How to Report - And Not Report - On Think Tanks

On October 30th, the Washington Post published an article titled At fast-growing Brookings, donors may have an impact on research agenda”. This latest piece about a prominent American think tank comes in the wake of heightened U.S. media interest in the issue, first sparked by an article on foreign funding for think tanks that ran in the New York Times in early September. (Note that Transparify was not involved in researching or writing any of these articles.)

Below, Transparify outlines its views on the recent media coverage, with particular reference to the the recent Washington Post article.

Attention to nuance

The headline of the recent Washington Post piece, “…may have an impact on research agenda”, sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, the issue discussed in the article is donors’ possible power to shape agendas, not the cash purchase of ready-made opinions or hiring of lobbying proxies.

At Transparify, we appreciate the measured tone adopted in the article, and the way the authors clearly go to great lengths to present multiple perspectives. For example:

“Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings‘You can buy attention, but not a point of view or an outcome.’”

The journalists are keen to avoid sensationalizing the issue. Lobbyists are reported as confirming that quality think tanks in the U.S. are not compromising their integrity for cash. Who said that good news was no news?

Check on think tanks’ internal safeguards

The WaPo piece also sets strong standards in terms of letting Brookings explain at length how it shields its research processes and findings from potential donor pressure.

“Brookings officials said they have created a strong internal system to maintain independence. And outside analysts credit Brookings’s conflict-of-interest and disclosure standards, which they say exceed those of other think tanks… Guidelines require most paid employees to annually list conflicts of interest on forms that are reviewed internally. In addition, Brookings officials said, no single donor provides more than 2.5 percent of the overall budget, limiting the influence that any one funder can have on the institution.”

Such balanced reporting, with attention to internal safeguards, is especially refreshing when compared to some of the less considered media coverage Transparify has reviewed in recent months.

Report whether a think tank discloses its funders

The WaPo piece quotes think tank expert James McGann as saying that “Brookings provides an unusual level of disclosure regarding its funding”. Indeed, Brookings was rated by Transparify as “broadly transparent” in early 2014, placing it in the top third of major U.S. think tanks in terms of its financial transparency, demonstrating that it feels it has nothing to hide.

(Contrast the performance of Brookings with that of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which at this point discloses no information whatsoever on who funds it, the Center for American Progress, where the sources of over 94% of funds remain in the shadows, or any of the other 23 prominent U.S. think tanks that were less transparent than Brookings when Transparify last rated them.)

At the same time, Brookings conceded to the WaPo that the funding data presented in its annual reports could be somewhat misleading – which is why Transparify continues to encourage Brookings, along with all other think tanks, to embrace five-star transparency and list all donors with precise funding amounts and funding purposes.

Ask questions, listen carefully, report fairly

Would we be living in a better, more democratic world if all think tanks disappeared tomorrow? We don’t think so. On the whole, think tanks are making a positive contribution to society, in the U.S. and beyond.

At the same time, every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  As Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, has publicly noted, there are two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business.”

Hence, to paraphrase the Federalist Papers: even if all donors were angels, disclosure would still be sensible. For think tanks to maintain their intellectual integrity, it is essential that the media and other watchdogs engage in a constructive dialogue with institutions and ask them to publicly explain just how they defend their intellectual independence in the context of the ever-changing funding environment, if only to provoke critical reflection within think tanks. And in order for that dialogue to be based on objective facts, journalists need to be able to see who funds whom, and how funding trends are evolving over time.

In this context, Transparify would like to congratulate both Brookings and the Washington Post. We congratulate Brookings on choosing to voluntarily disclose funding data that it is not legally obliged to disclose, and for taking a lot of time to explain its inner workings to the media. And we congratulate the Washington Post for asking important questions, listening carefully to the answers, and reporting its findings in a fair and balanced way. It’s good to see democracy at work, and it will work even better with more transparency.


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