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.

Are Think Tanks Turning into Lobbyists?

Transparify today releases an annotated bibliography on how think tanks influence policy makers containing dozens of media stories and academic articles on the nexus between policy wonks and policy makers.

Think tanks influence policy in multiple ways. Their staff pen op-eds, appear on television, testify in hearings, cultivate close relationships with politicians, build coalitions on policy issues, and shape public debates. In the US, government representatives by now are reportedly utilizing think tanks’ research outputs more often than they use the Congressional Research Service, but this does not necessarily reflect a global trend. For example, think tanks in India are thought to lack access to government officials, while in China, the degree of access seems to depend on where an institution is located. In Brussels, their lack of influence on debates is reportedly limited by… their boringness

Where think tanking ends and lobbying begins is often unclear. Many think tanks would argue that educating politicians is distinct from lobbying them, and do not want to be associated with lobbying. However, think tanks have often been criticized for overstepping the line, with many senior staff in the US reportedly moonlighting as lobbyists even as they work for supposedly independent research institutions. On the far end of the spectrum, there are rumours of some public relations firms setting up fake ‘think tanks’ in order to lend their propaganda a veneer of impartial scholarship. The distinction is not only ethical, but also carries legal implications, as a lobbying outfits most certainly are not charitable organizations and therefore do not qualify for tax free status. In at least one case in the UK, the country’s Charity Commission concluded that a registered think tank was in fact a lobbying front and shut it down

Where should the line be drawn? What the legal and regulatory issues are at stake? Is freedom of speech in peril once regulators start stepping in? If you want to share your views, post a comment below or contact us to submit a guest blog on the subject.

For your reference, our latest bibliography is here.

The Double Opacity of Think Tanks

Guest blogger Thomas Medvetz asks whether the growing role of think tanks as providers of policy expertise may have serious drawbacks. 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.

What role do think tanks play in advanced democratic societies? Among observers of contemporary politics, few questions have generated a more polarized set of responses. On the one side are the many journalists, scholars, and other commentators who have described think tanks in celebratory terms—often by portraying them as emissaries of scientific reason in political affairs. On this view, think tanks should be applauded for their role in offering sound advice to policy-makers, and more broadly, for spanning the divide between intellectual and political institutions.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Over the last four decades, a large body of critical research and writing has depicted think tanks not as advocates of science or reason, but as weapons in a political struggle dominated by moneyed sponsors. Those who have advanced this view have argued that think tanks operate as the organizational machinery of elites, a cluster of “mercenary” groups engaged in “deep lobbying” practices on behalf of their sponsors. If think tanks project the image of intellectualism, these critics argue, then it is only as a veneer for a new kind of political claims-making that tends to reinforce and mask inequalities of power.

Stepping back from this polarized debate, we can see that it is based on a false choice: either think tanks are “truly” intellectual organizations, or they are “really” agents of anti-intellectualism, and possibly anti-democratic in character. Yet neither hypothesis must be true in any general sense. There is nothing built into the form of a think tank that determines what kind of social, political, or intellectual role it will play. In fact, the organizations that currently exist under this moniker are so varied in their aims, affiliations, and intellectual products that they are better thought of as a nebulous array of groups, not as members of a distinct category. (On this note, it is enough to point out that more than three decades of academic research on the topic has failed to yield even a clear or agreed-upon definition of a think tank.)

Only by recasting the discussion, then, can we shed new light on the question of the think tank’s social role. Rather than search in vain for a fixed think tank “essence,” we are better off examining the institutional ecology in which they are embedded along with all those who seek to contribute knowledge and ideas to policy debate. What are the “rules” of this system? What determines who wins or loses in the competition to supply “relevant” policy-oriented knowledge? The prominence of think tanks in this competition has led to growing calls for greater financial transparency among them—including those of Transparify and the recent statements by Senator Elizabeth Warren. These are welcome calls because they speak to one of the central questions about the workings of the knowledge-policy nexus in the U.S.: does money direct the production of ideas, or are the idea-producers free to direct their own thought?

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the focus on financial transparency is incomplete in two ways. First, money is not the only form of power that can undermine a think tank’s ability or desire to promote rigorous scientific knowledge. Another impediment is the growing professional power of “policy experts”—the new breed of specialists in rhetoric and advice, of which think tanks are the main incubators. To the degree that policy experts have developed a professional identity of their own, distinct from other intellectuals, it is an identity based on skill and savvy in “selling” arguments to politicians, journalists, and funders. To excel in the world of think tanks, after all, typically means supplying “useful” rhetoric and advice to politicians and journalists—by adhering to the distinctive rhythms, languages, norms, and boundaries of policy battles; anticipating which issues will become “hot” months in advance; and always being ready with a quotable “sound bite.” Even in the absence of financial constraint, then, the need to serve one’s clients can push scientific rigor to the backseat.

This point leads to the second reason why calls for financial transparency among think tanks are good—but not good enough. Financial transparency relates to the production of intellectual goods by think tanks. But we should also seek greater transparency regarding their consumption. Ezra Klein’s recent Bloomberg View article, “The Real Reason Nobody Reads Academics”—written in response to the outcry over Nicolas Kristof’s February 15 New York Times column on the public irrelevance of American professors—speaks to this concern. Klein argues that the “real problem” with the relationship between scholars and journalists “is that the primary system for disseminating academic research”—especially academic journals—“doesn’t work for anyone but academics.”

Klein’s piece is a useful entry into what I hope will become a more robust dialog about the criteria journalists and politicians use to decide which forms of knowledge are “relevant” to political debate, and which are irrelevant. However, in placing the blame squarely on the system of academic publishing, he overlooks what is actually the more significant recent development shaping the relationship between scholars and journalists: the growth of a cottage industry in professional “policy expertise” centered in the world of think tanks.

Shifting the focus to think tanks and their rapid-fire production of talking points, policy memoranda, and punditry raises a new set of questions:

  • Has the growth of think tanks led to an over-valorization of “timely” proclamations, irrespective of their scientific validity, and of polished sound bites and legislative testimony, regardless of how rigorous their claims may be?
  • How do journalists and politicians assess the value of the policy-oriented knowledge available to them?
  • Has convenience displaced credibility in this process?

More broadly, in a public sphere saturated with knowledge-producers of various kinds, who is the dominant “policy expert” in America today? Is it the bearer of scientific knowledge, or the expert whose forte is lending the stamp of scientific credence to policy ideas that originate in the minds of political and economic decision-makers?

Thomas Medvetz is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has published widely on think tanks and is the author of the 2012 book “Think Tanks in America”.