Aug 1 2001

Think Tanks Y2K

Progressive groups gain, but right still cited twice as often

While 2000 was an unsettling year for electoral democracy and the stock market, it was a good time to be a think tank.

Overall, media citations of think tanks grew 29 percent in 2000. Progressive or left-leaning organizations obtained 20 percent of those citations, an 79 percent gain over 1999. Some think tanks saw a dramatic increase in the number of references they received in electronic media, including many progressive groups, such as the Economic Policy Institute, Urban Institute and Justice Policy Institute. While this represents a step toward diversity, the debate is still largely conducted on a center-right continuum, with conservative or right-leaning think tanks garnering half of all citations.

Think tanks citations in major newspapers grew by only 5 percent from 1999 to 2000, while citations in radio and television transcripts increased 65 percent. This may reflect the proliferation of pundit-oriented shows, such as Fox‘s Special Report and CNN‘s Inside Politics, and the rise of financial networks, such as CNBC and CNNfn. The think tanks cited by major papers were somewhat more conservative than those in electronic media; only 17 percent of their think tanks references were to progressive groups, vs. 23 percent in electronic outlets.

The four most-cited think tanks remained the same as in every previous think tank survey: The centrist Brookings Institution, and conservative groups Cato, Heritage and American Enterprise. All four posted at least 20 percent gains from the previous year, with American Enterprise collecting 40 percent more citations than in 1999. Brookings, the first group to break the 3,000 citation barrier, by itself accounted for over half of the citations for centrist think tanks, and almost one-sixth of all think tank citations.

Internationally oriented think tanks, or those devoted to military issues, did not share in this gain (with the notable exception of the proIsraeli government Washington Institute for Near East Policy). Organizations across the spectrum, from the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies to the centrist Council on Foreign Relations to the progressive Center for Defense Information, either suffered declines or did not increase at all. The Economic Strategy Institute, which focuses on global trade, measured only a 4 percent increase. The decline of this group of think tanks suggests how little mainstream debate there was during an election year over foreign policy and corporate globalization.

Think tanks that focused on domestic financial issues, like the Urban Institute, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Tax Justice, seemed to benefit the most in the election-year climate. Two other groups that saw large increases in the number of media references were the Center for Public Integrity, whose figures were often cited in stories about electoral finance, and the Justice Policy Institute, whose comments on street crime and punishment contributed to the largest increase in citations in 2000.

While these findings represent a move toward ideological balance, it is still far from being a level playing field. Funding disparities still strongly favor conservative think tanks (Extra!, 5-6/00), and previous research has indicated that when progressive think tanks are allowed into the debate, they are more likely to be identified with a qualifying label such as “liberal” or “labor-backed” (Extra!, 5-6/98). Despite progressive gains, only one such think tank–the Economic Policy Institute–was among the ten most-cited institutions.

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

Source: Nexis database search of major newspapers and radio and TV transcripts.The 1999 numbers differ somewhat from the numbers published in Extra!5-6/00 because of changes in the Nexis database.Note: The numbers for the Heritage Foundation were adjusted to correct for “false positives.” Approximately 22 percent of the time in the year 2000 and 27 percent of the time in 1999, the words “heritage foundation” appear but do not refer to the Washington-based think tank.