Media

In the Tank

How think tanks are muddling our democracy

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• 2,826 words

Opinion is divided about the importance of Canadian think tanks, those private sector “institutes,” most of them funded by large corporations, that seek to influence governments in matters of public policy. For example, historian Michael Bliss, writing in the National Post, argued that “for some years Parliament, the universities and the national civil service have been increasingly upstaged as centres of political discussion by organizations such as the C. D. Howe Institute, the Conference Board of Canada, the Institute for Research on Public Policy . . . the Donner Canadian Foundation.” Indeed, it is from such private research groups, not from elected representatives, senior civil servants, or cloistered academics, that most advanced policy prescriptions seem to come. But John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail dismisses them. “Most think tanks in Canada are a waste of time,” he has written. “Those on the right twist and distort data to prove the country is overtaxed and underproducing. Those on the left use the same data to prove that society is increasingly unequal and unjust.”

Think tanks use a variety of media to spread their messages — the Internet, in-house publications, conferences, forums, even radio — but they tend to concentrate on Canadian newspapers, which often report the release of a new think tank report as though some actual news event had taken place. And the papers give the think tanks access to op-ed pages as well, where mere opinion doesn’t need to disguise itself as news. Many or most newspapers, and the news services that supply so much of their content, often (but not consistently) try to provide readers with a little context by describing a particular think tank as either politically left or right. I’ll apply the same principle here in taking a look at how a representative cross-section of think tanks — the right-wing Fraser Institute, the more moderate C. D. Howe Institute, and the left-of-centre Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — fared in three similarly diverse newspapers over a two-year period. I chose the dates May 1, 2003, to May 1, 2005, because the stretch of time seemed long enough to reveal general trends, and because it was largely free of economic downtowns, terrorist attacks, or other calamities that might skew the results.

During the period in question, the National Post, in one context or another, mentioned these three think tanks a combined 373 times, with the C. D. Howe getting the most hits. The moderate Globe was no slouch either, mentioning one or another of these think tanks 305 times. The liberal Toronto Star, the country’s highest-circulation daily, ran 210 mentions of various sorts, including 41 for the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives. Taken together, the three think tanks got space in these important newspapers — whether positively or negatively, with or without contextualizing adjectives — more than once each day. If one takes into account not only the other media, but also the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, the Parkland Institute, the relatively new Martin Prosperity Institute, or any number of the hundred or so Canadian institutions generally referred to as think tanks, one sees that they blanket the landscape like a heavy snowfall covering the Prairies.

Given their corporate funders and ideological leanings, most Canadian think tanks tend toward predictable viewpoints. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa put it well in the Globe last February when he wrote, “Take the Conference of Defence Associations, a think tank that got $500,000 from dnd [Department of National Defence] last year. That money comes not with strings, but with an entire leash.” Whether you believe think tanks encourage or limit democratic action, individually and collectively they certainly nudge public opinion (and hence politics) this way and that. To which one might add that they also offer homes for former politicians to retire to — and for newer ones to incubate in. Stephen Harper’s opponents often charge that he never held a real job before entering Parliament. Not true. For years, he headed up the National Citizens Coalition, a think tank.

The term “think tank” has traditionally been associated with the rand Corporation. Founded in 1945 by Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the US Army Air Forces, and a group of defence personnel and contractors, it offered advice to the Pentagon about the development and procurement of new weapons systems. rand contravened the perception of think tanks as clusters of benign scholars musing about the state and the universe, or of disparate intellectuals who could be retained by those wishing a fresh perspective on some matter of public concern. From the beginning, think tanks have been more focused than that.

Most of the serious research on Canadian think tanks has been done by Donald E. Abelson, chair of the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario. His groundbreaking book Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutions has proven enormously influential since its appearance in 2002. Part of its appeal is the way it brings Canadian think tanks into sharper focus by comparing them with those in the US. This and Abelson’s other works on the subject have led some readers — this one, certainly — to infer that whereas US think tanks, historically, have often been contracted to do work on long-range projects in defence and foreign policy (that the American government felt unable to undertake efficiently), Canadian think tanks have generally dealt with economic affairs. Founded in 1954, the Conference Board of Canada is a good example. It now has hundreds of staff and an annual budget of nearly $36 million, and is Canada’s largest such institution.

