When think tanks are in the tank

March 9, 2014

Blogger Zaid Jilani has a post claiming that when he worked for ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he was pressured to toe the White House line, even when that conflicted with the positions his organization was supposedly advancing.

One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. . . . Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. . . . But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. . . . Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan. But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama.

The Daily Caller reports on the post here.  Pejman Yousefzadeh comments here. What Jilani describes at Think Progress, if true, does not reflect well on his former employer. The lesson Jilani draws from his experience is that “we’re all a little like RT America,” referring to the Russian media programming that tends to align its coverage and commentary with the positions of the Russian government. Jilani seems to think that all think tanks and media outlets put similar constraints on their reporters and commentators. Yet that’s an awfully broad generalization based on limited experience. It’s certainly true that some political organizations and think tanks constrain the work of their employees so as not to offend influential politicians or funders. Back in 2006 a right-leaning think tank canned Bruce Bartlett for writing a book that was too critical of President Bush and I am aware of instances in the 1990s when analysts at the Heritage Foundation were pressured to tone down their criticisms of Bush 41. Nonetheless, there are organizations that steadfastly refuse to cater to the politically powerful, and some that actually revel in bucking political pressure and donor interests. At least that was my experience during the decade I spent in the think tank and policy advocacy world. When I worked at CEI in the 1990s, it was a badge of honor if the Bush 41 White House got upset with something we did, and we regularly told funders to kiss off if they didn’t like our work.  I would this is still the rule, rather than the exception. All putatively independent policy organizations have their biases, yet they should all aspire to doing intellectually credible work.  That some may trim their sails when asked by the White House (or anyone else) is shameful, whether or not this sort of thing has become business-as-usual in Washington, D.C.

UPDATE: Think Progress Editor-in-Chief Judd Legum writes:

This is an inaccurate portrayal of our editorial process both now and when Jilani left ThinkProgress more than two years ago. (He also inaccurately characterizes the policy position of CAP which advocated a troop surge in Afghanistan — along with a rapid draw-down in Iraq — long before Obama was President.) ThinkProgress is editorially independent and we regularly publish critical reporting of Republicans, Independents and Democrats, including the White House. Like any aggressive journalistic outlet, our work can generate controversy and debate. But we stand by our work and are guided simply by the facts and our progressive values.

I have asked Legum a few follow-up questions and will post any responses I receive.

SECOND UPDATE: I asked Legum whether he wished to dispute any of the specific details of Jilani’s account and about the consistency of CAP’s position on Afghanistan.  Here is his response:

I don’t have the inclination or frankly the memory to do a tick-tock around a post we did 3 years ago. (We publish 40 posts a day, on average.) No one contacted me but my understanding is the White House did not like the post. We left it up. It’s still up today. Fairly typical at any news outlet to get complaints.

We have and will continue to publish critical reporting of Obama and the White House. I’m happy to send over a bunch of examples, if that’s helpful.

All of CAP’s major policy reports (Strategic Redeployment, Strategic Reset) called for a surge in Afghanistan. But that was just one component of a broader policy to wind down both wars. ​ThinkProgress doesn’t have policy positions per se — we are a news site.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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