Writing About Defense, But at What Price?: The Ethics of Thinktankers’ Public Commentary and Private Profit

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

December 13, 2010

A recent article in Politico “Playing Defense— At A Price?” explored the media phenomenon of Loren Thompson, the COO of the Lexington Institute, a relative machine when it comes to delivering pithy quotes on defense issues, but also a controversial figure in thinktankdom (A Harper’s Magazine article entitled, “Mad Men: Introducing the defense industry’s pay-to-play ad agency” last April took Thompson to task for promoting his private defense clients in the public domain).

The Politico article first caught my eye when it reported that “In fact, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting rates the otherwise obscure Lexington Institute second in its rankings of the most widely cited think tanks; the more renowned Brookings Institution is fifth.”

This immediately jumped out at me as an error, as from my research on the think tank industry I knew that Brookings has come in 1st place in the FAIR rankings for the last five years. In the most recent FAIR study in 2009 Lexington came in not in 1st, but actually in 21st place with 244 citations.

“Toot, toot!” That would be the sound of our own horn, except that, even though FAIR’s study put my own place of work in 1st place (not 5th as erroneously reported), I personally believe such rankings based solely on media citations are not a good way to judge a think tank’s quality or influence. Indeed, to use media citations alone as such a measure means that Justin Bieber is actually far more influential in the policy world than all 6,305 think tanks in the world put together (hence our recent internal memo ordering all scholars to “go get a Bieber haircut”). There are also some decided flaws in the FAIR rankings’ underlying methodology, as their source is actually a count of major newspaper and TV transcript mentions, a shrinking part of the public discourse with the rise of websites and blogs. Indeed, while Brookings has held the 1st place in FAIR’s ranking for the last 5 years, the number of traditional press mentions it needed to hold the top spot declined from 4,675 to 2,166 over that period. It wasn’t that it and every other think tank were doing less work but that there were fewer newspapers, and the news outlets that remained were covering less actual news.

Actually, the article seems to have been mistakenly referencing a 2009 Center for Economic Policy and Research study in which Lexington was listed 2nd and Brookings 5th. But this study wasn’t a ranking of which think tank is most widely cited, but instead evaluated the “cost effectiveness” of think tanks based on media citations per budget dollar. Of course, using such a metric as the basis for a ranking would be like saying Presbyterian College has a better basketball team than Duke or Ohio State, for the sole reason it delivers more wins per student. It is also surely a coincidence that such a ratio-based claim landed CEPR in 1st place in the CEPR study.

It’s this kind of fact-checking, analysis, and give and take that think tanks should be doing, including of their own field. But more pertinent than any silliness about false and ultimately meaningless rankings, the Politico article raised something more important that I really wished it had focused more upon: the concern that journalists and their readership should have on the issue of individual think tank analysts taking personal payment from the very same companies whose work they comment upon. We saw the negative impact of this practice during the Wall Street boom and then bust (where what would normally be viewed as corporate press releases were often recast as independent “analysis”), and should expect it to have no less a pernicious effect when it comes to discussions of public policy in DC, especially in matters of such importance as national security.

Loren Thompson is a smart, friendly guy, whose positions I probably agree with more often than not. But, more importantly, he is certainly not the only person in this field who could have been profiled in that way in the Politico or Harper’s articles. My own impressions on this concern relate to the broader aspect of our field, rather than him in particular.

Thinktankdom is a field that lacks any universal code of ethics, ombudsmen to hold people accountable, a professional association to regulate, etc. 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 dirty little part that money plays in it. Indeed, many fellow thinktankers saw it as stunning that I recently wrote on the industry of think tanks and some of the interesting aspects that result from their varied funding, despite the fact that it is a major industry in DC that has shaped everything from the Marshall Plan to the Iraq War debate.

