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Bruce Bartlett on Think Tank Politicisation | and think tanks and the media

Bruce Bartlett comment son an article by Mark Thoma  on Think Tank Politicization. He highlights a couple of excellent points/ideas/recommendations in the way that think tanks engage with the media:


Conservatives understand–better than liberals, I think–that most stories are lucky to last one news cycle. If the reporter later decides that the liberal study was really worthwhile and the conservative one was worthless, he isn’t going to go back and do another article on the subject. It’s water over the dam.


One consequence of Heritage’s breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.

Unfortunately, nothing is an island. Choices made by individual organisations, in the context of a more polarised political and media climate as well as increased competition in the marketplace of ideas, can lead to changes in the whole system

Bartlett suggests that as a consequence:

the talking head approach to policy debate on the cable news channels reinforces all the negative aspects of this development. Once upon a time, I used to do a lot of cable interviews. At first, I was often paired with people I knew at other think tanks who were slightly more liberal than I am. But because we both shared common facts and knew the limits of what could be demonstrated through serious academic research, we naturally tended to agree with each quite a bit.

Having two guests who agree with each other is the last thing cable channels want; they want their guests to be 180 degree polar opposites. So gradually I noticed that I was no longer being paired with peers from liberal think tanks, but people I had never heard of who were identified as “Democratic consultant” or something like that. Such people clearly knew virtually nothing about the subject we were discussing and were just there to endlessly repeat talking points that someone gave them.

That was bad enough, but over time it got worse. I could see that I was going up against people who had media training. They knew how to filibuster by using more than their share of air time and forced me to use my time responding to their charges at the expense of making my own points. Eventually, I pretty much stopped either doing cable interviews or watching cable news at all.


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Stephen Yeo #

    The problem with these discussions is that they focus entirely on the US, and it is hard to know how much is specific to the US and how much generalizes. You wouldn’t expect the behaviour of think tanks to be independent of the political environment in which they operate. And the US political environment is very unusual – highly polarized and extremely media driven, political parties are in some ways very weak, the legislature and the executive confront each other by design, etc. Which of these characteristics has the largest impact on the behaviour or US think tanks, and does that characteristic feature in other political environements.

    Bartlett and Thoma focus on the behaviour of the media, which in the US have a strong commercial (never mind political) interest in whipping up controversy and confrontation, and that is probably right. This raises the question of whether the media in other parts of the world display the same sort of behaviour.

    February 5, 2011
    • Last year I organised a workshop on research communication in Peru and we had a media expert provide a presentation and facilitate a session on the media (you can find the presentation, in Spanish here -you may have to subscribe). I am also currently reviewing two papers on the factors that influence the way in which the media uses research in Latin America. There are obvious differences when compared to the US media but there are similarities too. One thing to highlight: the media likes a polemic and is more likely to use research if it serves that purpose.

      I would say that Bartlett’s comments are also relatively valid for the UK scene. I think things are still far from the talking heads American style of interviewing but the media here does try, at least the ideologically non-identifible media, to provide two sides to every story -even if one side is provided by ‘expert from Oxbridge’ and the other by ‘person from the street who has an opinion’.

      February 5, 2011

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