Mar 1 2007

Think Tank Sources Fall, but Left Gains Slightly

Progressive groups still a small slice

FAIR’s annual survey of think tank sources produced a surprising result for 2006: While total think tank citations decreased for the second year in a row (before then, think tank citations went up every single year), progressive think tanks bucked the trend. Overall, the 27,877 citations that the 25 most-quoted think tanks garnered was a 4 percent decline from 2005. But progressive and left-leaning think tanks increased their exposure, up by 11 percent, having for the first time two think tanks in the top 10.

Nevertheless, the media landscape remains dominated by centrist and conservative think tanks. Centrists led the way with 45 percent of think tank citations, while conservative or right-leaning think tanks got 40 percent. These tallies were a 6 percent decrease for the center and a 7 percent drop for the right. Progressives’ increased share still only amounted to 16 percent of total citations.

The centrist Brookings Institution was once again the most widely cited think tank, with 3,896 mentions, well outpacing the runner-up, the Council on Foreign Relations, another centrist think tank. Rounding out the top 5 were three leading conservative think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies. The two progressive think tanks in the top 10 were the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute.

Although 2006 was an election year, which normally boosts the citations of think tanks like the Center for Public Integrity (which increased 29 percent over 2005), the media seemed to favor foreign policy-related think tanks in 2006, suggesting the salience of Iraq as an issue. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies scored impressive gains in 2006, while the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were among those suffering drops. (Admittedly, the drop in citations for RAND Corporation does not fit this pattern.)

The fates of two think tanks in 2006 may serve to illustrate the importance of the Iraq issue. The Cato Institute does not feature Iraq on their home page, and did not do a study in 2006. However, they do have a consistent position, as indicated by the title of a February 14, 2007 study: “Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq.” Cato has been critical of the war since its inception, and, coincidentally or not, its rankings in the annual think tank study have been declining since then.

On the other hand, the Center for American Progress (CAP) has seen dramatic increases in its first few years in existence, while other progressive think tanks focusing on foreign policy issues (Center for Defense Information, Institute for Policy Studies) have disappeared from the ranking. Many of CAP’s foreign policy experts are familiar faces from other think tanks, and high-profile analyst Lawrence Korb was an assistant secretary of defense under Reagan. CAP seems to have become the standard bearer for the liberal position on Iraq, effectively shutting out more progressive voices.

This study has suggested in the past (Extra!, 5-6/05) that CAP’s rise may have come at the expense of more progressive think tanks. All of the gains for progressive think tanks in this year’s survey are attributable to CAP; without this think tank, progressives would have lost citations, just like conservatives and centrists.

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 Bureau of Economic Research.

Rankings are based on the number of stories that refer to the groups in the sample in the Nexis databases of major newspaper articles and radio and TV transcript databases. The numbers for 2005 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 in the database.

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

The names of some groups raise an issue of “false positives,” and their totals are corrected accordingly. Approximately 21 percent of the time in 2006 and 22 percent in 2005, the words “heritage foundation” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Washington-based think tank; the figures in our chart are adjusted to correct for this. Similarly, for the Carter Center, 18 percent of the time in 2006 and 14 percent of the time in 2005, the words “carter center” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Atlanta-based think tank. For the Center for Politics, in 10 percent of the cases in 2006 and 6 percent of the cases in 2005 the words “center for politics” appear without referring to the Virginia-based think tank.

Think tank citations chart