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The following item didn’t even merit a full article in the eyes of Politico editors. But it speaks volumes on how the nation’s journalists continue to do a terrible job of reporting on the vested interests behind much of the opinion and analysis on which they rely to flesh out their coverage of any number of issues.

Here it is in full, beneath the headline “Hopkins Pushes U-Turn on German Trade Policy:

A new report from Johns Hopkins University advises the winner of the U.S. presidential election to reverse many of the trade and defense policies the Trump administration has pursued with Germany.

The paper from the the school’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies [AICGS] recommends redoubling the U.S. commitment to NATO, which Trump has de-emphasized over his term, and pursuing a “safe trade” strategy that would aim for a new U.S.-EU trade agreement to lower tariffs across the Atlantic. It also argues the countries should commit to reform the WTO to counter China’s rise.”

To begin on a personal note, I first encountered the Institute in the mid-1980s, when I was an editor at FOREIGN POLICY magazine. It was newly created, and my reaction to its appearance was probably much the same as your reaction to its mention in this press item: It’s a think tank, it’s connected with a major university, so its work must top some kind of quality threshhold.

Revealingly, this period came before private sector and other special interest donors became so dominant in the think tank world and, more important, began actively and indeed strategically using these institutes to further highly self-interested, specific agendas. (See this history for an excellent account of how and why it changed.)

In other words, many and probably most of them weren’t chiefly engaged in what I’ve called “idea laundering” – seeking to advance these agendas by using think tanks to garb them in the raiment of traditional, truth-seeking scholarlship. So I didn’t ask myself who was funding the Institute. (Full disclosure: The think tank that then published FOREIGN POLICY magazine, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was at that time financed by big bucks provided for its creation by Gilded Age industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. To my knowledge, that endowment to that point was so big, and managed and invested so smartly, that no outside fund-raising was necessary.)

But precisely because times have changed so dramatically, I not only wondered who pays for the Institute – I investigated the subject. And what I found is that not only is the AICGS financed significantly by large banks and corporations who have had a strong vested stake in restoring what was for them a very lucrative pre-Trump U.S.-Germany economic status quo (one of whose main beneficiaries was China). It’s also financed significantly by the German government – which has at least as strong a vested stake in restoring a pre-Trump status quo that was not only economically profitable, but strategically advantageous. For under President Trump’s predecessors, the United States was willing to subsidize heavily  Germany’s defense because numerous German governments (including today’s) have preferred to free ride militarily and spend public monies elsewhere – or let German taxpayers keep them.

Specifically, the Institute’s donors include the “Transatlantic Program of the Federal Republic of Germany with funds from the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy” the Landesbank Baden- Wurttemberg (a regional-level German central bank), and the German Academic Exchange Service – which sounds non-governmental, but whose budget, its own website tells us:

is derived mainly from the federal funding for various ministries, primarily the German Federal Foreign Office, but also from the European Union and a number of enterprises, organisations and foreign governments.”

Nor are these government funds trivial. According to the latest information AICGS has provided to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (as required), in 2016, the organization raised just under $2.61 million in total revenue. Roughly half of this amount came from “contributions and grants” (a category that, oddly, doesn’t include “fund-raising events” income). And of the $1.34 million taken in through contributions and grants, the German economic affairs and energy ministry donated $206,434, and the German Academic Exchange Service gave $113,590. (No Landesbank contributions were recorded, presumably because they fell below the $1,000 level mandated by the Internal Revenue Service for reporting – although there’s no way to know how much this official German financial agency, or the other German government agencies, contributed to one of AICGS’ fund-raising events.),

And there can be no doubt that both the businesses and the German government consider it much more effective and convincing to have a scholarly sounding American Institute for Contemporary German Studies carrying their water than spreading their messages themselves. In fact, Politico fell for this ruse hook, line, and sinker, and indeed reinforced the deception – with a headline describing the study’s results as coming not even from a think tank, but from a leading U.S. university. 

As I’ve argued often before (e.g., the Congressional testimony linked above), there’s nothing inherently wrong with any special interest using a think tank to push its priorities. Nor is there anything wrong with a foreign government engaging in the same practice.

But there’s a great deal wrong with these donors using think tanks on the sly. And when it comes to foreign governments, a legal issue comes up: whether these think tanks should be required to register a foreign lobbyists, as required by law.

As suggested above, AICGS is hardly the only idea launderer in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the country, and if you look hard enough – as I did – you can find the information on-line. But why should anyone have to make any significant effort? Why shouldn’t sponsorship information be displayed prominently on all the publicly released products of AICGS and think tanks generally? And since it’s not, why do Politico and other media outlets not report this information routinely?

Oncc the Trump era began, the Mainstream Media began ostentatiously adopting official slogans like “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  I’m not aware of any references to “Draining the Swamp.”  And these news organizations’ continuing failure to expose idea laundering and similar strategies can’t help but keep feeding suspicions that they’re part of this morass.