Episode 203: Ideological Shaping of the Possible Part II: How Corporate Think Tanks Serve as Influence Laundromats

Citations Needed | June 5, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
48 min readJun 5, 2024
Center for American Progress founder John Podesta with former CAP President Neera Tanden and Hillary Clinton. (Getty)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yes. If you can, please support the show on Patreon. As always, we’d be very grateful. Supporting us on Patreon helps keep the episodes themselves free and helps keep the show sustainable.

Nima: “Susan Rice examines U.S. foreign policy strategy with The Post’s David Ignatius,” read a 2016 Washington Post Live title. “Key player in war on climate change? The Pentagon,” insisted CNN in 2020. “Democrats Need To Learn How To Get Excited About the Center-Left,” the news site The Messenger proclaimed in 2023.

Adam: These posts were all facilitated, sponsored or authored by a member of a Democratic-aligned corporate think tank, Whether the Center for American Progress, the Center for New American Security, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or any other Washington DC based center with a capital C, center-right to center-left think tanks are ubiquitous in major US media and in Democratic policy making.

Nima: This might seem unremarkable, even beneficial. Think tanks, after all, purport to be empirical institutions, designed to craft research-based policy proposals. But given the prevalence of corporate funding in the DC think-tank world, these claims of neutrality are contradicted by the anti-labor and anti-regulation records of major US think tanks as well as their function as de facto corporate lobbying groups.

Adam: On today’s episode, part two of a two-part series on the relationship between political party officials, media, and the corporate laundering machine, we’ll examine the revolving door between Democratic administrations and corporate and despot-funded think tanks, looking at how those institutions effectively serve as a stomping grounds of business industry influence on everything from climate to labor to healthcare to infrastructure.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Akela Lacy, Politics Reporter at The Intercept.

[Begin clip]

Akela Lacy: One of the points that comes to mind when I think about this is the broader issue about the fallacy of objectivity in politics and mass media writ large. Like, everyone has an interest in something even if it’s being, you know, purportedly “neutral,” which particularly in the case of legacy media, doesn’t actually mean neutrality. It just means concealing who you’re giving your ear to, you know, whether that’s a donor, an otherwise influential benefactor, or someone else behind the scenes. The idea that neutral issues exist naturally in politics is just not how the world works.

[End clip]

Adam: This is a spiritual sequel to Episode 117: The Always ‘Lagging’ U.S. War Machine where we did discuss the role that weapons contractor-funded think tanks play in promoting this idea that the US is always bumbling and stumbling behind the Russians and Chinese despite having a military that’s five to ten times bigger than than these countries. So reference that if you’d like. We will be discussing CSIS again a little bit as well, which is kind of the main, most nakedly cynical culprit in this practice of corporate influence laundering. So, if you’d like, you can go back and listen to that. Or not.

Nima: Yeah, we like to give options on this show. [Laughs] Do what thou wilt.

But let’s start this episode by defining what a think tank is because we’re really going to be talking about the power-peddling think tank industry, especially in Washington, DC. So, what is a think tank? Now, small caveat here: not every single think tank operates exactly the same way. There are a sprawling collection of organizations throughout the country and throughout the world that call themselves think tanks. By no means can we cover every single one exhaustively. But essentially, think tanks, especially of the DC corporate set, are research-oriented or ostensibly research-oriented organizations that seek to influence public opinion and public policy. Many call themselves nonpartisan or independent despite the fact that this is almost never actually the case. Now, there have long been institutions, organizations, or groups of intellectuals that get together ever since, say, The Academy in ancient Greece. But these types of institutions that we’re talking about — the influence power peddling type — would not be known as think tanks until after World War II.

But think tanks date back much farther than that. Formalized think tanks first arose in the first half of the 19th century, primarily in England. Among the earliest think tanks was the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a “defense and security” organization that was founded in 1831. Another British think tank Chatham House attributes the rise of think tanks to such factors as “The decline in the power of the British empire and the rise of the United States” and “The weakening of colonial systems of government around the world.”

Adam: In the 1910s and 1920s, American think tanks began to take off. Among the first major think tanks in the US was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 largely as part of a campaign to shape policymaking. The endowment’s first president was Elihu Root, a corporate lawyer and former New York Senator and Secretary of War and Secretary of State. Root would later play an instrumental role in the formation of another think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). In 1918, Root and over 100 international lawyers and executives in banking, manufacturing, trading, and finance assembled and founded CFR in order to, as CFR historian Peter Grose put it, “convene dinner meetings, to make contact with distinguished foreign visitors under conditions congenial to future commerce.” A Woodrow Wilson aide stated at the time that the group was “concerned primarily with the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on postwar business.” So, it was largely a kind of business lobby intervention into foreign policymaking because at that time, what was seen as good for business was inherently good for America.

Nima: And as a successor to the British model that really arose when British colonial and military might was waning. And so, this kind of intellectual force was then assembled through this idea of think tanks. But around the start of the Cold War, preexisting US think tanks would dedicate their resources to anti-communist influence peddling and the promotion of so-called free market economics and a number of new think tanks would develop around the same cause.

In his 1947 Foreign Affairs article headlined “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” CFR member George F. Kennan, who at the time published anonymously as “X” proposed a strategy of “containment” regarding the Soviet Union. Kennan wrote: “It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

By the early 1960s, the anti-communist think tank industry had grown with a number of new think tanks cropping up, including the Atlantic Council, which was founded in 1961 to preserve and advance the interests of NATO. According to the think tank itself, the Atlantic Council was formed

as a response to fears that the Western alliance was fragmenting. The initial series of crises that brought the weak Western European states into alliance with the United States in 1949 had been resolved. A prospering Europe had regained its confidence, the danger of an imminent invasion from the East had receded, and Americans wondered about the need to maintain their costly defense commitments.

The Atlantic Council also boasts about its ability since its inception to attract corporate funding. It states that during its very first year, its funders included IBM, Heinz, and the Clayton Corporation and Corning Incorporated, both technological manufacturing companies.

Adam: To this day, the Atlantic Council is a who’s who of corporate funders. Recent and current funders include Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum, ExxonMobil, Shell, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, the usual suspects as well as previously Aramco, the Saudi regime state oil company. So, the Atlantic Council like CSIS is a very big pro-military, pro-militaristic think tank that is funded heavily by US oil, interests, banks, etc.

The year after the Atlantic Council was founded in 1962, another major think tank that is, like we mentioned often on the show because of its pernicious influence and its kind of naked corruption is the Center for Strategic and International Studies or CSIS. Its founders were Admiral Arleigh Burke and David Abshire, who would later go on to serve as the US ambassador to NATO and sit on the corporate boards for Procter and Gamble and beat British Petroleum America.

David Abshire with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office.

