Echoing a common conservative claim, CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote a 1996 Wall Street Journal column arguing that mainstream news media are biased against right-wing sources. His evidence of a liberal bias: Network colleague Eric Engberg once labeled the Heritage Foundation as "conservative" but failed to identify another Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution, as "liberal."
Goldberg's allegation inspired a series of studies about how the media use think tanks. Since 1996, I have conducted four surveys of think tanks for the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) and Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the national media-watch group. Our findings have consistently refuted conventional wisdom, showing that major media are much more likely to turn to conservative than to progressive sources.
First, let's dispense with Goldberg's example. Engberg accurately described the Heritage Foundation as conservative, a label the organization proudly acknowledges. Engberg was also accurate in not applying a liberal label to Brookings, an institution that has long had a center-right orientation. "Centrist" was the descriptive label used by Bruce MacLaury, the former Nixon administration official who was Brookings' president from 1977 to 1995; the current president, Michael Armacost, served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Brookings' most prominent analysts, Stephen Hess and Richard Haass, are also Republicans. In our very narrow political discourse, unfortunately, Brookings is often the only group that presents alternatives to conservative viewpoints.
But the more important question is how conservative, centrist and progressive think tanks are treated over all. If the "liberal media" hypothesis is true, one would expect progressive think tanks would be most often cited. That, however, was the exact opposite of what we found.
In 1999, according to a search of the Nexis database of major newspapers and radio and television transcripts, the 25 most cited think tanks were used more than 17,000 times. Fifty-one percent of those citations went to conservative or right-leaning think tanks, such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Thirty-five percent of the references were to centrist think tanks, led by the Brookings Institution, which has almost twice as many citations as any other think tank in the study. Progressive or left-leaning think tanks, such as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), constituted only 13 percent of all media citations.
This imbalance in distribution has been consistent since we first looked at think-tank citations in 1996. As media ownership becomes even more concentrated into fewer and fewer large conglomerates, it's not surprising that voices consistent with a pro-corporate agenda - such as privatizing Social Security, privatizing prisons, pushing forward the global economy, maintaining a large military budget and opposing universal health care - maintain a stranglehold on the mainstream political debate.
Even when progressives are allowed into mainstream discussions, they are not given a level playing field. A study we did in 1998 found that the Brookings Institution was cited without any ideological identification in 78 percent of the cases. The Heritage Foundation went without a label 68 percent of the time; other conservative think tanks were treated similarly. Yet EPI went unlabeled only 52 percent of the time, and over half of the labels attached to EPI referred to it as either being tied to or receiving funds from labor unions. None of the top four think tanks - Brookings, Cato, Heritage and AEI, all conservative or centrist - were referred to as "corporate-backed" or given any similar label.
Think tanks - especially right and center - are largely corporate-funded, and generally companies give to institutions they think will promote policy positions that will benefit them. While corporate spokesmen may be seen as self-interested, think-tank representatives may be more likely to come across as dispassionate experts - especially if the public is not told where their money comes from.
When think-tank representatives are used as experts on a topic, often their media-framed credibility may be measured by the ideological label attached to them. When media cite think-tank representatives as experts without identifying their financial and political backing, audiences are deprived of an important context for evaluating the opinions offered.
This also helps to conceal the fact that media rely so heavily on the right and center for their experts - and contributes to the myth of the liberal media.
Michael Dolny (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of sociology at Montclair State University. The latest study can be accessed at www.fair.org.