The great boom in think tanks came in the 1970s and 1980s, which Abelson calls the “advocacy think tank era.” He writes:

What distinguished advocacy think tanks from the earlier types . . . was not their desire to study public policy issues but their profound determination to market their ideas to various target audiences. Rather than reflecting on important policy issues from the comfort of their book-lined offices, [they] understood the importance of immersing themselves in the political arena.

Listing heavily to political starboard, most often they were in the business of business, and used corporate donations (the sort no longer permitted to fund Canadian federal political campaigns) to influence the public via the mass media. Their goals were those of the new conservatism. In Canada, this meant corporate and personal tax breaks, closer ties with the US, private health care, an elected Senate, and, more recently, increased military spending.

On the basis of cleverness, slickness, name recognition, and influence on public policy, the Fraser Institute is probably the country’s most successful think tank. Founded in 1974 in reaction to British Columbia’s first New Democratic government, the Fraser now has more than 3,000 members, an annual budget of over $10 million, and offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Tampa. Like other Canadian think tanks, the Fraser emphasizes its research and educational programs and doesn’t use the term lobbying to describe its activities. The Canada Revenue Agency, which is responsible for monitoring the tax status of Canadian charities, is strict in such matters. Registered charities like the Fraser Institute cannot use more than 10 percent of their donations for the direct lobbying of governments. (Official paid lobbyists are registered as such, are not charities collecting donations and issuing tax receipts, and represent a different order of advocacy.)

Still, the ground is mottled by grey patches. The Conference of Defence Associations describes itself as a “non-partisan, independent, non-profit organization [that] expresses its ideas and opinions with a view to influencing government security and defence policy.” It is not a charity. But the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, founded in 1987 and operating from the same Ottawa address, is.

Such attention to regulations is essential to the overriding aim of conservative think tanks, which is to influence policy not by lobbying politicians and civil servants directly, but by generating support among the public and having policy-makers move to take advantage of that support. The Fraser Institute’s genius lies in its catering to the middlemen in this equation: the media. To get its messages out, the institute knows just when to email exactly the right number of words for tomorrow’s newspapers and when to send graph-laden background reports instead. It works the phones and keeps in touch with the ever-changing cast of characters who make editorial decisions. It is, in a word, slick.

From a PR standpoint, the Fraser’s single most effective strategy is probably Tax Freedom Day, “the hypothetical date on which average Canadians have paid their tax bill for the year and started working for themselves.” The idea is so simple — a kind of statistical sound bite — that it became known and understood by, the institute claimed, “almost every adult Canadian.” Amid all the agitprop produced by the Fraser — including an incessant cry of liberal bias in the media at a time when Canada’s media outlets could hardly be more concentrated on the right — this claim at least seems accurate. Tax Freedom Day achieved lofty and mythological status by getting attention from newspapers from Charlottetown to Whitehorse. The political left has its doomsday clock (showing the number of minutes remaining until “catastrophic destruction”), but not many pay heed to it. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has its annual alternative federal budget, but few pay attention to a calculus that, among other things, includes environmental impacts of extractive industries. Given global warming, such an approach to political economy may be highly appropriate, but it lacks the panache, simplicity, and pocketbook immediacy of Tax Freedom Day.

In some ways, the influence of think tanks comes down to the question of whether the media, and especially newspapers, by allowing them so much space and attention, are abrogating editorial responsibility. Are newspapers, in effect, outsourcing the news? André Pratte, editor-in-chief of La Presse in Montreal, does not think so. “I am not afraid of think tanks, and I am not critical of the phenomenon itself,” he says, explaining that the frequency of news stories and op-ed pieces based on think tank research is simply due to the volume of reports put out. “Most of the think tanks obviously have an ideological bias of some kind, but they still think,” he says. He compares the risks involved in using such material to those arising from stories about poll results or news of supposed medical breakthroughs. The issue is whether newspapers are “careful enough, or maybe in some cases equipped, to question [further] once we’ve published the stuff . . . whether, for instance, the ideological bias had an impact [and] whether conclusions are based on facts or on a bias.” To Pratte’s way of thinking, then, editors shouldn’t worry about material generated by think tanks, but should try to follow up on such stories using their own resources.

Sounds reasonable enough. But how often does this actually happen at a time when newspaper editorial budgets are so tight, when small papers especially are ever more dependent on wire copy, and when large media corporations seek ways to use the same material for multiple platforms (print, radio, television, the Internet)?