CSIS’s neoconservative and Republican origins didn’t prevent it from becoming a fixture in mainstream media. Among other figures was Paul Craig Roberts, a “professor of political economy” at CSIS and assistant treasury secretary under Reagan, evangelized about supply-side economics throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s in the pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Here’s an example from an edition of The Los Angeles Times from June 25th, 1990 in which Roberts panics over a perceived threat of increased state intervention in US industry after the Cold War. Luckily for Roberts, this never happened. The headline is ‘Harmonizing’ Will Handcuff Free Markets. He would write:

Already we can see within the European Community a shift away from reliance on market forces to harmonize national economic differences. Under the leadership of the French socialist Jacques Delors, the new emphasis is on social harmonization achieved through regulatory means. Social regulations designed to equalize labor costs across national boundaries are a subtle form of protectionism for the trade unions in the welfare democracies and French and German business cartels.

He would go on to write,

Geo-economic rivalries could even work to free international business from government controls. Just as international capital markets have made it harder more difficult for national central banks to control domestic interest rates, multinational companies are unlikely to come under the sway of national governments. The free market itself is a powerful force, as the rise of extensive informal economies in Latin America and the Soviet Union demonstrate. As a result of 20th century experience, no honest intellectual can make a case for more state intervention.

So, this is kind of classic early sort of Cold War, CSIS output, right? It’s very, very pro-free market, very pro-corporate and US domination of markets and other kind of post-Cold War economies.

Nima: Now, shortly before the time that that piece was published, just a year before in 1989, the Progressive Policy Institute, or PPI, was formed. PPI was the brainchild of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Now, the DLC was a “New Democrat,” Third Way-style nonprofit founded in 1985 that was chaired by Bill Clinton prior to his 1992 presidential victory. Now, the DLC’s mission was to move the Democratic Party even further to the right. This was deemed to be the path to victory. Of course, neither the DLC nor PPI would admit this outright. Part of their purpose was to repackage standard conservatism as a new, innovative type of Democratic politics. After praising Clinton for gutting welfare and laying the groundwork for charter schools–both of them patently right-wing positions–PPI co-founder Al From wrote for The Atlantic in 2013:

Though the political shorthand had always referred to the DLC as moderate or conservative Democrats, our ideas were really about modernizing liberalism and defining a new progressive center for our party, not simply pushing it further to the right. Coming from the center-left of the party, I was tired of having the DLC labeled as conservative. I decided to call our think tank the Progressive Policy Institute because I thought it would be harder for reporters to label it as the ‘conservative Progressive Policy Institute.’

Adam: [Laughs] Well, that’s kind of a good admission because I think he knows that to the extent to which any pro-corporate disclosure is ever availed by reporters, which we’ll discuss with our guest, it is done in this kind of lazy right versus left. And so, it doesn’t matter if a think tank takes a ton of money from corporate America or from despotic Gulf regimes or from weapons makers so long as they’re vaguely aligned with the Democratic Party. They’re called center-left or progressive, right.

Nima: If you put the word progressive in the title of your center-right think tank…[Laughs]

Adam: Yeah, that was brilliant. I mean, it’s rare that people are kind of openly Orwellian like that. It’s good.

Nima: Well, it was long enough afterwards, you know, that was 2013 that he finally admitted that. So, upon its launch, though, PPI released a paper calling the minimum wage “regressive” and “anachronistic.” The paper sought to persuade Democrats to focus instead on increasing the highly conditional Earned Income Tax Credit, otherwise known as the EITC. Now, shortly after that initial paper was published, this now in March 1990, The New York Times ran an article headlined, “Rise in Minimum Wage Offers Minimum Joy,” with PPI’s own vice president, Robert J. Shapiro among its sources. Shapiro, who is now a chairman at a private consultancy firm, authored the report on the minimum wage and would go on to become an advisor to both Bill Clinton and subsequently, Barack Obama. Clinton indeed expanded the EITC while gutting a number of beneficial government assistance programs like supplemental security income or SSI.

Adam: Though it doesn’t disclose its donors, journalists have uncovered that over the years, PPI receives funding from ExxonMobil, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (a Big Pharma lobby), tobacco giant Altria. Actually, I think I revealed that when I wrote an article last summer. I don’t usually do reporting, but I found that. I wrote an article for my substack called “Corporate America’s Attempt to Rebrand Centrist Politics for Zoomers” which goes over the various corporate influences of PPI, which it’s also funded by Walmart, Amazon. And so, they tried to do a rebrand recently where they bought the Twitter account and brought under the fold this Twitter account called “ne0liberal.” They put out a zero where the O was supposed to be. They were originally a Reddit page, but they also have a fairly large Twitter following. And their whole thing is they’re, like, openly neoliberal. They do a tournament every year where they have, like, the best neoliberal shill. I guess they’re supposed to kind of put a lampshade on the fact that they are funded by tobacco companies, oil companies. I guess if you’re ironic about it, it doesn’t count.

Nima: If you make it cute, then it’s cool.

Adam: Right. And so, they do this sort of run-of-the-mill, you know, we can’t do purity politics. They ran an op-ed. One of their “fellows” ran an op-ed in The Messenger, which has since been shut down, entitled “Democrats Need To Learn How To Get Excited About the Center-Left.” And then, they repeatedly referred to themselves as “grassroots” and “pragmatically liberal” and “progressive.” Again, as part of this, protest too much defensive strategy, where they would basically go on and say that youthful voters need to suck it up, get behind Biden, and support other centrists because we are told, not on merits, right? Not because their ideology is conservative because you can’t say that, because you’re a Trojan horse operation, right? You can’t sort of openly say we’re conservative. So, you say we support these people because they’re more likely to win or they’re more likely to sort of get House seats, right? Because that sounds better. That way, it’s a sort of pragmatic triangulation towards some vague progressive ends. It just so happens that they also happen to take money from Big Pharma from ExxonMobil, from tobacco companies, Walmart, Amazon. That’s kind of incidental to that. So, PPI has been one of the kind of more, I think, overtly sleazy corporate-funded — they don’t disclose their funders. The only way we know about these fundings is either through investigative reporting, one of which by our guest who noted their huge uptick in Big Pharma funding right as they were bashing Bernie Sanders in 2019 for supporting single-payer healthcare. And the disclosures on the other end, the disclosures by Walmart and Amazon, but they themselves, like a lot of these organizations, American Enterprise Institute somewhat famously, Heritage Foundation, they don’t disclose their donors. And that makes it difficult for people to sort of gage who’s buttering their bread.

Nima: Now, we will return to PPI when we speak with our guest, Akela Lacy. But in the meantime, let’s talk about some other prevalent, Democratic-aligned think tanks that were founded in the first decade of the 2000s. One of them, the Center for American Progress, or CAP, debuted in 2003. Its founder, John Podesta, is a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and claimed he created CAP to counter overly right-wing think tanks across Washington, DC, those like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute amid a climate of liberal opposition to the Bush administration right when it was invading Iraq. Funding came at least in part from billionaire George Soros and banker Herb Sandler who helped advance the adjustable-rate mortgages partly responsible for the housing crash of the late 2000s. Since its inception, CAP has also taken money directly from corporations, but it didn’t make its corporation funding sources public for at least the first 10 years of its existence. Journalist Ken Silverstein, who wrote a think-tank exposé for The Nation in 2013, obtained a list from 2011 showing dozens of these undisclosed corporate funders, including Comcast, Walmart, General Motors, Pacific Gas and Electric, General Electric, Boeing, and Lockheed.

