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Popular Culture & Politics

What’s in a Name? The Case of Hidden Lobbies

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”—Mark Twain

You’re listening to the radio—correction, your “portable electronic device”—and catching up on the news when you come across a story about a recent scientific study stating that, surprisingly, smoking cigarettes isn’t all that unhealthy! So says the “Tobacco Institute,” anyway. A few facts and figures are tossed out for your edification, and the program moves right on to the next item. Seems pretty official, right? After all, an Institute released that study.

Obviously, the public today is quite well-educated on the dangers of smoking, but this wasn’t always the case—and up until 1998, there was a real Tobacco Institute that published a myriad of reports citing “expert” analysis that downplayed the risks of smoking. Coincidentally enough, this organization was both founded and funded entirely by cigarette manufacturers, which understandably had quite a vested interest in keeping Americans from viewing cigarettes as Public Enemy No. 1.

Would listeners have gotten that sort of disclaimer if they’d heard the story on television or radio back in the 1960s? Perhaps—but probably not. Broadcast news is typically a much-abridged version of what you might find in print, and often, the labeling of such “think tanks” gets brushed aside in the interest of brevity. Do most Americans know that the Cato Institute examines issues from a libertarian perspective? Or that the Center for American Progress is a liberal-leaning research organization?

In 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) conducted a study of its own news coverage and found that far more often than not, think tanks were not presented to listeners with any context; in particular, the Brookings Institution was cited over 100 times without a single mention of its politics. While Brookings is considered to be one of the more centrist research organizations on Capitol Hill , how aware is NPR’s audience of this?

Yet another wrench in the works when it comes to think tanks is the practice of deceptive organizational names. Often, policies and legislation are saddled with titles that introduce a level of awkwardness for any would-be opponents (see “Fairness Doctrine” and “Patriot Act”). The same is true for some new think tanks—the findings of the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) seem much more palatable than if they had come from the “Koch Foundation” (the conservative Koch brothers provide the funding behind the AFP), and a similar analogy can be drawn for the George Soros–backed Open Society Institute (representing a liberal perspective). All the more reason for news consumers to keep a close eye on sources that are cited—and to seek out a variety of different viewpoints.



Kevin Fullam, writer, documentarian, and commentator on popular culture, researched and wrote this essay. His website, www.kevinfullam.net, features interviews and essays on the intersection of film, politics, and culture.


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