February 1, 2011  

Do quote me

Washington’s think tankers can play a double game through the media

Thinktankdom is a field in which research, analysis and commentary have shaped everything from the Marshall Plan to the Iraq War debate to current battles over what weapons systems should be bought. But for all the influence these analysts (and talking heads) wield, it is also a field that lacks a universal code of ethics, ombudsmen to hold people accountable or a professional association to regulate it. Even more, it is filled with people who are happy to speak about everything under the sun — that is, except their own field and the part that money plays in it. Indeed, many fellow think tankers saw it as stunning that I recently wrote a study on the think tank industry and some of the interesting aspects that result from its varied funding, despite the fact that it is a major industry in Washington, with more than 600 of these institutions in the city.

Recently, some media outlets have begun to ask about the prominent role that certain defense think tankers are trying to play in debates over such issues as the tanker-aircraft buy and the looming defense cuts, and the network of connections they often have to manufacturers of these very same systems. When people do think about this issue of money and influence in thinktankdom, they often look to the institutional funding. That is, the goals of a think tank’s donors and, even more so, the percentage of overall funding any single donor has, can be a huge determinant at some think tanks of not only what questions are asked by the staff in their writing and commentary, but also the very answers of that “research.” Otherwise, it’s sheer coincidence that organizations funded solely by defense firms always conclude that the defense budget should be expanded, while those funded by peacenik foundations think the Pentagon budget should be cut. This line from funding to conclusions is efficient in one way: It makes it easy to figure out what such analysts will say before they enter the room. Indeed, some journalists even like it because they know the tenor of the quote from an analyst before they call for an interview. Of course, it raises the question of why even go through the motions in the first place?

But at least most of these think tanks are forced by their nonprofit status to reveal who their funders are in their yearly reports. Left out of the discussion, though, is the profit motive that is sometimes also at play at the personal level. It’s a dirty little secret, but many think tankers, especially in the defense realm, also privately engage in “consulting” contracts and side businesses that directly link to their work, frequently with the same firms whose products or interests they then comment on in the public sphere.

I believe think tankers should not take on private consulting contracts with firms they might research and comment on in their public work. My own institution, Brookings, has a code of ethics and financial disclosure forms that establish our policy on the matter; all scholars must sign it each year. But I fully recognize that many others see such side work as just part of the field’s unspoken side, and, even more so, one of the few ways to make serious money in a profession that is filled with smart people who could make far more money in private industry, but eschew that because of a love of policy and research. Thus, on the rare occasions when such arrangements are aired, such think tankers tend to argue that if they believe in what they say in the press, their underlying motives shouldn’t matter.

The result of this Wild West attitude inside Massachusetts Avenue’s ideas factories is that there is a wide variance when it comes to the relationship between one’s writing and media commentary and the money that ends up in one’s pocket, especially when it comes to personal financial relationships. So the problem of figuring out whether a personal financial motive really does matter is kicked back to the reporters and their editors to figure out. If journalists interview someone in the think tank field who does take such private funding, their reporting should make that financial relationship clear.

Look WHO’S TALKING … and why

It might be asked whether this identification should apply to the broader work an analyst might do for an industry in general, or should the journalist mention the specific firm? That is, if a journalist is quoting a think tanker who argued that the “U.S. military should buy Widgit Corp.’s X-Wing Fighter,” should the journalist identify the analyst as just (1) a senior fellow at the Center for Punditry, or (2) a senior fellow at the Center for Punditry who also does paid consulting work for the widget industry, or (3) a senior fellow at the Center for Punditry who also is a paid consultant for Widgit Corp., the company that makes the X-Wing?

As a reader who wants to be informed, I think that (3) very much matters. If a journalist was, for example, quoting a vice president of public relations in an article about a certain product, he would surely identify which firm the PR flack works for, especially if it makes the product in question or is a competitive firm. To not do so for an “analyst” who also cashes checks from the very same firm is to not provide key information to the reader. If the journalist withholds such information, he becomes part of a process by which reader is effectively being played.

But what if individual analysts are not willing to say who their think tanks are funded by, or whether they are personally taking money from one of the firms involved in a story for which they are being interviewed? Frankly, even if they are ready with a quote, it is questionable whether the journalist should treat such analysts as independent resources. Why should the journalist give them a free soapbox for what may be just a paid opinion?

After the dot-com debacle in the stock market, for example, when a number of the talking heads turned out to be hyping penny stocks in which they were personally invested, many of the cable TV shows tracking Wall Street news now require such disclosure by any financial analysts who speak about a company. It’s a sad day when a think tanker is advocating we turn to Wall Street for moral guidance.

I’d also suggest that journalists not just weigh the issue of funding in their interviews of analysts, but also where it links to track record. (In the defense world, for example, the reporting and commentary on a number of troubled weapons programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike fighter, the DD(X) and CG(X) ships, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the tanker plane, etc., graphically illustrate this problem.) To make a parallel example, much like a journalist working the defense beat, a sports reporter working the local NFL beat might find it very useful to turn to an “analyst” instead of just interviewing the Redskins and who they were playing the next week. But if it turned out that “outside” and “independent” analyst was not only receiving money from the Redskins organization but also continually toed the Redskins’ line, predicting that the Redskins would win the next game, game after game after game after game, the journalist would probably stop going back to the well. But what we wouldn’t accept in the business of sports, we too often accept in the business of policy. As one defense journalist explained to me, this kind of twisted arrangement is somehow OK in the news section, because such defense commentators, who are obviously not independent, apparently offer something more important than fresh analysis based on actual research: “They are always ready with a quote.”

Maybe I am an optimist, but I do think there is a way for think tank analysts to carry out serious and valuable work that is not unduly influenced by financial relationships and for journalists and their audience to benefit from such expertise. The question is whether we are all willing to take that relatively easy extra step of disclosure and transparency. Or are we going to just keep sweeping the money under the rug? AFJ

PETER W. SINGER is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. He does not consult for corporations he writes and researches on.