Jun 1 2012

Think Tank Spectrum Revisited

Conservatives gain within still-narrow spectrum


Heritage Foundation--Photo Credit: Heritage Foundation

Heritage Foundation–Photo Credit: Heritage Foundation

After a two-year hiatus, the FAIR think tank survey is back. In our last survey, using 2008 data (FAIR.org, 9/3/09), overall think tank citations were in decline, and that decline was most noticeable among conservative think tanks. The results for 2011 are the opposite: a good year for the top 25 think tanks, particularly for those that lean to the right.

Centrist think tanks still dominate at 47 percent, but their citations dropped 2 percentage points from 2010, while the proportion of conservative or center-right think tank mentions inched up from 31 to 33 percent, and progressive or center-left tanks held tight at 20 percent. Overall, the 2011 shifts bring the proportions back to 2008 levels.

The most prominent conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, saw its citations grow 22 percent in 2011 (1,540 vs. 1,260 in 2010). Notable gains were also evident for the Hoover Institution (41 percent), American Enterprise Institute (28 percent), and Center for Strategic and International Studies (18 percent). This increase is much more noticeable in television and radio transcripts, as opposed to newspapers; transcript citations rose 57 percent for Heritage (from 306 to 480), almost 75 percent for AEI (from 219 in 2010 to 383 in 2011) and more than tripled for Hoover (44 to 161). This can in large part be attributed to the heavy coverage of the Republican primary campaign; many candidates spoke at conservative think tanks and cited them in speeches, and Heritage and AEI cosponsored a CNN GOP debate (11/22/11), which netted each of them more than 50 mentions during that network’s self-promotion.

These increases came after conservative think tank influence had waned slightly from 2008 to 2010, which is consistent with the more recent studies. One possible explanation is that the prestige of conservative experts had eroded in the wake of the Bush administration’s crises and President Barack Obama’s election.

Prior to 2010, the right’s loss was centrist think tanks’ gain—the latter jumped almost 15 percent in 2009, accounting for 51 percent of mentions that year. Prominent increases were observed for the Kaiser Family Foundation healthcare think tank (82 percent), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (40 percent) and the New America Foundation (51 percent). Though centrist tanks’ proportion of the pie has since declined, they continue to easily take the plurality of citations in each year this survey covers.

The prominence of centrist think tanks rests largely on the strength of the Brookings Institution’s visibility as the country’s most widely cited think tank. Another prominent centrist think tank, the RAND Corporation, has seen a notable decline in media visibility since 2008, from the sixth to the 13th most-cited think tank. Some of RAND’s slide may be attributed to a relatively new centrist foreign policy group, the Center for a New American Security, which cracked the list in 2009.

The Center for American Progress is the most prominent left-leaning think tank, representing approximately one-third of all progressive citations. After a jump from 2008 to 2009, its numbers were stable for the next two years. The Urban Institute (20 percent), the Economic Policy Institute (9 percent) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (32 percent) saw decent gains from 2010 to 2011, while the Center for Economic and Policy Research saw declines from 2008 to 2011. However, progressive voices remain second-class media citizens, as their percentage of citations continues to hover in the 19 to 20 percent range.

The last few years have been volatile in American political history, with dramatic electoral swings, traumatic economic and environmental events, bloody intervention in other countries and burgeoning social movements in the United States. While the think tank spectrum fluctuates between center and right, the overall picture from 2008 to 2011 reflects more stability than volatility. As this survey noted in 2002, shortly after the hijackings the previous September (Extra!, 3-4/02), “During a time of crisis, the mainstream media rounded up the usual think-tank suspects.” Ten years later, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


How to Read the Table

Since this table includes four years of survey data, we decided to measure the top 25 tanks in each year. So, for instance, the Alan Guttmacher Institute made the 25 most widely quoted think tanks in 2011; however, it did not make it in the years 2008, 2009 and 2010, as indicated by the blanks for those years in the chart. Other think tanks, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, made previous years’ surveys, but did not rank in the top 25 in 2011. Thus they are included toward the bottom of the table, after the 2011 top 25. The rankings of 1 to 25 in the table refer to 2011 tallies. Rankings for years 2008 to 2010 are included in parentheses in each year’s column.


FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations in corporate media uses 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, grassroots advocates, promoters of cultural events or generators of statistics, such as the Conference Board, Bureau of Economic Research, the Family Research Council or the Asia Society.

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 U.S. radio and TV transcript databases. Fox Business Network transcripts were eliminated because they were added for the first time in 2011, and as a result would have exaggerated the trend between the years of 2008 and 2011.

The totals for some groups are corrected for false positives. For instance, in 2011, the words “Heritage Foundation” appear 19 percent of the time without referring to the Washington-based think tank. The Center for Politics was another think tank subject to a number of false positives.

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

Michael Dolny is a sociologist who has been doing the think tank survey for FAIR since 1996. He can be reached at mikedolny@hotmail.com