Adam: This has resulted in many conflicts of interest, but are really just glimpses into how US think tanks work. So, according to Silverstein, around 2011, CAP received donations from First Solar, a renewable energy firm. First Solar wouldn’t reveal to Silverstein how much money it gave, but at the time, CAP was a major proponent of a $25 billion loan guarantee program from the Energy Department for private sector renewable energy projects. The think tank published a post on its site ThinkProgress in July 2011, singing the praises of First Solar among other companies and arguing for more subsidies from Congress as part of this program. One of the authors was Steve Spinner, a former Silicon Valley investor and top fundraiser for Obama in 2008. CAP has also had a history of urging the continuation of US arms sales on behalf of weapons manufacturers. In 2010, Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at CAP, argued in an address that the US should sell additional weapons to Taiwan. At the time, Lilly was also a lobbyist for Lockheed, a leading arms supplier to Taiwan. CAP received at least $38 million in corporate donations between 2014 and 2021 and its current roster of donors includes Amazon, Microsoft, the Walton family who owns Walmart, Verizon, Wells Fargo, and Google. It has also taken money from the healthcare industry, namely, companies like Blue Shield and Signify Health. So, it may come as no surprise then that the New York Times’s David Leonhardt in February of 2018, promoted CAP’s “Medicare Extra,” an attempt to counter the prevailing rising push for a single-payer healthcare system that was advocated obviously most notably by Bernie Sanders who was ramping up to run for president in 2020. R.I.P. Now Leonhardt would write,

The crucial difference between the Sanders plan and the CAP plan is that the CAP version would not force people to give up their current employer insurance coverage. Those who are covered through their jobs could either keep that plan or enroll in Medicare Extra. The Sanders plan, by contrast, would eliminate employer-provided insurance in favor of a single federal system.

Now, lest the plan be viewed as too left-wing, Leonhardt added that he “liked” a lot of the CAP plan but found it too “sweeping and ambitious,” for “reasons of realpolitik.” Ooh realpolitik. He’s so savvy.

Nima: [Laughs] Even the corporate version was too lefty for Leonardt.

Adam: Well, there were a few versions that kind of emerged. I remember, like around 2017, 2018 that magically emerged out of the woodwork to do a kind of pseudo national healthcare plan. I think there were real fears from the healthcare industry that there was going to be a real push for a single-payer system. In retrospect, seems quite quaint and and funny. But no, there was all kinds of new versions and then, of course, you had Pete Buttigieg’s, you know, single-payer for whoever wants it. It’s like, that’s not how single-payer works. You have to pull resources or the whole thing collapses.

Nima: Yeah, single payer.

Adam: The second you start letting people check out of government systems, then the government system doesn’t really work.

Nima: Four years after the launch of CAP in 2007, another Democrat-aligned and Republican-friendly think tank, the Center for a New American Security or CNAS was founded. While CAP’s focus was mostly on domestic policy, CNAS’s was on foreign policy. Its founders were two former Defense Department officials from the Clinton administration, Kurt Campbell and Michèle Flournoy. Flournoy was later a candidate for Secretary of Defense under Joe Biden, ultimately not obtaining that position. But as the Revolving Door Project notes, “The organization’s official launch event in 2007 featured remarks by former secretary of state Madeline Albright and keynote speeches by senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), president Obama’s future secretaries of state and defense, respectively.”

Adam: So, it launched as a ramp-up for the Clinton presidency in 2008, but then Obama won. So then he kind of just, he handed foreign policy, obviously, the Secretary of State, over to the Clinton circle. And so, shortly after its launch, the Wall Street Journal reported that the think tank quote “is rapidly emerging as a top farm team for the incoming Obama administration.” CNAS presented itself as capital S, capital F, capital P, very, you know, serious foreign policy, right? Everyone’s sort of serious, everyone’s expert, everyone has history within these organizations. They’ve revolved through, you know, various corporate consultancies and weapons contractors. And so, it was naturally a very hawkish think tank due to its funding by weapons contractors.

Since at least 2011, CNAS has received funding from all of the “big five” defense contractors–Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon–and at least two dozen other weapons makers. According to their public disclosures, to their credit, they do actually disclose on their website all the large weapons manufacturer logos. With these connections, CNAS has built a very chummy relationship with the media, kind of providing the liberal perspective of foreign policy events, this sort of liberal wing of the weapons contractor industry.

In 2016 alone, CNAS co-sponsored four Washington Post Live events, one of which was also co-sponsored by Raytheon — I wrote an article on FAIR at the time about that — where Washington Post columnist David Ignacio spoke with national security and intelligence officials. In the one sponsored by Raytheon, Susan Rice is sitting under a large Raytheon logo. CNAS staffers are published and reported frequently in The New York Times and elsewhere on topics ranging from the importance of women working in national security to Russian and Chinese disinformation, which they are qualified to work on as national security experts.

David Ignatius interviews Susan Rice for the Washington Post in 2016. (John Vela / Twitter)

Similarly, a think tank involved in this kind of weapons contractor, Saudi-funded, US military-funded, frankly, kind of horizontal propaganda model is CSIS, which we mentioned earlier, the Center for Strategic International Studies. Just sort of one example, which I thought was pretty naked, which we had mentioned on the show about four years ago, but I’ll mention here again because I think it’s worth highlighting as a case study. I wrote an article in 2017 for FAIR entitled “Lockheed Martin–Funded Experts Agree: South Korea Needs More Lockheed Martin Missiles.” So, there were several quotes that quoted CSIS that were either advocating the underlying premise of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea or openly lobbying for it, openly advocating for it. Now, the THAAD missile system was very controversial in South Korea because it was seen as being provocative. There were protests against it. Some polls show the majority of South Koreans opposed it. They ended up building it anyway. Not a huge majority, slight majority. But it was very controversial, but one would not know this reading Western press, which routinely sought the opinion of CSIS.

“THAADs are tailored to those medium-range threats that North Korea has in spades — North Korea regularly demonstrates that kind of capability,” says Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “THAADs are exactly the kind of thing that you would want for a regional area.”

That was from Wired in March 2017.

Nima: Also exactly the thing that CSIS funders would want in that region.

Adam: Yeah, shocking.

This is from AFP, France24, May of 2017:

But [CSIS’s Karako] called [THAAD] an important first step. “This is not about having a perfect shield, this is about buying time and thereby contributing to the overall credibility of deterrence,” Karako told AFP.

This is from the Christian Science Monitor from July of 2016: “THAAD is a decent option, says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, citing a perfect intercept record in trials to date.”

