Research Confirms…Or Does It?

A major contributor to the success of Donald Trump in the 2016 election was the level of social distrust, fed by the fragmentation of media and decline of credible, reliable journalism. Citizens simply don’t know what information they can trust–which sources are reputable and which are peddling disinformation–so they choose the “facts” that are most congruent with their pre-existing beliefs.

The problem isn’t limited to media sources.

A recent article by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center points to a phenomenon that has been depressingly obvious to academics and others engaged in legitimate research.

Think tanks often provide valuable and impartial policy research. But entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.

The article provides journalists with tips on how to ferret out conflicts of interest or other indicators of bias; its list of appropriate inquiries will be helpful not just to reporters, but to citizens who are increasingly unsure of who and what to believe:

  • Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
  • To find out more about an executive listed on the board, read his or her firm’s public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Our accounting tip sheet should help.
  • Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
  • Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
  • Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
  • What is its budget? Has the budget changed radically in recent years?
  • Does it have a conflict of interest policy?
  • Look up the address. Is it a street address or a post office box? Google either: Is it shared with other organizations? Do they share a suite, a phone? What is their relationship?

I have frequently written about the “wild west” that is our current media landscape. This article reminds us that it isn’t only conspiracy websites, social media “memes,” or the growing difficult of distinguishing satire from reporting that should worry us.

We have gone way beyond the days of the National Enquirer (my favorite headline ever: “Sadaam and Osama’s Gay Wedding”). Today’s inability to know which information resources are trustworthy and which are not is poisoning not only our ability to conduct fact-based discussions, but our willingness to trust our social and governmental institutions.

Social capital–the connections we have with others–requires general social trust. The continuing erosion of that trust threatens those human connections, not to mention our ability to see ourselves as members of a democratic polity.

I simply don’t know how we fix this and still maintain fidelity to the First Amendment.


  1. There has been considerable recent conversation about “fake news.” That label applies to the work some “think” tanks have long pursued. South Carolina’s ex-Senator Jim DeMint at the Heritage Foundation, for example, is not paid a million dollars a year for his intellectual heft or his analytic skills, but for producing a form of propaganda that has become so prolific that its sheer volume makes it difficult to counter, like the lies that Trump piles on top of one another until asking a coherent question becomes impossible. In all of the institutions for which the Koch brothers supply funding, the Heritage Foundation included, neoliberalism reigns. One of its results is an inability to form political consensus on existential issues that, left unaddressed will kill as many conservatives as liberals. The abuses and misuses of the English language in the service of political chicanery have become so vast that George Orwell would blush at the tricks he overlooked.

  2. Not so sure that a donors list will help much. Read “Dark Money” to get an idea of how money is laundered for political purposes.

    It might be a good idea to clearly label satire, even though I have seen posts that appalled Facebook friends, only to check the article and see that it IS labeled “Satire”. Please Facebook, don’t take away my “Onion” posts.

    This is the anniversary of the date the Senate refused the appointment of Clement Haynsworth to the Supreme Court. I remember that Orin Hatch asked, “What’s wrong with a little mediocrity?” in his support for Mr.Haynsworth. I believe that was the beginning of the dumbling down of our discourse.

  3. see also a prescient report from almost ten years ago:

  4. For many years I worked for a media ethics organization called the Minnesota News Council. It heard citizen complaints about biased and inaccurate reporting, and other ethical violations of the news media. The Council was made up equally of journalists and citizens. Participation was voluntary, but most news outlets did participate. Findings were reported in the large newspapers in town.

    One of the complaints while I worked there was about using an infamous climate denier as the primary source in a news story. The ruling went against the paper and the public discussion of false “balance” and the harm it does to society was immensely valuable.

    Media may not have been happy about being held accountable (although they often won), but I do think that both journalists and the public benefited from understanding each other better and both sides acknowledged the value of a fair and impartial media. It is critical to our society.

    Most towns and cities in the U.S. now have only one newspaper, and often that is owned by a chain and managed to maximize profit, not news. This was not always the case; and it need not be the case. The internet makes local news, with diverse voices, much more possible. We need to find those people in our community and support them. We also need to life up media critics, news ombudsmen, and even News Councils.

    Although the Minnesota News Council no longer exists, there is no reason citizens couldn’t create such a council on their own and publicize their findings.

  5. Checking out “think tanks” is a relatively high level concern affecting a relatively small population. The 800 pound gorilla is the flood of forwarded emails and Facebook entries being gobbled up by the millions of low-information users who vote. I understand that 44% of the people get their “news” from Facebook, a very troubling thought. Mix that with the tremendous problem of civic ignorance and the need to confirm existing biases, and the republic is in serious trouble.

    There is no question that the Internet gives people more access to a wider range of information, but when people believe stuff just because it confirms their biases, they are a little light on what constitutes logical fallacies and they lack the curiosity which would have led them to actual facts, we are dealing with a flood of willful ignorance. I have made it a habit to fact check the forwarded emails I receive, and dutifully send the person (or “reply all”) what is true. For some reason, I am rarely thanked. The field is ripe for demagogues who seem to be filling the fields. South American dictatorship, here we come. The only difference will be that we don’t speak Spanish, a language we all know is the devil’s speech.

  6. Because everybody, including those who can hardly read a church bulletin, should have to do their own kind research?
    Sorry, but a sizable chunk of our electorate has been wallowing in an irresponsible journalism for many years now.
    They have been taught to mix politics, religion, and entertainment into the confusion of all three.
    I don’t see any solution to this without recourse to law.