When people do think about the issue of money and influence in thinktankdom, they often look to the institutional funding. The goals of a thinktank’s donors and, even more so, the percentage of overall funding any one donor has can be a huge determinant at some thinktanks of not only what questions are asked by the staff in their writing and commentary, but also, unfortunately at many places, the very results of that “research.” Otherwise, it’s a just sheer coincidence that places funded solely by defense firms always conclude that the defense budget should be expanded, while places solely funded by peacenik foundations think the Pentagon budget should be cut. This line from funding to conclusions is actually efficient in one way: it makes it easy to figure out what such analysts were going to say even before they enter the room. Indeed, some journalists even like it because they know the tenor of the quote before they call for an interview. Of course, it also begs the question of why even go through the motions in the first place?

But at least most of these thinktanks are forced by their non-profit status to reveal who their funders are in their yearly reports. Completely 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 thinktankers also privately engage in “consulting” contracts and side businesses that directly link to their work, far too frequently with the very same firms whose products or interests they then comment and research in the public sphere.

For myself, I believe that thinktankers should not take on private consulting contracts with firms they might research and comment upon in their public work. And, my own institution, Brookings, has a code of ethics and financial disclosure forms all scholars must sign each year that establish our policy on the matter. 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 thinktankers tend to argue that if they believe in what they say in the press, it shouldn’t matter what their underlying motives were.

The result of this Wild West attitude inside Massachusetts Ave.’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.  And so, the problem of figuring out whether a personal financial motive really does matter is being kicked back to the reporter and their editors to figure out. If a journalist is interviewing someone in the think tank field who does take such funding, I personally believe it is incumbent on the journalist to mention that financial relationship anytime they quote from such an individual. While it is certainly true that the thinktanker might have come to the same conclusions without the added money in their pocket, the readership has a right to know that added money is there and who put it in.

A question 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 thinktanker who argued that the “U.S. military should buy WidgitCorp’s X-Wing Fighter,” should the journalist identify the analyst as just 1) Senior Fellow at the Center for Punditry, or 2) Senior Fellow at the Center for Punditry, who also does paid consulting work for the widget industry, or 3) Senior Fellow at the Center for Punditry, who also is a paid consultant for the WidgitCorp company that makes the X-Wing?

Personally, as a reader who wants to be informed, I think that (3) the specific firm providing funds to a person quoted very much matters. If a journalist was, for example, quoting a Vice President of Public Relations in an article about a certain product, they 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, they are becoming part of a process by which reader is effectively being played.

But what if such information is not forthcoming? What if the individual analyst is not willing to say who their thinktank is funded by and even more whether they are personally taking money from one of the firms involved in a story they are being interviewed for? Well, frankly, even if they are ready with a quote (which they should be, as that may be exactly what they are paid for), then it calls into question whether the journalist should treat such an analyst as an independent resource in the first place? If they aren’t willing to say simply whether they are taking money from one of the interests involved, then why, in turn, should the journalist give them a free soap box for what may be just a paid opinion?

My understanding, for example, is that after the debacle in the stock market, where a number of the talking heads turned out to be hyping penny stocks they were personally invested in, many of the cable TV shows tracking news in the stock market now require such disclosure by any financial analysts who speak about a company (often you’ll also see a crawl listing what the person is invested in). It’s a sad day when a thinktanker 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 on a number of troubled weapons programs like the F-35, DDX, CGX, EFV, tanker plane, etc. graphically illustrates this problem). To make a parallel, a sports reporter working the local NFL beat might find it very useful to turn to an “outside analyst” instead of just interviewing the Redskins and who they were playing the next week. But if it turned out that 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. The issues matter more, but that arrangement is somehow okay in the news section, because such commentators apparently offer something more important than fresh and independent 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 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 extra step of disclosure? Or, are we going to just keep sweeping the money under the rug?

Peter W. Singer is Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. He does not consult for corporations he writes and researches on. He does consult for several movie and TV studios, which makes him probably the first person in history to go to Hollywood out of a sense of ethics.