This is from VOA, Voice of America in March 2017:

Seeing THAAD as a “natural consequence” of an evolving threat from North Korea, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told VOA that Washington should continue to tell Beijing ‘this system is not aimed at China … and [China] will just have to live with this decision.’”

Victor Cha, a Korea expert and former White House official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, played down the chances that THAAD would be rolled back. “If THAAD is deployed prior to the elections and given the North Korean missile threat, I don’t think it would be prudent for a new government to ask that it be walked back,” Cha said.

That was Reuters in March of 2017.

It goes on and on and on. CSIS populates the entire discourse around the importance of the THAAD missile system. But they didn’t note that emitted from all these CSI media appearances is that CSIS’s top donor, number one donor, is THAAD’s primary military contractor, Lockheed Martin, that the THAAD system is worth about $3.9 billion in contracts alone. And not only is Lockheed Martin a major CSIS funder, but it is the main funder of their missile defense project. So, it’s not even that they’re funding the think tank itself. They’re funding the actual project that the talking head works for. It’s a clear as day conflict of interest. And what makes it even more notable is that The New York Times itself outed CSIS and the Brookings Institute, but primarily CSIS as being an undisclosed lobbyist in August of 2016. So, the New York Times wrote a report:

As a think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies did not file a lobbying report, but the goals of the effort were clear.

‘Political obstacles to export,’ read the agenda of one closed-door ‘working group’ meeting organized by Mr. Brannen that included Tom Rice, a lobbyist in General Atomics’ Washington office, on the invitation lists, the emails show.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, drone-makers that were major CSIS contributors, were also invited to attend the sessions, the emails show. The meetings and research culminated with a report released in February 2014 that reflected the industry’s priorities.

‘I came out strongly in support of export,’ Mr. Brannen, the lead author of the study, wrote in an email to Kenneth B. Handelman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls.

But the effort did not stop there.

Mr. Brannen initiated meetings with Defense Department officials and congressional staff to push for the recommendations, which also included setting up a new Pentagon office to give more focus to acquisition and deployment of drones. The center also stressed the need to ease export limits at a conference it hosted at its headquarters featuring top officials from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

This from the New York Times in August of 2016. So, I wrote about this afterwards, The New York Times exposed CSIS using internal emails as a very, very transparently corrupt lobbying front for the weapons industry, and then months later, they’re just quoting CSIS again about the need to buy ice cutters.

Nima: Think tank expert at CSIS says…

Adam: And there’s no indication anything changed. There’s no new firewalls. There’s no academic rigor involved in this.

Nima: They don’t start disclosing those things better than they, you know, hadn’t done before.

Adam: And of course, the average person sitting at home reading things like Progressive Policy Institute or Center for Strategic International Studies — they always have these very kind of banal sounding generic names — they’re not going to know what that means. They don’t know who these people are funded by. And the argument we would make in this episode, I think, a very, very, very liberal argument, a very sort of safe argument, is that they should probably disclose that.

Nima: Right. If you’re quoting the director of the missile defense project that is funded by Lockheed Martin, you might want to disclose that. I don’t know.

Adam: Because, again, the one disclosure they have is they’ll say, like, conservative leaning, and it’s like, but that makes it seem purely ideological when a lot of these cases, especially with CNAS, CSIS and these more overtly lobbying organizations that literally build stories, bring them a journalist, have them report out, like the importance of investing in this new submarine or this new ice cutter. The issue is not whether they’re right or left. These concepts in this context don’t make any sense. The issue is, are they funded by weapons contractors? According to this fellow at such and such that receives four and a half million dollars a year from Lockheed Martin has a different tenor than right-leaning or progressive leaning, which kind of says, oh, they’re kind of for Democrats, or they’re for Republicans. But it’s not. They’re just for a bloated military budget because it’s a fucking gravy train. I mean, this is easy, free money. Think about all the times in your life you’ve struggled to work an extra shift as a waiter or to do Uber at night so you could pay for your, you know, kid’s birthday party or whatever. Think about all those times you struggled. Now, imagine getting, like, 10,000 times more than that, and all you have to do is convince a few Congress people or plug a few quotes into an article. It’s easy money. It’s free money. It’s free lobbying. It’s cheap. And you know, if you’re a parasite looking to bloat the defense budget, it’s kind of a no-brainer in terms of investment.

Nima: Yeah, the lack of disclosure is really stark. And then when you kind of realize that these are the “expertitians” that are littering our media with their quotes and their thoughts on policy, thoughts on budgets, thoughts on where our priorities should be as a society, you realize kind of how close the loop is. So, to discuss this more, we are now going to be joined by Akela Lacy, politics reporter at The Intercept. Akela will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Akela Lacy. Akela, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Akela Lacy: Thank you for having me.

Adam: So, this is the second part of a two-part episode. We previously examined corporate lobbying and consultancy’s revolving door of the Democratic Party, which we argue, sort of creates a culture of venality, which cements ideological limitations, a very small ideological bubble because everyone’s kind of just waiting to cash in, or they’re friends with someone who’s kind of waiting to cash in, so they’re what we call gentlemen’s agreement, to kind of not mention how obviously corrupt many of these practices are. But a more subtler mode of this exists within the think tank world, which we spent discussing at the top of the episode, and they’re also more directly involved in media curation. Obviously, people at shady consulting groups that do corporate advising or “polling” can appear on MSNBC and CNN, but think tanks populate stories because they’re seen as being objective or kind of pseudo neutral observers or kind of a quasi academic institution. Now, obviously it’s a spectrum, and really what we’re focusing on is what we call kind of corporate think tanks, ones that take money from weapons contractors, sort of foreign dictatorships, etc. And in the case of what you wrote about, the ironically named Progressive Policy Institute, they take money from people like Altria, ExxonMobil. They’re kind of on the more overtly corporate-funded into the spectrum we discussed. I wrote about them last year. You’ve written about them. Let’s begin by talking about PPI, especially if you could talk about the role in the 2019 primary and how that can kind of be seen as an object lesson in these corporate think tanks.

Akela Lacy

Akela Lacy: Yeah, so the story that we did back in 2019 basically found that pharma was funding PPI at the same time that they were driving the fight to derail the push for Medicare For All. This was even before the first congressional hearings on Medicare For All in 2019, you can sort of see how far we’ve gotten with that. But PPI is the think tank wing of what was previously the Democratic Leadership Council, which was a faction of the Democratic party organized in the mid-1980s with the aim to sort of staunch the push to move the party to the left, you know, in response to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. So, Bill Clinton was a previous chair of DLC. Some of his neoliberal policies were adopted by PPI after the DLC ceased to function. And basically the story that we did was talking about the funding that PPI gets from pharma and the role that they played in very closely, you know, mimicking the same sorts of policy goals that Pharma has had in derailing Medicare For All, making the argument that it’s too costly, that it wouldn’t work for x, y and z, talking points that are then parroted by House Democratic Party leadership, etc, etc. So, in terms of the Medicare For All fight, they were putting out papers sort of arguing at the time where there was, you know, lots of polling showing the support for Medicare For All, PPI is releasing reports arguing that the support for Medicare For All is purely a result of the pushes from these fringe left activists, you know, making sort of derogatory claims that these are people who haven’t thought through the issue.

