What to Think about Think Tanks?

Lots of things drive NPR's audience crazy. One I totally agree with is this: NPR often does a lousy job of identifying the background of think tanks or other groups when quoting their experts.

NPR also rarely explains why listeners should pay attention to the experts it chooses to quote.

This matters.

  • If you hear from experts at the Cato Institute, you need to know they market themselves as libertarians.
  • If you hear from the Center for American Progress, NPR needs to make clear that most of its experts represent a liberal or "progressive" point of view.
  • If you hear an expert from the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, you need to know that it is funded in part by its former chairman, Peter G. Peterson, a former Commerce secretary and Wall Street investor.
  • Peterson is now spending his considerable fortune promoting long-term debt reduction, which is the chief cause of a different organization called the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.[SEE CLARIFICATION FROM PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS BELOW.]
  • And on and on.
We selected six think tanks regularly mentioned on NPR's four programs — Morning Edition, Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered. Although the political ideology is occasionally identified, most of the time it is not.

We selected six think tanks regularly mentioned on NPR's four programs — Morning Edition, Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered. Although the political ideology is occasionally identified, most of the time it is not. NPR hide caption

itoggle caption NPR

Many think tanks – such as the Manhattan Institute, Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution and scores more – give away nothing in their titles. NPR journalists may know the background to each of these groups, but listeners don't necessarily.

A college intern surprised me when she asked, "What is the Brookings Institution?" I've grown up knowing about Brookings: the nation's first think tank, which houses a rather elitist group of former politicians, government officials, journalists and academics spanning the ideological spectrum.

But what do others outside the Beltway imagine the Brookings Institution is?

Just to see how well NPR identified experts, my staff looked at how NPR reporters and shows identified think tanks between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 2010. It became clear that NPR often cites think tanks and the experts who work for them – but neglects to use more than their names.

FINDINGS:

Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics: 13 total, 0 identified

Cato Institute: 13 total, 9 identified (2 as "fiscally conservative," 7 as "libertarian")

Center for American Progress: 29 total, 11 identified (2 as "left-leaning," 1 as "Obama-friendly," 8 as "liberal")

Heritage Foundation: 21 total, 8 identified (all as "conservative")

Brookings Institution: 101 total, 0 identified

American Enterprise Institute: 35 total, 8 identified (7 as "conservative," 1 as "neo-conservative")

This has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics. It has to do with giving the audience more – not less – information to help them evaluate the speaker.

In the years I've been editing NPR's Middle East report, I've noticed author John Felton repeatedly observes that NPR doesn't provide enough descriptors about particular groups.

For example, Felton regularly says that NPR reporters and shows often quote representatives of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy but fail to note that the institute for many years had close ties to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and has an Israel-focused agenda.

Radio remains NPR's primary medium, and there's no question that it is more difficult in radio —than in print or online —to describe a group's bias because of time considerations. Most NPR pieces are no more than four minutes, and a lengthy description can eat up valuable time.

Still, NPR should try harder.

Peter Overby, NPR's politics and money reporter, did a nice job recently on a story about the billionaire Koch brothers, who formed a group they call Americans for Prosperity. Who wouldn't be for that?

But Overby explained that one of this group's missions, according to a staffer, is "to take the unions out at the knees." NPR and other news organizations have paid attention to the group lately because the Koch brothers are big financial supporters of Wisconsin's controversial governor, Republican Scott Walker.

It would be a disservice to the listener to quote anyone from Americans for Prosperity without mentioning that information. Just as it would be a disservice to not mention the background, for example, of the Open Society Institute, funded by billionaire financier George Soros, who advocates a left-of-center agenda. (Soros gave NPR $1.8 million last October for a special project to increase state government reporting.)

White House correspondent Ari Shapiro found a way around this problem when interviewing someone from an innocuous-sounding committee whose name offered no additional information.

"Joe Minarik worked in the Clinton administration, and is now with the Committee for Economic Development, which seeks to present a centrist point of view," Shapiro said in a report.

That way, a listener would at least know that Minarik worked for a Democratic administration.

One outfit that is oft-quoted but almost never identified in NPR reporting is the International Crisis Group. What is it?

The group has an agenda of promoting the use of international pressure to end conflicts and human rights abuses, particularly in Africa and Asia. But the Crisis Group is hard to describe in a few words, and so NPR never tries.

This is their mission statement: The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization cover over 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

NPR might try using a description like this: "a Brussels-based think tank that advocates for peaceful solutions to civil conflicts."

Even groups that claim to be media watchdogs are guilty of using AstroTurf-type names that disguise their real missions. Take FAIR, which stands for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. FAIR leans to the left and often criticizes the news media for giving too much time to conservative viewpoints.

Another group is CAMERA: the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Who could be against accuracy, especially on such a controversial subject as the Middle East?

In fact, CAMERA advocates for Israel and regularly complains that news organizations – including NPR – are too sympathetic toward Palestinians or don't give adequate space to Israel's side.

Not finding a way to identify a group's leaning does a huge disservice to listeners. NPR reporters, editors and producers are seasoned and clever veterans.

When quoting someone, they should go the extra distance to tell the audience why this person has been chosen and what message they are pushing.

REQUESTED CLARIFICATION: The Peterson Institute for International Economics asked that I post something making it clear they have no political ideology and they are separate from the Peterson Foundation.

Although you didn't specify an ideology it seemed that your posting did suggest that PIIE had an ideological approach like some of the other institutes you mentioned. And we don't. I appreciate your drawing the distinction between us and the Peterson Foundation. People do confuse the two organizations, which are entirely separate from each other.
—-Steve Weisman

Mr. Weisman's full statement:

Contrary to the suggestion of your posting, the Peterson Institute for International Economics has no "political ideology" and is widely recognized as nonpartisan. A 2005 survey of media citations by the magazine The International Economy found us to be one of only three out of the seventeen most influential think tanks labeled as nonpartisan. (The other two were the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, and the Council on Foreign Relations.)

In addition a study of media bias published in the highly respected and peer-reviewed Quarterly Journal of Economics (edited by the Economics Department of Harvard University) described our ideological label in 2005 as "not identifiable" or "neutral." (Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, "A Measure of Media Bias," Quarterly Journal of Economics , November 2005, pp.1191-1237.) The authors calculated all citations of think-tanks over a ten year period by members of Congress using the Americans for Democratic Action scores of those members. On a scale in which 100 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative, we were rated 48.8—almost precisely at the center of the American political spectrum.)

As for Peter G. Peterson, Mr. Peterson helped to establish the institute in 1981 and in 2006 the institute changed its name to the Peterson Institute to recognize his generosity and his pivotal role as our Founding Chairman since 1981. The institute, however, derives its funding from highly diversified sources, of which Mr. Peterson and his foundation are only one part. These sources include many foundations, corporations, governments and individuals, as well as the PIIE endowment. As you correctly noted, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, based in New York, is an entirely separate entity from PIIE.

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