Founded in 2005 as a simple multi-author blog (Wayback Machine copy), ThinkProgress has grown into one of the more popular progressive news sites, with an estimated reach of 1.8M monthly uniques per Quantcast. Behind it is a powerful NGO with strong ties to some prominent players in US politics.
Organizational Structure, Funding
You may have never heard of the Center for American Progress, but it’s one of the most well-funded political nonprofits in the US, with over $45M in revenue in 2014. It was founded by none other than John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and victim of a phishing attack of likely Russian origin on his email account.
CAP’s funding comes from foundations, corporations, individual major donors, and small donations. Its “Supporters” page provides a breakdown, and says that “corporate funding comprises less than 6 percent of the budget, and foreign government funding comprises only 2 percent.” Big foundation funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Sandler Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
CAP has a sister organization, the Action Fund. Unlike CAP, it is organized under the 501c4 section of the US tax code which permits political lobbying, but means that donations are not tax-deductible. It is a smaller organization, with about $8.5M revenue in 2015, the single largest chunk of which comes from CAP itself. The organizations also share the same CEO, Neera Tanden.
The Action Fund is the organization behind ThinkProgress, which is said to be fully editorially independent. Founder and editor Judd Legum left ThinkProgress in 2007 to join Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid as research director and then returned to his role, which is an example of the revolving door from CAP to the US Democratic establishment.
In 2015, Legum received total compensation of $199K from the organization, which is comparable to other nonprofit publications like Mother Jones.
The ThinkProgress website is one of the worst we have reviewed in terms of disclosing organizational internals. The About page mentions its parent organization without even linking to it. There, with some luck, you may find the list of supporters; beyond that, the only reporting I was able to find on the organization’s work was a 10th Anniversary Report (and only with Google).
Considering the combined revenue of the two organizations, this is a remarkably poor level of transparency; much smaller organizations like Truthout manage to report regularly about their own work (reports) and make these reports easy to find.
ThinkProgress describes itself as dedicated to “providing our readers with rigorous reporting and analysis from a progressive perspective”. Beyond that positioning statement, does it have bias toward specific politicians or policies?
Using the 2016 election as a yardstick, political connections notwithstanding, I did not find evidence of bias in favor of one of the Democratic candidates (Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton) in the coverage itself. Privately, the Wikileaks disclosures show that ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum did sometimes casually forward items of interest that could be used against Sanders (emails that include Legum and Sanders).
One exchange in particular caught the attention of right-wing critics. It was a heads-up by Legum that Faiz Shakir, a former ThinkProgress staffer, had started doing some work for the Bernie campaign. CEO Neera Tanden (Legum’s boss) reacted in a manner that can only be described as vitriolic.
It would be unfair to infer too much about ThinkProgress itself from these leaked private exchanges. They only serve to underscore the strong personal connections of some of its key players to the Clinton campaign. Now that the campaign is lost, it remains to be seen how these same players act in the changed political environment.
I would describe ThinkProgress editorially as left-of-center, which in the age of Trumpism makes them a useful source of adversarial journalism. Its content selection reflects a progressive perspective that is relatively free of reflection and squarely directed at the political right. In pursuing this agenda, the site sometimes overstates/sensationalizes slightly, but not as much as clickbait sites like Occupy Democrats do; more on this below.
Stories do appear to go through internal fact-checking (though the editors fell for a fake news site in 2014).
The site also engages in independent fundraising from readers, e.g., for its recently launched Trump Investigative Fund.
Consistent with its origins as a blog, ThinkProgress does not distinguish between news, analysis, or commentary. Some of its reports are in-depth investigative journalism that would be right at home on sites like ProPublica (e.g., its report on the growth of the sanctuary city movement since Trump’s election).
An example article that shows reasonable depth, while also not presenting any perspective that disagrees with its analysis: “Trump poised to violate Constitution his first day in office, George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer says”. See this NYT piece for a somewhat more balanced assessment of the same situation. This is a case where citing only a single perspective serves to slightly sensationalize reporting.
Similarly, when 46 US Attorneys were fired by the Department of Justice, ThinkProgress focused on framing the action as part of a larger purge narrative, not spelling out that Bill Clinton fired all 93 attorneys in 1993 (see the Vox reporting). This is an example of using a fairly ordinary political event as a “hook” to support a larger narrative.
As an example for overstating, one article calls the war in Yemen a “climate-driven war”. While the article itself makes good arguments, that summary overstates the role of climate change (compare this analysis by International Policy Digest).
Sometimes the site does use clickbait tactics. The headline “SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch faces extraordinary sexism allegation from former student” uses ambiguous language which could describe a wide range of behaviors in order to sensationalize Gorsuch’s alleged comments about maternity leave.
Worse, these comments are disputed by several other students (see NPR coverage, or National Review for the right-wing perspective). This isn’t mentioned in the article, and ThinkProgress kept tweeting the piece at least until March 24, when other media had already reported the dispute.
ThinkProgress design in 2005, 2011 and 2017 (old screenshots courtesy of archive.org).
Content is under conventional copyright, with permission to re-use granted on a case-by-case basis.
While I would not put it in the same journalistic category as publications like Mother Jones or The Intercept, I do recommend following ThinkProgress on Twitter or by other means as a source of progressive advocacy journalism. At its best, ThinkProgress provides valuable in-depth investigative reporting.
The complex influence web behind CAP and the parent organization of ThinkProgress raises questions about how autonomously it can operate, but one shouldn’t overstate the case. The organization it is not dependent on a single funder and relies on public support, as well. Perhaps ThinkProgress would better served being a truly independent organizational entity, which would also enable tax-deductible donations.
The rating is 3.5 stars, rounded down. Points off for a slight tendency toward sensationalizing (primarily through framing and selective reporting) and a lack of transparency.
(Updated in March 2017 with new information and to be more consistent with our review methodology.)