Adam: Naturally, yeah.

Akela Lacy: They think it’s, you know, a one-size-fits-all cure that hasn’t actually been thought through and sort of scolding progressives for pushing, you know, “disruptive” and “costly” programs instead of trying to fix the Affordable Care Act.

Nima: So, be more realistic, you hippies.

Akela Lacy: Yeah, because that’s the answer to everything, right?

Adam: Yeah. You know, again, if you’re astroturfing as a sort of ostensibly progressive institute, you can’t say this is bad on principle, right? You can’t do a kind of Koch brothers thing. So you do the next best thing, which almost all centrist astroturf operations do which is nuance troll, implementation troll. It’s very difficult. It’s very inscrutable. You know, we need, like, 50 years to figure this out. We have a bunch of studies we’re working on, but trust me, we sort of nominally appreciate or agree with your goal.

Nima: We agree in theory, but in practice, this is really not —

Adam: Yeah, but it’s just, it’s so difficult.

Nima: Not gonna happen. So, yeah, I kind of want to get to this idea of something you kind of nodded to, Akela, the closed loop argument here, right? So there’s obviously a bigger psychological and ideological aspect of all of this. Your researchers, your writers, etc., they, of course, would never consider themselves to be on the corporate take or that their ideas are being shaped by their funding sources, right? By their donors. But clearly, there’s a filtering bias that does a lot of this for them, right? They wouldn’t necessarily be hired as a fellow or as an expert if they hadn’t previously shown an ideological preference for say, things like neoliberal policies, deregulation, etc, etc, but they have a tendency to still kind of clutch pearls and, you know, head to the fainting couch whenever the subject of corporate influence is brought up. And as you yourself wrote in that 2019 piece, again, referencing the Progressive Policy Institute, PPI, you wrote this:

PPI is adamant that its corporate support has no influence over its policy positions. In a response to a request for the group’s latest annual report, Lewis told The Intercept, ‘Our researchers do not know our list of donors nor what they give, we have no donor control or donor board, our writers are independent and free to come to any conclusions they have. If you are attempting to question the integrity of our writers and researchers I would think clear evidence would be needed (it doesn’t exist because its a false narrative).’

Did anyone read that like an Elizabethan, like, if you are questioning the integrity of our writers…

[Laughing] Yeah, right. Throwing down the gauntlet.

Adam: I challenge you to a duel.

Nima: [Laughing]

Akela Lacy: Oh, my God.

Adam: Sir, how dare you? How dare you say that, Philip Morris?

Nima: [Laughs] What’s the deal with this feigned indignation? Basically, why is it unconvincing?

Akela Lacy: First of all, let’s start with the question of, okay, why is pharma involved in politics or policy at all? Why do they give to campaigns? Why do they fund think tanks? Why do they pay lobbyists? It’s obviously to influence policy. This is not a secret. You know, it’s why half of Washington exists. This is a basic thing that you learn in political science, elementary political science classes. So, the idea that it’s offensive to ask a major think tank funded by a major corporate lobbying group that is also spending tens of millions of dollars every year on politics, the idea that it’s offensive to ask whether that has any influence on their policy prescriptions, which just happen to align more or less perfectly with what their donors are pushing. Despite being opposed to popular opinion is just on its face, illogical. As far as the individual think tank, PPI, like, we’re not talking about chump change, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars and beyond that, you know, there are other corporate donors we’re talking about in the millions of dollars. And this was a long time ago when we wrote this article. I think at the time, it was hundreds of thousands of dollars that pharma had given to PPI over two or three years.

Adam: Well, what was weird was they, is they gave them 50,000 and then in the 2019 primary, it was an anomaly. They gave them over a quarter million. Then, they went back to 50,000 after that. So, clearly there was something going on in 2019 that PPI urgently had to address with respect to Medicare for All and Big Pharma.

Akela Lacy: Right. And so, the idea that that’s an offensive question to ask is unserious and is meant for people who don’t understand how this stuff works. And she’s getting at this idea that you always have plausible deniability if you can’t prove intent or direct pay to play, and that is not the point. And I think that is the intent of this person’s comment to distract people from the point, which is, why is this pharmaceutical lobbying corporation spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to back a group that’s influencing healthcare policy? And it’s our job as journalists to ask that question, and the response is often more telling than the question. And you know, this is a case of that for sure.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about this kind of psychological aspect of it because obviously, again, nobody wants to sort of see themselves as being on the take. And again, I think a lot of the ideological filtering of hiring does kind of take care of a lot of that. I do think a lot of people genuinely feel like they can kind of say whatever they want. But of course, that’s why they’re in the chair, right? That’s why they have a cushy, $150,000 think tank job. And if anyone’s ever worked at a nonprofit, which I have, you can see the way donors influence people. What really matters is, in many ways, it’s who the donor is, right?

Like, I know certain institutions, they’ll get like, 10% of their money from unions, and then be like, oh, well, you’re on the take of Big Union. I’d be like, well, yeah, because unions are good. Like, I don’t care. You know what I mean? If a good union with decent politics was funding my podcast, and someone was like, oh, you’re corrupted by the union, I’d be like, yeah, because they’re good, but when it’s Altria, you can’t really, or ExxonMobil or Amazon, you can’t really make that argument because they’re kind of generally seen as being probably not good, or, you know, they’re not representing workers, etc.

And so, what you do is you get this kind of preciousness, and this goes back to the gentleman’s agreement, because, again, everybody’s operating within that murky territory. And it is a gradient, you know, certain think tanks have more diffuse funding models. There may be more foundation money here or there. You know, they’re kind of user supported. Like you said, a lot of this is empirical. It’s outcome based. Does your work you produce generally align with your donors? In an organization like PPI, it’s like 95%. You know, they’ll throw in the 5% to throw the scent off. But generally it’s just kind of neoliberal bullshit they publish. And I think that’s why the issue of, like you said, it just so happens to always do it is really kind of the marker here because human beings are pattern seeking mammals, and we kind of look for inferences, and it would be awfully coincidental, right? The question is like, why would these lobbying groups give to think tanks or big corporations give to think tanks if it wasn’t to exert influence?

Entries from PPI’s blog.

Akela Lacy: Out of the goodness of their heart. [Laughs] Yeah, no.

Adam: And again, this is a premise we accept with foreign media like if someone says, oh, you know, Russia funds this or China funds that, it’s seen as inherently sinister. It’s like, well, yeah, because they want to influence something. Like, obviously. We take it for a given for other other baddie countries, but for us, it’s, oh, there’s a firewall, and the guy’s got a PhD, and it’s like, yeah, because he can make twice as much and do half the work at a think tank than he can in academia. No shit.