Mary Janigan, who covered the public policy beat at Maclean’s for four years and is now on the editorial board of the Globe and Mail, stresses the journalistic danger of putting too much credence in the findings of any single think tank. She says we should compare a number of different ones on a given subject in order to reach a balanced view. Such a position is reasonable (even honourable), but there are pitfalls and realities. Raymond Brassard, the managing editor of Montreal’s Gazette, says, “We pretty much ignore” the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, “because they write very long,” in contrast to, for example, the Fraser, which sends “stuff that is intended for op-ed page lengths, with some editing.” Based on newspaper coverage of last February’s Conference of Defence Association meeting, which discussed Canada’s role in Afghanistan, that organization also knows how to get the media’s attention. As does, for that matter, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

Neil Reynolds is one of Canada’s most respected newspaper editors. He started as a reporter at the Sarnia Observer and later became an editorial executive at the Toronto Star. In 1975, he returned to his hometown, Kingston, Ontario, and transformed the Whig-Standard into a much-admired enterprise. He left the Whig in 1992 to become first the editor and then the editor-publisher of two Atlantic Canada dailies, the Telegraph-Journal and the Times-Globe, both in Saint John. Later, he reinvented the Ottawa Citizen, then became editor of the Vancouver Sun. His involvement in all these newspapers was characterized by a deep concern for journalistic ethics, the role of honest inquiry, and the use of narrative to bond newspapers to their readers. Neither the Whig nor the New Brunswick papers Reynolds oversaw, however, had a codified policy about identifying the apparent bias of individual think tanks. Rather, if an article was a pickup from the Canadian Press, for instance, the papers usually followed whatever labelling CP’s reporter or editor had chosen. This sometimes meant no classification at all. By contrast, the Citizen and the Vancouver Sun, like the other papers in what was then the Southam group (they are now part of Canwest Global Communications), had policies of assigning each think tank mentioned to one broad political category or another.

“As I recall,” Reynolds says, “the real drama came from a kind of guerrilla enforcement at the reporter or copy editor level. Liberal reporters and copy editors made damn sure that right wing went in front of the X Institute; conservative reporters and copy editors made damn sure that left wing went in front of the Y Institute.” He adds, “Once in a while, a left-wing writer would slip ‘extreme right wing’ in front of the Fraser Institute, at which point I got personally involved — ‘extreme right wing’ being code for SS torture and Nazi genocide.”

In Reynolds’ experience, some staff struggled to make clear not only their own viewpoints, but those of their employers as well. He believes this was common with editorial writers, who “loved to use pejorative adjectives to help them reflect the particular bias of their paper.” Does he feel references to think tanks, whether in the news hole or on the op-ed page, should characterize a think tank’s ideological orientation? “In Canada, yes. It’s unfortunate that this practice conveys a derogatory touch to what should be a neutral exercise. It just does. I think it’s different in the States, where there are an infinite variety of think tanks, many of which defy single-adjective labelling, many of which straddle ideological positions. My real concern at all of these papers was to find a way to report more aggressively on issues and ideas, and I exploited the think tanks to do it. At the Whig, [the managing editor] and I shared this thought. He got reporters to exploit left-wing think tanks; I got reporters to exploit right-wing ones. In the kind of anarchy we had there, it worked.”

At the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, Reynolds assigned one writer full time to an ideas beat, and watched as “he went after think tanks, left and right, quite aggressively,” he says. “At the larger papers, with beat [and] parliamentary writers in place, the think tanks tended to get coverage as a matter of course. The disadvantage of this approach is that the studies produced by think tanks often get merely routine coverage — the five-paragraph or 600-word quick hit.” For editors, he notes, pragmatically and without cynicism, think tank handouts are a free “labour-saving device on a slow day,” and “leave the editor with more money to spend on an occasional commission of some kind.

“There’s the rub, I suspect. The reality of newsgathering in a free media age — when people read online or download material for the cost of paper and ink — is that the practice of paying professional journalists to do dogged reporting on public policy issues is less and less common. The think tanks, at once so loud and so very silent, are eager to step in and fill the void, free of charge. On both the left and right, they are eager to be content providers to their receptive hosts.

One of Neil Reynolds’ innovations at the Telegraph-Journal was to run a listing on the op-ed page of various new studies from think tanks of all persuasions as they became available, tacitly encouraging readers to order them for themselves and to read between the lines. This solution calls to mind the practice some newspapers have of listing new corporate annual reports in a way that allows readers, by returning a coupon or checklist, to order the ones they desire. But, like many good ideas, it didn’t last. Nor did it spread.