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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Think Tank Politicization

More on think tanks:

Mark Thoma on Think Tank Politicization, by Bruce Bartlett: University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma makes a good point in response to my column about the politicization of think tanks:

I think these organizations -- think tanks -- have done great damage to economics. We hurt ourselves enough with the events leading up to the financial crisis, but there has also been a blurring of lines between academic research and think tank research -- some of which is simply not honest -- that has made it appear that there are divisions within the profession that simply do not exist, or that there is stronger support for some ideas than actually exists. The main problem, I think, is the he said - she said presentation of academic work in the media alongside the papers that think tanks put out as though there is an equivalence (or a similarly structured debate on, say, CNN). Much of the think tank work (but not all) is junk and no such equivalence exists, but the work is often given equal footing in the press. One of the reasons I started this blog was the frustration of hearing what economists "believe" (e.g. "tax cuts pay for themselves"), when those beliefs were anything but widely held. But you wouldn't know that reading the paper or watching the news. ...

The larger point Mark is making here applies as well to the decline of the news media, which I have also commented on recently. One of the things the right figured out long ago is that reporters and TV producers are lazy and the ones that aren't are too pressed for time to do more than take studies by think tanks or anyone else at face value. They don't have the knowledge, education or resources to do fact-checking or quality control. The best they can do is separate research from institutions deemed reputable from those that are total hacks, quacks and fly-by-night operations.

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.

Conservatives also realized that putting out a study saying the exact opposite of a liberal study was sufficient to muddy the water and prevent a reporter from drawing a clear conclusion from the liberal study. It didn't matter that the liberal study was done by a preeminent scholar in the field and the conservative study was done by a glorified intern. All that mattered is that they came to opposite conclusions, thus leading to on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand stories that everyone hates but the media won't stop writing.

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.

Parenthetically, I would add that 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.

Some of the people on these shows aren't qualified to speak as economists, but they get called again and again because they can spout talking points in an entertaining fashion. Paul Krugman paired against journalist Robert Samuelson in a CNN debate on the deficit a week or so ago is an example of this (though from what I saw it's not clear that Samuelson satisfies the "in an entertaining fashion" constraint). Menzie Chinn was certainly frustrated by the pairing:

Nonetheless, overarching all this is a simple question. Why do we ascribe any credibility to a person with an undergraduate degree in political science (what is called Government at Harvard) in the area of economics (let alone accounting)? (The question is inspired by watching the debate between Professor Krugman and Mr. Samuelson on Fareed Zakaria GPS yesterday...)

I'm not sure what the answer is. The elevation of entertainment over facts isn't going to change as that is the most profitable strategy for the networks, and economists are unlikely to become more entertaining. 

On "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," I think the outlook is better. A good blog post is exactly this, a "short, readable, time-sensitive policy analysis," and reporters do read and use these posts as contact points. Thus, I think that the internet -- blogs in particular -- have broadened considerably the number of experts that the print media has access to, and it has also given them comprehensible summaries of academic work. This has blunted the effectiveness of similar type of work from think tanks as reporters have come to rely more and more on blog posts and their authors as background and sources for their reports.

    Posted by on Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 10:08 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (8)


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