Nima: And pay attention to which think tank they’re at, right? Like, it’s not just, oh, they’re at a think tank. It’s like, well, yeah, I mean, as you said, Adam, there’s a spectrum, but which think tank are these people writing for and who funds those think tanks? And usually, you could draw a straight line to see why this is a communications tool that is worth corporations spending lots of money on?

Akela Lacy: Yeah, and I also think, you know, something that is implicit in the comments that they gave us for this story is that there’s no link between the funding and what their policies are, but that they just are pushing what’s good policy, and the fact that that happens to align with what their donors also want is totally irrelevant. The bottom line is that Pharma is involved in policy because they will lose money if the alternative policy is passed. And you can’t divorce yourself from that outcome, particularly when there is study after study after study, poll after poll after poll, that’s saying that not only is pharma opposed to this because they’ll lose money, not only is this popular with the majority of people who live in this country, there is evidence that the people who are pushing this policy are actually causing material harm and that what PPI is doing is running cover for them so that they can instead of address the material harm that’s being caused, they let the robbers run out the back door and punch left and blame it all on progressives, and it’s completely a distraction from the material effects of what they’re actually doing, which is running interference for people who want to make as much money as possible and have no interest in providing health care.

Nima: No, exactly. I mean, and you can kind of look at that at any angle, right? I mean, you know, Raytheon is gonna fund CSIS and not fund the American Friends Service Committee, and there’s a reason why, right? I mean, not that AFSC would take that money, but clearly, there are incentives to funding the thing that then will make your case for you with this kind of seemingly objective voice.

Adam: This goes into the gentleman’s agreement to all act like there’s real firewalls, and everybody knows there’s not. I mean, it’s bullshit. Anyone who spent five minutes anywhere in the nonprofit world knows that donors have influence. Obviously, different donors are more active and more influential than others. But generally, it’s true, but everyone has to again, reach for the smelling salts when you mention it. But I want to talk a bit about this idea of disclosure. And we talked about this with our previous guest, Jeff Hauser, which is like, okay, fine, people should know. There should be some kind of disclosure if there is a conflict even if it is seemingly tangential. But if I’m a CSIS talking head and I’m on CNN talking about North Korea or threat of Hamas or whatever, I should probably disclose that my program is funded by weapons contractors by and large. That seems reasonable. It’s a reasonable form, but that just doesn’t exist. And the reason why it doesn’t exist is because if that did exist, if there were basic disclosure laws, then there would be literally almost no reason for these corporate think tanks.

Akela Lacy: Yeah.

Adam: Because their entire value is that they feign objectivity. They feign some pseudo-academic credentials, therefore giving them more credibility to reporters, TV bookers, but also the media consumer. And so, I remember once I was talking to this abolitionist activist who was talking about trying to get a minimum wage in prisons, that they were going to go on strike or try to pass legislation to get minimum wage in prison. Because if you have a minimum wage in prison, you basically eliminate the value of prison labor overnight, and you basically abolish prison slavery overnight because it doesn’t make any sense.

Akela Lacy: Yeah.

Adam: And it’s like, if you have to act aggressively and transparently disclose think tanks, I think you kind of abolish corporate think tanks overnight. That’s not to say there still won’t be some here and there that aren’t as corrupt. But the disclosure would kind of defeat the purpose. It would sort of eliminate the reason why you would have a lot of these institutions we’ve been discussing on the show. So, I want to talk about disclosure and what you think. If you had to be prescriptive here, what do you think a reasonable disclosure would be? What would that look like? And also as a sort of corollary to that, what can bookers or TV bookers or editors who are listening to this right now, what should they disclose in your mind? Because, again, the only disclosure they would do is like, ‘a right-leaning think tank.’ It’s kind of purely ideological. What would that look like to you? On both sides, both in terms of the actual think tank, but also the people using them as part of their media collateral.

Akela Lacy: Yeah, I want to zoom out for a second. I mean, we’ve done some reporting on this too, like the proliferation of defense industry veterans, you know, suddenly appearing as CNN analysts, etc, etc. I think one of the points that comes to mind when I think about this is the broader issue about the fallacy of objectivity in politics and mass media writ large. Everyone has an interest in something, even if it’s being, you know, purportedly “neutral,” which, particularly in the case of legacy media, doesn’t actually mean neutrality. It just means concealing who you’re giving your ear to, you know, whether that’s a donor, an otherwise influential benefactor, or someone else behind the scenes. The idea that neutral issues exist naturally in politics is just not how the world works. And I’m not saying that means you can’t do things fairly. I’m just saying that the idea that there’s any way to present somebody who is working for one of these think tanks or coming from, you know, the defense industry or the pharmaceutical industry, to frame them as a neutral person, that is a weapon that is used to protect the status quo, and I do think people are starting to see that.

But I say all that to say that I am not totally sure that I think enhancing the disclosure process would solve the problem as much as it would be beneficial to train journalists to press “experts” on their industry ties in real-time. So, not just saying, here we have an expert from the right-leaning AEI, having your CNN anchor, whoever it is, ask that person, Why should you be trusted as a neutral voice on this issue if you’re being paid by the interested industry? You know, I think people should certainly be forced to disclose their ties, but I kind of feel like that’s only half the battle. And unfortunately, even if that were the norm, the average media consumer is not necessarily conditioned to ask those questions or be primed to understand sort of what that tie means for the information that they’re consuming. So again, journalists have to do everything. We as journalists need to make those connections crystal clear for people so they can draw their conclusions.

This is sort of in the weeds, but lobbying disclosures, for example, have not had their intended effect on sort of making people more skeptical about the influence of industry or the power that they have. And, I mean, there’s a lot that you can say about that. It’s obviously tailored to journalists. It’s tailored to people who work in the policy space so they can find their next lobbyist. It’s not tailored to the average concerned citizen who wants to know who they just saw talking on CNN, and obviously, I think they would legally have to disclose if they were a lobbyist, but that’s besides the point. But I don’t know that that sort of form of disclosure has had the intended effect. So, I certainly agree that it would hamper the influence of corporate think tanks. But on the other hand, I feel like they would probably find a way to keep kicking. But that solution that I’m proposing might spell one way to keep chipping away at the chokehold that industry has on the policy process. But again, I do think industry influence will have a say whether it’s a think tank or a lobbyist or a fundraiser. I think the way to make whatever disclosure regime exists, to make it more robust is having journalists paint the picture for people more clearly and encouraging media, for instance, to be as open to quoting an anti-war expert as they are to quoting people who sit on the boards of weapons manufacturers. I think that is sort of the key.

Adam: Right, because one thing that we talked about at the top of the show, a lot of people don’t quite appreciate how much these think tanks do the reporter’s work for them.

Akela Lacy: Oh, yeah.

Adam: They pitch them the story. They have sexy graphics.

Akela Lacy: Yeah.

