RealityChek

Im-Politic: Why Washington’s Latest Think Tank Scandal Should Matter – but May Not

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Slowly, and not so surely, the American media is waking up to the pervasiveness of corporate corruption of the nation’s think tank complex. I say “slowly” because revelations of the way these special interests – which include foreign governments – have used these supposedly quasi-academic institutions to promote and defend their own selfish agendas has tended to drip out in individual exposes usually separated by years (literally). And I say “not so surely” because these reports rarely connect any of the important dots. Worse, it’s ever clearer that the Mainstream Media itself is a big part of the problem.

The latest example: the uproar set off by revelations that the New America Foundation (NAF) recently fired a team of analysts because it started goring the ox of one of the organization’s main funders, Google.

It’s been gratifying to see that nearly everyone who has commented on this incident considers NAF and Google to be in the wrong, and no one whose work I’ve seen has given the slightest credence to the organization’s insistence that the team was canned because he wasn’t sufficiently collegial in his work habits.

Much less gratifying has been the almost equally widespread tendency to interpret the incident as a sign that Google itself has become way too powerful on America’s policy and intellectual scenes, and in underhanded ways. Or that Silicon Valley itself is now exerting way too much of this power just as sneakily, and without adequate checks.

That’s all true, and important. What’s been almost completely missed, however, is that Google’s muscle-flexing is anything but limited to Google or to the tech sector or to the New America Foundation. It is now Standard Operating Procedure in the think tank world, which has become what I’ve called an idea-laundering racket. That is, donors use the tanks they support to dress up various self-serving ideas in respectable-looking scholarly raiment that can be sold to policy-makers as the products of disinterested truth-seeking.

Not that special interests lack the right to bring their concerns to official-dom. But they should be correspondingly obligated to display some transparency – and where they’re determined to be secretive, or to capitalize on the general public’s understandable unwillingness to investigate the information they do need to disclose, the press needs to step in. Sadly, it’s almost unheard of for journalists to link think tank staff quoted in news articles as scholarly experts to the donors that pay them and the agendas they’re pushing.

Indeed, as I’ve documented, there’s a strong tendency on the part even of news organizations that have reported on think tanks’ corporate and other special interest connections to ignore their own findings and permit idea laundering as usual.

One big reason that’s become clearer to me than ever as I’ve been looking into the NAF scandal is the remarkable extent that journalists have formally been part of its operations and structure. The informal connections between journalists and think tankers have always been important, however neglected. Think tank staff and establishment journalists tend to come from the same kinds of fairly affluent backgrounds, have attended the same kinds of schools, graduate with the same kinds of ideas, and – since so many are clustered in Washington, D.C. – live in the same kinds of neighborhoods, send their kids to the same schools, and generally move in the same social circles.

Moreover, it’s been routine for media figures to take sabbaticals at think tanks to write books or just get some relief from the day-to-day grind and study subjects in depth. How realistic is it to expect any of them to turn around and then bite the hand that literally fed them?

The inevitable result is downright scary if you believe (as you should) that a robustly functioning democracy depends in large measure on individuals and institutions playing distinct roles that enable them to function as balancers and watchdogs or simply reinforcers of needed degrees of political and social pluralism. When they interact too closely and especially too systematically, temptations to scratch each other’s backs inevitably mushroom.

But perhaps more subtly, and therefore more importantly, these actors (especially the individuals) just as inevitably begin to know and understand each other too well, to like and admire each other too much, to recognize each other’s wants and needs too willingly, to agree with their legitimacy too thoroughly, to avoid any potential awkwardness or unpleasantness, and to cut them considerable slack when any kinds of trouble arise. And as these patterns emerge and consolidate, the lines separating these actors blur, their independent outlooks start dissolving, and they begin to merge into a genuine establishment (or “swamp,” if you will) with a common mindset, a consequent tendency toward group-think, and an increasing dedication to promoting and protecting its position – which tends to be pretty privileged.

In this vein, NAF’s journalistic connections are truly eye-opening. Its first board chairman was The Atlantic‘s James Fallows. An early president was Steve Coll, formerly with the Washington Post and The New Yorker. One of its board chairs today is National Review Executive Editor Reihan Salam, and he’s joined on this body by Fallows (still with The Atlantic), Steven Rattner (a New York Times columnist and financier), David Brooks (another New York Times columnist), and Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

NAF also has developed a network of “media partners” that regularly publish its material via syndication deals. These news organizations include The Atlantic, Quartz.com (which is owned by The Atlantic‘s parent company), Slate, National Review (Salam’s publication), and TIME.  

The organization’s governmental connections are extensive as well. Like more and more think tanks, NAF also gets funding from the U.S. and foreign governments and international organizations. These official donors include the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development, the U.S. government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace, the European Union, the European Commission, Norway’s foreign ministry, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Germany’s Embassy to the United States. (See NAF’s latest Annual Report for documentation of current Board members and donors.)

Again, it’s been encouraging to see NAF take its lumps. But real progress toward breaking up the Washington swamp won’t be made until journalists and policymakers start treating the think tanks with the skepticism they deserve, and if not ignoring the information they generate, at least considering the source much more exactingly before internalizing and further propagating it.

And all RealityChek readers will easily be able to tell whether the NAF scandal brings genuine change. Check your favorite news sources to see whether NAF staff keep appearing as founts of scholarly wisdom – and when they are used, if the reporters or anchors in question tell you whose signing their paychecks, and what stakes these donors have in the issue in question. And look for the same treatment for all the other major think tanks. Even better? Start giving them heck in their comment sections and on social media when they don’t.

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