How a Fake ‘Think Tank’ Deceived 97% of Journalists

Guest blogger Brendan Fischer recounts how a US public relations firm set up a ‘think tank’ to promote clients’ points of view in the media. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

American low-wage employers like restaurant chains may not want their brands associated with unpopular positions like opposition to the minimum wage, but lucky for them, they’ve got the Employment Policies Institute on their side.

EPI, which describes itself as “a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth” and is often cited as a “think tank” by the media, has been one of the most prominent voices opposing the minimum wage in recent months. It produces or commissions reports purporting to show that workers don’t need higher pay. Its staff are quoted in the press providing respectable-sounding quotes opposing living wage laws.

But the Employment Policies Institute operates from the same office suite as Berman and Co., a public relations firm owned by Richard Berman that counts the restaurant and retail industries among its clients.

Berman – who is EPI’s President and Executive Director – specializes in helping corporate interests launder their messages through phony front groups. His clients have included the tobacco and fast food industries, and he has formed fronts like the Center for Consumer Freedom to fight against indoor smoking bans and nutrition labeling requirements. After Berman received funding from the Corn Refiners Association, the Center for Consumer Freedom launched a TV, radio, and print campaign defending corn syrup and attacking critics. Berman has talked about being in a "long-term war" with unions, and his shop also runs the "Center for Union Facts," which spends tens of millions on anti-union ad campaigns. 

EPI passes itself off as a “think tank,” but it is really just another weapon in Berman’s arsenal of astroturf, offering low-wage employers like restaurant chains a modicum of distance and a veneer of respectability for messages that just-so-happen to benefit their corporate bottom line.

EPI has just a handful of employees, and the expertise of its staff is grounded in public relations rather than academic research. Journalists, in an effort to create a perception of “balance,” regularly tap EPI’s research director, Michael Saltsman – who doesn’t have an advanced degree in research or economics – when they need a pithy quote to counter positions by academics, policy experts, or politicians. 

Yet, a Center for Media and Democracy analysis showed that journalists rarely identify EPI’s public relations ties. In 97 percent of the stories quoting EPI or Saltsman over the past three years, reporters provided readers with no information about EPI’s relationship with Berman and Co. In most cases, journalists described EPI as a “Washington DC nonprofit.” Occasionally, EPI was called “conservative” or “pro-business.” Only about 3 percent of the time did journalists note EPI’s connections to Berman and Co.

Failing to note EPI’s role as an arm of a public relations shop deceives readers into thinking they are hearing an independent perspective, warping the discourse and keeping the public in the dark.

Brendan Fischer is the General Counsel of the Center for Media and Democracy, a group that investigates and reports on the influence of corporations on public policy.