Adam: And the reporter kind of looks at it and says, Yeah, I don’t know. These guys seem serious. They have a PhD, Naval Academy, etc.

Akela Lacy: ‘That sounds right.’

Adam: CSIS is very good at this. I mean, that’s what they do. They spend all their time pitching stories, and they do the work for them. So, it’s a huge, huge cost-cutting thing, which, again, they can’t do that if I’m Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. I can’t go directly to The New York Times and say, write this story about how scary the North Koreans are and how much we need the THAAD missile system. So, if I just add an extra step and fund the CSIS, it gives it the veneer of, it’s just influence laundering. I mean, it’s just a laundromat. That’s all it is.

Akela Lacy: Yeah, and, I mean, I don’t have high hopes that this will become part of the journalist training at your daytime television news company, but we are starting to see the veneer crack in some respects on this. And I see parallels. You know, this is not something that just applies to corporate influence and media. I think it applies to so many issues, environmental issues, Gaza, criminal justice. There is a shadow governance structure that, you know, works hand in hand with mainstream media to again, as you said, launder the narrative on this. And so, yeah, I think the more that journalists are given the resources to sort of push back on that in real time, the more that we’ll be able to push back on some of that stuff.

Nima: I don’t necessarily think we’re going to solve this all right now, but I do want to note like, look, let’s accept the premise that there is a need in terms of informing the public, in terms of coming up with different ideas about policy, that independent research is good, necessary for education, for policymaking, and that that needs to be done also outside the context of government or publicly funded institutions. So, let’s accept that, okay, not only government-funded institutions should be doing research or can be doing research. And to be kind of fair here, getting money to do this sort of policy wonk stuff, research, is hard, especially if you aren’t at a place that’s like Koch funded or Heritage or Manhattan Institute, it is hard to get funding for that work. And so, a lot of think tanks will solicit corporate money because in many ways, that’s the money that is available, right? So, I’m just thinking about, where do you think this funding could come from? Again, accepting the premise that independent research is good and should exist. And one could argue that, like, academia is a bit more independent, although donors, as we know, huge influence there, but maybe you’re not as directly on the corporate take as a lot of these think tanks. But, you know, what might be kind of less sleazy ways to have this kind of research funded?

Akela Lacy: Yeah, I will accept the premise that research is inherently valuable. We don’t have to go into this, I have some disagreements with that, but I think there should be independent research. I only say that to say that I do think that the current structure — and I’m really mostly talking about think tanks — is sort of oversaturated and fertile ground for what I’ve already described as sort of this shadow governance structure where the highest bidder gets the strongest influence just because there is this internal ecosystem of these think tanks that feed off of one another. But that’s sort of a DC problem. I do certainly think it’s important for there to be independent research on this stuff, because God knows that lawmakers are not reading the bills that they’re signing. [Laughs]

I mean, my less cynical take would be that, you know, my first thought is the public sector, but I do think that there should be more opportunities for university funding. I mean, the alternative is, you know, rich people who are not Lockheed Martin former executives and potentially are not necessarily like hardcore centrists ponying up some money for that. But as soon as I think about that, then I think about, you know, Arnold Ventures or the Council on Criminal Justice, and I’m in the criminal justice wheelhouse, so, my brain is a little bit there.

Nima: But yeah, then you get into philanthropy funding, which is its own nightmare.

Akela Lacy: Yeah, and those are the people who thought it was a good idea to put drones to monitor, fly over Baltimore and it’s like, you get crazy shit like that. And it’s like, okay, well, let’s reel it back in for a second. I think that we should be aiming to get money out of this system. But unfortunately, that’s not the world that we live in. And so, I guess, if I had to say, you know, maybe this is not popular, but I wish that there were more less restricted grants, opportunities, partnerships with government and other, you know, whether it’s a nonprofit agency or sort of like a center for popular democracy or something like that where you could potentially facilitate some of this stuff. But my counterpoint to that is that I think that at least on the left, a lot of these groups end up taking on way more than they can chew. They’re doing electoral, they’re doing organizing, they’re doing all this stuff, and then you end up not doing anything very well. So it’s not a great landscape.

Nima: But there’s also a pipeline problem there because actually, as I think you certainly know as a reporter who is hearing from a lot of these researchers when they release reports, there’s a lot of great stuff that is out there that doesn’t have the most dubious funding, but the access to media is so far below what these corporate funded think tanks are able to achieve. If we’re talking about saturation or we’re talking about balance here, in the balance here, is a corporate funded think tank is going to be pitching, pitching, pitching, is going to have certain reporters, many reporters, on speed dial, right? In their Rolodex, right? Can get right to those voices to then amplify the messaging that they want, whereas researchers that are doing phenomenal work don’t have those direct connections in the same way and therefore, struggle to have their own research or their own voices reach those same levels of prominence, and certainly distribution.

Akela Lacy: Yeah. And then, I mean, I think the problem even beyond that, is like, sure, okay, you build the relationships, you dog these reporters, and you go through and you build the rapport, and you finally get your story in there, and I’m not talking about any specific examples, but it’s not uncommon for there to be higher-level decisions that make your decision for you. And so, I think that’s a big part of this too. There is no shortage of mainstream media parading as being neutral and objective, saying, Why are you quoting this lefty organizer, or Why are you quoting this lefty researcher? And so, yeah, I mean, how do you get around that? Hopefully getting more people into these institutions that can push back on those things. Again, I’m a very cynical person so take this with a grain of salt, but it’s a pretty bleak landscape.

And so, I mean, part of me thinks, yes, there needs to be sort of an equal and opposite development of forces that can infiltrate and get their stories into media to compete with the centrist machine here, the think tank machine. But I also think that there needs to be more strategic thinking about like, what are the other ways that you can sort of get your message across? You know, there’s some people that are working on this right now, but again, it feels like every lefty organization, every progressive organization, is doing 50,000 things at once.

But I think, the bottom line is even the places that are doing this well and are getting their message into mainstream media, I’m thinking about some of the political groups that have gotten more coverage in recent electoral cycles, and I have election brain, so forgive me for that. But like, even people who do achieve that, we’re still reacting to content that’s already out there, research that’s already out there. And so, I think the key is figuring out how do you drive the agenda rather than constantly being on the back foot and being like, Oh, well, the Manhattan Institute put out this policy paper, well, look what we found. It’s like, no. And this is something that has to be built over time, obviously. It’s not going to happen overnight. But I think that’s sort of one of the biggest missteps is thinking that you can get your message across by constantly just responding and rebutting to everything that somebody else is saying. And that’s just not gonna cut it.

Nima: Right, because being perpetually defensive and reactive means you’re actually not in control.

Akela Lacy: It’s not a good look.

Nima: You’re just playing in the think tank world.

