.

Michael Dolny, Extra!‘s editorial intern, is the former editorial director of KUCR-FM in Riverside, Calif., and host of the

Democracy Report.

Source: based on a Nexis database search of major newspapers and radio and TV transcripts for 1995.