Last updated: February 3, 2009 - 10:14pm
[Commentary] Every time there is a presidential transition, we are reminded of the power of think tanks, as dozens of administration officials and think tank employees switch jobs. Fueled by tax-deductible donations and an explosion in philanthropic assets, think tanks have dramatically grown in size and influence during the past 100 years. Despite think tanks' billions of dollars of tax subsidies and considerable power, they have received minimal public scrutiny and are often poorly understood. Think tanks often portray themselves as being all things to all people. But in fact, many are rife with ethical conflicts. To strengthen think tank accountability, the media should do a better job covering think tanks. Think tanks that don't uphold their own ethical claims should be subject to the same type of media scrutiny as the claims of any other major political, press or academic institution in American society. Examples of areas that need better coverage include think tanks' revolving door with government, functioning in orchestrated lobbying campaigns and claiming credit for others' work. The media should adopt a richer terminology to categorize think tanks. The widespread categorization along a liberal to conservative continuum is inadequate. Think tanks should also be categorized by the extent to which they support academic, advocacy or journalistic norms. When think tanks operate without transparency, the burden of proof should be on think tanks, not journalists, to prove no undisclosed conflicts of interest, including in-kind contributions that do not directly flow through a think tank's financial books.
(J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, has been a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, at the New America Foundation and in two Senate offices.)
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