Adam: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s such a liberal solution, and it’s not really even a solution, it’s kind of just a Band-Aid. But I just feel like basic disclosure would actually go a long way, but again, I think everybody sort of knows that it would defeat the purpose so nobody does it. The New York Times, as we mentioned earlier, did a huge expose on how CSIS was directly lobbying for its funders, weapons contractors who make drones, and then, two weeks later, they’re citing a whole CSIS report about how much the US needs to get ice cutters. These very large, expensive ships in the Arctic because the evil Russians have seven, and the US only had two. Never mind that the Russian Arctic coast is 14 times the size as the American Arctic coast. And then I was like, well, the CSIS, they funded the study, and their funders are the most likely ones to get the contract, which is going to be worth billions of dollars. I mean, these things are very expensive. Yeah, and I emailed the New York Times reporter and they were like, it’s a study. What do you want from me? The work is done for you. Again, it’s like, the evil Russians, this and that. It’s this missile gap bullshit. Because if they said, well, you know, Disclosure: this study was funded by Lockheed Martin and Boeing and all these military contractors, it would sort of make it seem icky and corrupt, so they just don’t do it.

Akela Lacy: Yeah, but also, if you publish a story with that disclaimer, first of all, people don’t even read the whole story. I don’t see the New York Times putting that disclaimer at the top of their story. And I think just having the story in the first place is the problem. I’m not saying that you disagree with that.

Adam: Right, but I feel like it would at least orient a certain skeptical media reader to think about it. I think most people don’t think about it. If you call something the Center for the Advancement of People or the North Center for the Atlantic–

Akela Lacy: United Democracy Project. [Laughs]

Adam: Your brain turns off and you’re like, Oh, yeah. But they’re just a bunch of bespectacled academics who sat down and crunched the numbers and realized we have an ice cutter gap. And it’s like, well, yeah, because, you know, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are the ones that make the ice cutter.

Nima: They make them. [Laughs]

Adam: And obviously there’s ideology, and there’s all these different things that kind of turn into this corrupt ooze of media output. But I think most people don’t actually know. Think tank sounds so benign. It sounds so academic. And it’s just not. Because if it was academic, it would be in academia. And again, academia is not perfect, but there are way more firewalls in academia. And again, I think it’s like, how do we make it seem academic and have the veneer and the kind of aesthetic of academia? Because I’ve been to the CSIS headquarters in DC, and I’ve sat down at one of their little seminars about the evil Iranians or Chinese or Russians are going to kill us all, brought to you by Lockheed Martin. And it sort of feels like a very expensive university. And of course, that’s what they’re going for.

Nima: Yeah, it’s the whole point. Well, this has been so great, Akela. Before we let you go, can you let us and our listeners know, what are you working on that we can look out for?

Akela Lacy: Yeah. So, you know, if you care about AIPAC spending in primaries, I’m doing a lot on that. But if you don’t care about that, and I don’t blame you because I’m kind of sick of hearing about it at this point right now. [Laughs] There is a lot going on in the prosecutor space, backlash to reform. I’m hopefully writing about — I don’t know how closely people have followed — Ron DeSantis’s spree of suspending democratically elected prosecutors that he doesn’t like. But there is some nefarious stuff going on in Florida with refusal to respond to records requests about some of the communications that his office has had with law enforcement about the suspension of Monique Worrell. So, hopefully getting something up on that, and also, relatedly, hoping to do some stuff on another attempt to suppress the right to getting public records in Georgia right now around cop city stuff. So, yeah, lots of super fun, not niche at all. [Laughs]

Nima: But look, very, very, very important. And can’t thank you enough for your work. We have been speaking with Akela Lacy, politics reporter at The Intercept. Akela, again, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Akela Lacy: Thank you guys for having me on this. This was super fun.

Adam: Yeah, I think one of the things that a lot of people find surprising who’ve never looked into these things is how think tanks don’t actually have to disclose funders. To the extent they do it, it’s usually to stay in good standing with the nonprofit observer groups and to signal to other donors that they’re legit. Especially right wing ones, we didn’t really cover those on this episode, that’s maybe for a different episode, is that you don’t even know who the hell is funding them. So, they exist as a laundromat. They’re sort of a classic laundromat, influence laundromat because you need to hide the origins of the funding. And again, this exists on a spectrum. You know, certain think tanks, we have them on our show. We think they’re mostly good. Their funders are dispersed enough or kind of scrappy enough. Their website looks like shit. That’s usually a good indicator they’re not as venal. Do you look like a GeoCity? Okay, you can come on Citations Needed.

And I think that it’s a spectrum, you sort of call it at a certain point and say, okay, this is kind of crossing into a line of corruption. And that’s why I think, again, we’re not asking for guillotines here, right? This is a very liberal demand, which is, can you at least disclose so people know? And I think that’s really where you give the game away. Because if they did that, they would be far, far less funded and far less influential because their kind of nominal or widely perceived neutrality or academia sheen or branding is what gives them power, is what gives them purchase and media.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, that kind of purchase is also dependent on really who the audiences are, right? I mean, there’s your casual, liberal New York Times, New Yorker reader who sees expert commentary from, you know, Center for Defense Priorities and Trusted Democracies. And it’s like, oh, okay. This person sounds like an academic. They come from a university, and now they work at a think tank. And okay, that seems like a sound policy.

But the thing is, polls have shown, namely, a poll from 2018 by a UK firm that polled American media consumers cast from clay found that just 20% of American news consumers trust what think tanks have to say. So really, what is the value of this expertise? And it is this laundering of corporations, of anti-labor crusaders into the media, laundering it through reportage, laundering it through expert commentary, and getting it right back to the very policymakers that are going to continue giving money to say, the weapons manufacturers, right? So, there’s this closed loop.

And this actually reminds me of something that can be found in the book Manufacturing Consent, the section “A Propaganda Model.” Of course, Manufacturing Consent from 1988, seminal work by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. And in it, they write this:

The relation between power and sourcing extends beyond official and corporate provision of day-to-day news to shaping the supply of ‘experts.’ The dominance of official sources is weakened by the existence of highly respectable unofficial sources that give dissident views with great authority. This problem is alleviated by ‘co-opting the experts’ — i.e., putting them on the payroll as consultants, funding their research, and organizing think tanks that will hire them directly and help disseminate their messages. In this way bias may be structured, and the supply of experts may be skewed in the direction desired by the government and ‘the market.’ As Henry Kissinger has pointed out, in this ‘age of the expert,’ the ‘constituency’ of the expert is ‘those who have a vested interest in commonly held opinions; elaborating and defining its consensus at a high level has, after all, made him an expert.’

Adam: Right, it’s fundamentally about experts and expertise, which most random people who are busy and have, you know, two jobs and are picking up their kids from daycare, they don’t have time to interrogate the conflicts of interest of various experts. They see an expert, they think, well, if the New York Times picked them or if CNN picked them, he must be somewhat impartial or not invested in this particular topic. But you know, many of them are, and that would not be possible without think tanks. It just wouldn’t.

Nima: Yeah, that is how those opinions are then laundered through the media and back to our political class. So, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening.

Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, as we are 100% listener-funded. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed’s Senior Producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 5, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.