Mar 1 2002

Think Tanks in a Time of Crisis

FAIR's 2001 survey of the media's institutional experts

In 2001, during a time of crisis, the mainstream media rounded up the usual think-tank suspects.

Once again, media used think tanks quite often during the year, with over 25,823 citations for the 25 leading think tanks. (FAIR’s annual survey looks at mentions of think tanks in the Nexis database files for major papers and broadcast transcripts.) Thirty-four percent of these citations occurred on or after September 11–a time period that represents roughly 30 percent of the year–suggesting that media were slightly more reliant on these news-shapers in uncertain times.

Once again, the centrist Brookings Institution topped the list, garnering almost 15 percent of the citations for the total sample–far surpassing any other think tank. The only newcomer to the top of the list was the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), another centrist group that generated a great deal of media attention with their late November announcement that the United States was in a recession. No progressive or left-leaning think tanks finished within the top 10.

The overall percentages for the year were consistent with findings for previous years, with conservative or right-leaning think tanks garnering 48 percent of the citations, centrists receiving 36 percent and progressive or left-leaning think tanks receiving 16 percent. However, centrists dominated the think tank spectrum post-September 11, with Brookings and NBER receiving the most citations. Conservative think tanks had 40 percent of citations after the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, while progressive citations declined to 11 percent. Progressives were especially absent from broadcast media, earning just 8 percent of citations after September 11.

The think tanks whose visibility declined most after September 11 were the Family Research Council, the Urban Institute, the Center for Public Integrity and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, reflecting an apparent decline in media interest in social issues, domestic economic issues and campaign finance. Interestingly, the economic recession did not seem to produce a particularly large number of mentions of economic think tanks; the one notable exception, the National Bureau of Economic Research, was mostly cited in brief mentions of its finding that a recession was officially underway.

Not surprisingly, think tanks associated with military or foreign policy issues were highly visible after September 11, often receiving about half their citations after the airliner attacks. The conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies received 51 percent of its citations in this time period, while the centrist Council of Foreign Relations got 47 percent. Likewise, 48 percent of the progressive Center for Defense Information’s mentions were post=September 11, although these mentions were less than a third of those received by CSIS or CFR. In electronic media, the difference was even more stark, with CFR receiving 407 citations after the attacks, CSIS getting 310 and CDI only 48.

The Institute for Policy Studies, another progressive think tank dealing with foreign policy issues, fared little better, receiving 57 citations from the electronic media citations after September 11. Given that in times of conflict, many citizens choose the immediacy of the electronic media over newspapers, it’s troubling that these media chose to constrict rather than expand the national debate; new questions apparently required few new answers.

Michael Dolny is a visiting assistant professor in sociology at Montana State University. He can be reached at

Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Corrected version: March 25, 2002.

Source: Nexis database search of major newspapers and radio and TV transcripts. Political orientation is based on FAIR’s evaluation.

Note: The Heritage Foundation’s citations were adjusted to reflect the incidence of “false positives.” Approximately 22 percent of the time the words “heritage foundation” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Washington-based think tank.