In its recent series “Think Tanks Inc.,” the New York Times exposed the deep financial ties between corporations and think tanks, outlining how corporate donors reaped influence and rewards from such “mutually beneficial” relationships. As someone who has worked in Washington, D.C. for 15 years in communications roles, and in corporate communications and PR prior to that, this is not surprising to me. Every piece of research or analysis that comes from an organization — whether it’s a company, a non-profit, or even a government entity — puts forth an agenda.
Think tanks are traditionally seen as providing objective scholarly research on a policy area, and quoted as such often in the media. In contrast, in my current role as communications director at Food & Water Watch (a national organization that works to protect peoples’ access to safe food and clean water, and in the process, routinely takes on corporations and government officials) I’ve been thanked and told “No” after pitching our research simply because it’s coming from an advocacy group.
The idea that reporters must be cautious of the agenda of advocacy organizations is clear in this Poynter piece advising journalists to be skeptical of the data in reports coming out of nonprofits: “Far from being objective observers, nonprofits, NGOs and international organizations have agendas.” But why single out just these entities? Shouldn’t the same scrutiny be applied to research from other institutions as well, including our government agencies? What impact does this skepticism have on whether or not important issues get covered, simply because the expertise might be coming from an advocacy organization?
That’s why to me, having had the opportunity to work with reporters my whole career, the most interesting thing about this Times exposé is the larger implications for journalism, and which issues get ink in the press. Could it help level the playing field for public interest organizations working on important policy issues?
Think Tanks: More Credible than Advocacy Organizations?
Politico suggests the exposé will “dim the credibility of think tank research in the eyes of reporters and policy makers…. Think tanks will, and some already have, take pains to make arrangements less explicitly tit-for-tat (more like a campaign contributions), but the damage is done.”
Setting aside the sometimes undisclosed lobbying implications uncovered in the recent Times series, think tank research itself has been shown over and over again to advance funders’ agendas (for some examples, see Chris Mooney’s investigative piece on the extensive funding of think tanks to promote climate denial back in 2005; Jane Mayer and Ken Silverstein, among other investigative journalists, have also written about the inner workings — and funding — behind prominent think tanks.)
The infamous Powell Memo helps spell out why this has happened over the past four decades: In 1971 Lewis Powell, later a U.S. supreme court justice, wrote a confidential memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce laying out what has proved to be a successful roadmap for corporations to retake public policy by committing resources to institutions that help shape it — not only think tanks, but also universities and the media. (Just one example is the deep ties between corporations and universities and scientific journals on issues effecting agriculture, which Food & Water Watch has examined extensively.)
All Journalism Advances an Agenda
All reporting advances agendas. As Matt Taibbi wrote, “All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view…. In fact, people should be more skeptical of reporters who claim not to be advocates, because those people are almost always lying, whether they know it or not.”
Moreover, journalism professor Dan Gillmor has pointed out that advocacy organizations can play a valuable role in journalism, having the expertise in important issues like human rights that can go deep in ways that many reporters can’t because of the increasing strains on newsrooms in the digital age. He cites Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as advocacy organizations contributing their own expertise to expand the field of journalism for the better. As a recent and critical example, one only needs to look at investigative reporting by ACLU’s Curt Guyette, which brought the Flint water crisis to national prominence in the media.
How many journalists understood, well in advance of the Times exposé, that any organization involved in policy is involved in advocacy? Will there be a better understanding that all journalism promotes someone’s agenda — whether it’s an advocacy organization like mine that doesn’t take corporate or government funding, or an institution funded by corporations, or a government agency staffed by officials that come and go via a revolving door to industry?
Moreover, could this exposé lead to public interest organizations with deep expertise in social and economic justice issues getting a little more coverage, and experts beating the drum for war — as just one example — a little less?
Thankfully, there are excellent journalists helping serve the public interest in their reporting. They are laying conflicts of interest bare and reporting on important issues that advocates can help them uncover — whether they pertain to civil rights, social justice, or environmental issues affecting our communities.
Isn’t that the role of journalism in a democracy?