Even though news organizations like The New York Times are big outfits where it’s hard to keep the left hand informed about what the right hand is doing, it’s disturbing to see how completely the paper has ignored its own reporting about the sophisticated form of corruption perfected by major American think tanks – and keeps mindlessly citing their work and staff members in articles.
On August 8 – just over two weeks ago – the paper ran on its front page an invaluable report on how America’s major think tanks, most of which are headquartered in Washington, D.C., now habitually produce and distribute material that promotes the interests of their corporate or other contributors. As I’ve explained, this Standard Operating Procedure is not only contemptibly deceptive, but dangerous to our democracy.
For think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are used by policy makers and the media as important sources of information and analysis – largely because they’re seen as objective sources of expertise, just like colleges and universities. (Brookings even uses the “.edu” internet domain name.) When the main purpose of these organizations is to help their donors, they’re engaged in what I’ve called “idea laundering” – garbing special interest pleading in the raiment of scholarly integrity and independence. Worst of all, think tanks rarely disclose specific actual or possible conflicts of interest.
So the obvious question is whether The New York Times, for starters, is taking the hint, and at least begun to change its news coverage to portray think tank findings and views accurately? Sadly, the answer is, “Not yet” – at least judging from The Times‘ mentions, since the article appeared, of Brookings, whose academic pretenses it spent so much space exposing.
According to The Times‘ search engine, the paper has presented the views of Brookings staff seven times since August 8. And it’s as if the reporters and editors don’t read their own paper.
The most recent was The Times publication today of the big Associated Press story detailing the large number of Clinton Foundation donors who managed to finagle meetings or telephone conversations with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when she served as Secretary of State. The Brookings “fellow” quoted was identified as someone who might have a bias – since Secretary Clinton was once his boss at State. But credit here should go to the Associated Press, not The Times.
Yesterday, a Times piece on the fighting in Iraq quoted a Brookings analyst once with the CIA. No special interest motive is apparent here, although the source, Kenneth Pollack, was a big backer of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. These views weren’t mentioned in the story – but maybe they were a little bit germane?
On August 18 came a Times article purporting to show that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is losing support among white men – widely thought to be one of his core constituencies. Many polls and political specialists were cited, which is all to the good. But one of them was “Brookings demographer William H. Frey” – who has “conducted several simulations that tried to determine how much the turnout among white men without college educations would have to increase for Mr. Trump to win.” His results were bad news for Trump.
That’s in principle fine, too. But here it’s surely relevant that almost none of Brookings’ legion of corporate donors is likely to look favorably on Trump, a loud opponent of the trade and immigration policies these businesses support. Also relevant – Brookings President Strobe Talbott is really chummy with both Secretary Clinton and her husband, the former president. Indeed, he was Deputy Secretary of State in the former’s administration, on top of several other appointive positions.
That same day, some research by Brookings economist Gary Burtless was featured in a Times post on the surprisingly large numbers of men who have been dropping out of the American workforce. Nothing objectionable here, especially since Burtless wasn’t asked to explain his findings.
More problematic was the August 17 Associated Press’ summary of the tax policy plans being touted by the Clinton and Trump campaigns this year. Because the piece, which appeared in The Times, relied in part on the work of Brookings’ Tax Policy Center, and because the issue so politically charged, it seems to me that the Talbott-Clinton connection should have at least been mentioned. Here, the fault lies mainly with the AP – although as a customer of the news service, The Times has wide latitude to edit its material.
Much less partisan was the Reuters article published by The Times August 16 on racial tensions in Milwaukee. The piece, written in the wake of a recent police shooting, offered some Brookings data on the city’s segregated housing patterns that don’t seem to be motivated by any particular agenda.
The final report in The Times, however, was another that missed Brookings’ corporate and Clinton links. The article, again from the AP, summarized and analyzed the two leading presidential candidates’ overall economic plans. The AP in particular should have noted that the Brookings staffer it quoted here, “senior fellow” William Galston, is a “former policy advisor to President Clinton.” Is it any wonder he’s so enthusiastic about amnesty for illegal immigrants!
Since think tanks do house a lot of worthy knowledge and wisdom, and since their donors have every right to participate in policy debates, the solution is obvious: adequate transparency. That way, we could all benefit from this expertise, but also have some sense of who’s been sponsoring it, why – and what it might be downplaying, slanting, or ignoring. And since The Times has done such excellent reporting on what shady institutional characters think tanks can be, is it so unreasonable to expect that the paper starts leading the way?