Experts on data analysis speak at a technology and innovation conference sponsored by The Brookings Institution (Emi Kolawole/The Washington Post).

Sunday’s New York Times report on the collusion between Washington think tanks and foreign governments is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. Doubtless its most incendiary claim is that some think tanks, by accepting money seemingly in exchange for supporting a specific policy agenda, may be acting in violation of the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Even putting aside the legal issue, though, the article does an effective job of calling into question the idea that think tanks operate in an environment of scholarly independence. Through good old-fashioned detective work, the authors trace $92 million in donations from 64 foreign governments to 28 think tanks. The real total, they say, “is certainly more” — and I would add that if the discussion were expanded to include money from foreign industries as well, the picture would become even more spectacular. Consider just one example: the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, a division started in 1983, thanks in part to what Heritage’s then-president Edwin Feulner, Jr. called “substantial support from the private sector in both Korea and Taiwan.” Internal records from the period show that Heritage executives made fundraising trips to Asia, accepted donations from trade associations like the Far Eastern Textile Group and the Federation of Korean Industries, and attended a private dinner party at the home of Korean Prime Minister Shin-yong Lho (who gave a speech at Heritage in 1986).

But it’s next to impossible to gather exhaustive data on a think tank’s finances. Most think tanks operate as 501(c)(3) (“charitable, non-profit, religious, and educational”) organizations under the Internal Revenue Code, a category that seems almost designed to make think tank sponsorship into the “perfect crime” of political influence. In the first place, a 501(c)(3) is not required to disclose a list of its sponsors. And even as it confers privacy protections on the donor, the category lends the stamp of legal authority to the otherwise flimsy distinction between “policy advice” and lobbying.

The Times article provides a good sense of the rhetorical maneuvering think tanks often use to deflect questions about their intellectual integrity. “Our currency is our credibility,” said one think tank manager, in a typical formulation. But entire volumes could be written about the complex meanings attached to words like credibility in the rhetoric used by think tanks. In my own research, (which culminated in this book) the president of one free market think tank gave me this description of credibility: “Groups like ours, how do we earn our credibility? Well, we have very strong bright-line standards. We have a very strong point of view and we have never deviated from that point of view…. If you’re a free market group whose position keeps changing, you don’t have any credibility.” It’s worth noting that the word credibility comes from Latin, credere, “to believe,” the point being that for a think tank, the goal is always to cultivate some kind of belief. But who is meant to believe? For some think tanks, becoming “credible” means showing donors your consistency in advocating for a particular point of view.

For all its virtues, the Times piece remains conspicuously silent about one important part of the malfunctioning “policy ideas industry”: the role of journalists and the news media themselves. “The line between scholarly research and lobbying can sometimes be hard to discern,” the article says. A better formulation would be that any such line is not a given, but something that has to be worked out in practice — and that journalists themselves play a large part in maintaining it. Part of the reason think tanks have become fixtures in American life is that they perform a free service for journalists. Deadline-beleaguered reporters rely on them for facts, figures and sound bites. (The article might have noted, for example, that the Times often makes uncritical use of quotes, arguments and rhetoric from the very same think tanks named in the piece.) And then, in a “circle of life” kind of scenario, think tanks cite their news media visibility in fundraising pitches as evidence of their effectiveness.

How can journalists report on think tanks without becoming complicit in this system? First, they could approach the commonsense distinction between “policy advice” and lobbying with a bit less credulity. Why should any tax-exempt organization that doesn’t voluntarily disclose its own financial records be described as a source of “independent policy advice”? Reporters could also stop lending credence to the dubious metaphor that portrays think tanks as founts of “academic scholarship.” (Again, the Times article is a case in point: Even as the authors paint a vivid picture of a constitutively impure system, they insist on calling think tanks’ staff members “scholars.”) I don’t mean to suggest that actually existing scholars are somehow immune to market or political forces. They are not, and they should be subject to the same kinds of scrutiny as think tanks. But we should remember that scholarship refers in principle to a system marked by relative transparency and self-regulation through peer review, and that its results are not meant to be for sale.

Tom Medvetz is associate professor of sociology at UC San Diego, and author of “Think Tanks in America.”