How many representatives from so-called “think tanks” appear regularly on newscasts? It’s very, very difficult to tell. Because think tank representatives from groups like the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Federalist Society are rarely treated as “guests” on news shows. Instead, they’re brought on as analysts, commentators, and de facto hosts. Is Elizabeth Warren appearing a show this morning? Bring on the talking head from AEI to explain why she’s a socialist. Is Bernie Sanders talking about education? Let our friend from the Heritage Foundation explain why he’s all wrong.
The whole purpose of many of these think tanks is simply to assemble a roster of guests making it dead simply to find an “expert” on any topic that may be crossing a news desk. Need someone on gun control? We’ve got that. The Iran agreement? Top guys. Our relationship with Russia? You want the angry white guy, or the angry white guy with extra tweed?
These groups make it so simple for news programs of all sorts to find someone on a moment’s notice, that it saves them all the problem of looking up genuine experts. NPR’s morning news programs managed to tap someone from the Heritage Foundation over a hundred times in a single year. Because … why not? Think tanks give media outlets a welcome tinge of “independence” with their institutes, and centers, and foundations. They provide a pretense of independent analysis. And there is absolutely no charge—except in the cost to delivering the truth on any topic.
That’s why this action from the BBC News is critically important. In a memo from the BBC Press Office, the news organization has announced that it will “not assume that contributors from think tanks are unbiased.” Even more importantly, when using speakers from think tanks, they will report on who funds the think tanks. In the case of the Heritage Foundation, that would be the Koch brothers. In the case of AEI, that would … also be the Koch brothers.
Few think tanks are genuinely independent. There are some. But many of those organizations do not provide pop-up analysts to fill a slow half-hour on CNN. In addition, genuinely independent, fact-based groups would also benefit from the contrast with organizations that are just political parties going under another name.