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NPR tilts toward conservative think tanks
Media Matters
December 15, 2005

Summary: After claiming that National Public Radio (NPR) "does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think," NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin presented a tally of think tank experts featured in NPR stories that showed a sizable majority of experts quoted in the past year did, in fact, come from conservative institutions.

Responding in a December 14 column to listener comments on the issue, National Public Radio (NPR) ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin presented a list of the think tanks from which the radio network draws experts for comments and tallied the number of times experts from each think tank were interviewed in NPR stories. Before he presented the figures to his audience, Dvorkin asserted, "NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think." But those who read on would have learned that, in direct contradiction of Dvorkin's statement, the list demonstrates that NPR does in fact "lean on" conservative think tanks disproportionately.

Here is Dvorkin's list, which he described as "the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005," and his explanation:

American Enterprise -- 59

Brookings Institute [sic] -- 102

Cato Institute -- 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies -- 39

Heritage Foundation -- 20

Hoover Institute -- 69

Lexington Institute -- 9

Manhattan Institute -- 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

Yet contrary to his earlier denial, Dvorkin's "score to date" indicates that "NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left."

One could argue whether centrist think tanks such as The Brookings Institution (which has been led in the past by Republicans, though its current president is a Democrat) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (whose board of directors includes Henry Kissinger) provide "balance" to highly conservative institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and The Heritage Foundation. But even accepting the classification Dvorkin uses, he has found that 63 percent of the think tank experts quoted in the past year came from conservative institutions, while only 37 percent came from liberal institutions -- a pronounced conservative tilt.

The group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), using somewhat different criteria, has documented a similar preference for conservative think tanks in the American media more broadly over a number of years. FAIR's latest study is available here.

As Media Matters for America noted, on November 30, NPR's All Things Considered cited military analyst Daniel Gouré as "with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia, think tank," but it failed to identify the Lexington Institute as a "limited government" proponent with Bush administration ties. Dvorkin noted that listeners had written to NPR regarding this omission.

The problem with think tanks is everything they say is politically motivated. The conservative think tanks will consistently say tax cuts are good for the economy (which is true) but then they fail to mention the long term damage to the economy caused by record deficits and debt caused by those tax cuts.

We have over $8.1 trillion of debt - and most of it has been created since the tax cut frenzy of the Reagan years just 25 years ago. This generation has created more than 8x more debt than all previous generations combined. This is insanity. Anyone who supports tax cuts should be ignored.

When it comes to using think tanks in news stories, here's how it should work. The media needs to look at what the organization said previously (say on tax cuts or WMD) and then compare it to reality. When the think tank is consistently wrong, don't use them. In the case of tax cuts and WMD, every conservative and military think tank PBS (and others used) were wrong. The media needs to start using think tanks that have a record of being right, not conservative or liberal. Put simply, there isn't one conservative think tank that was right about tax cuts, surpluses, the war on terror or the Iraqi war. So, why does PBS give air time to groups that are always wrong? Is more of their "fair and balanced" reporting which is neither fair, nor balanced, nor accurate?

The ombudsman at PBS should be fired for not telling the truth.