  7. Trump U-illegal and settled Friday. Trump Foundation-illegal. Housing discrimination-illegal. Payoff to Florida AG-illegal. And he hasn’t taken office yet and he’s having secret meetings with his business people! I think Michael Moore is right, he’s going to break laws because he is so naive. WTF?

    *throws up hands and sighs*

  8. After reading the article on the front page of the Indianapolis Star today (11/22/16), I did some research of my own on Earl Goode. The headline reads, “Holcomb’s new chief once aide to Daniels”. Told ya’. The governorship of Indiana is like reading a Republican family tree with it’s ancestry and straight line and continuing lineage. Per the article; “…Holcomb is pursuing an agenda that’s driven by fiscal policy.” “And it’s an agenda designed as much to distance himself from (Gov. Mike) Pence’s social agenda as to align himself with the Daniels’ legacy.” I will admit I haven’t yet found a connection between Goode and Goldsmith in my research but…the day is young.

    Copied and pasted from Advance Indiana, Monday, August 6, 2007:

    “Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Chief of Staff Earl Goode is poised to pocket more than $3.3 million when the Board of Directors of Sallie Mae on which he sits meets next week to approve its sale. “When the directors of Sallie Mae meet next week to consider a $25 billion offer to buy the student loan giant, they will be voting on a transaction that will benefit the company, and also themselves — significantly,” Inside Higher Ed writes.”

  9. I think education is the antidote to misinformation. Developing critical thinking skills and using them when evaluating a claim could help to minimize the impact of false and misleading media. I recommend a recent book “A Field Guide to Lies.”

  10. There is a particular sort of half-lie that doesn’t get talked about very often. Usually it is lodged in the speech or campaign promise. It tells us that we must do X (say, incentives to new business, or, raise emissions standards for cars) if we are to have growth-in-Y (say, the economy, or, reduced pollution), making it seem that the problem can be solved with a flick of the switch when, in fact, it will take a generation to ramp-up and achieve success. I believe that one of the reason people become frustrated with political solutions or promises (besides that fact that they never seem forthcoming or seem to get compromised away) is that the relevant speaker forgets this punch-line. And, I am wondering about the degree of rage out there when Trump fails to make America great (even according to his lights) in a year or two as he promises.

  11. Rush began national broadcasts in 1988 and IMO that’s when the great dumbing down began. We didn’t fail to learn but allowed knowledge to be stolen and replaced by dogma for dollars.

    That virus has become epidemic and eaten the infrastructure of democracy.

  12. Pete,

    “That virus has become epidemic and eaten the infrastructure of democracy.”

    You need to substitute “epidemic” with “pandemic.” Our misfortune is undermining the whole infrastructure of our planetary system. Much like the AIDS pandemic we’ve had problems of identifying the GROUND ZERO of the spread of the virus. Until that is accomplished, no effective vaccine can be developed.

  13. While The National Enquirer has the occasional fun headline, it is a piker by comparison to the now-defunct Weekly World News. My favorite from its run came in the 90s when the following was offered along with a photo. “Space Aliens Endorse Clinton for Re-Election.”

    It doesn’t get any better than this…

  14. And yesterday, Emperor Trump summoned the U.S. news media elite to a private, off the record meeting at his Trump Castle. Although the media kingpins were sworn to secrecy to gain admission to his Highness’ presence and aren’t talking, apparently the Emperor made it clear, in no unmistaken terms, he was highly displeased with their reporting about him and his campaign. He reportedly saved his worst ire for the head of CNN. Why do you suppose that might be? The true power behind the Throne, Kelly Ann Conway, told the media, who were talking, that everything was very cordial and lovely dovey.

    Left unsaid, of course, is what the implied, if not outright implicit, sanction will be if his Highness continues to be displeased with the stories they report. Anybody want to guess?

  15. The real question is how can the danger be so clear to some and completely obscure to others? What beliefs empower the flight or fight response or the apathy?

  16. Robert Parry has written an article concerning fake news. He writes:

    In its lead editorial on Sunday, The New York Times decried what it deemed “The Digital Virus Called Fake News” and called for Internet censorship to counter this alleged problem, taking particular aim at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for letting “liars and con artists hijack his platform.”

    Parry goes on to write: But, with a stunning lack of self-awareness, the Times fails to acknowledge the many times that it has published “fake news,” such as reporting in 2002 that Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes meant that it was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program; its bogus analysis tracing the firing location of a Syrian sarin-laden rocket in 2013 back to a Syrian military base that turned out to be four times outside the rocket’s range.

    Our McMega-Media has long been engaged in presenting falsehoods as facts, or weaving bits of truth into advocacy journalism. Two of the most egregious examples I can think of is the “Remember the Maine” war cry back in 1898 to provoke a war with Spain. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is the second.

    There are stories that are not reported by the McMega-Media Press or simply down played. The effects of Agent Orange on our troops and the people of S.E. Asia and now the Native American protests in No. Dakota.

    Profits have always been important to the McMega-Media. Now it is on stunning display by CNN, MSNBC and FOX. Trump was a genius in one respect, he knew the vulnerabilities of the Corporate Press and it’s quest for ratings and therefore profits. Trump knew how to stay on the lead story.

  17. Rosemary; Pence is learning quickly from his mentor how to use his power brutally and quickly. The entire legal system in this state is the political system in this state.

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