Starting in the mid-1970s, it became common practice among establishment newspapers to provide positive coverage of conservative think tanks—particularly during Republican administrations. As I explain in my book on the history of conservative think tanks, such stories served a dual purpose. For the think tanks, the stories were essentially press releases that gave them credibility in Washington. For the papers, the stories functioned as a signal of political balance—a sign that conservative intellectuals and policymakers were receiving the same level of exposure as liberal ones.
Through sea changes in the political and media landscape, this trend has persisted. The most recent installment is New York Times Magazine's 7,000-word article on the Heritage Foundation. The heft gives the sense of an exhaustive account, supposedly of Heritage’s ability to stock the Trump administration with its preferred appointees. However, despite all of the spilled ink, the story, as is usually the case, functions primarily as Heritage propaganda, with this central claim left open to question. Most of the sources quoted are from Heritage itself, and these sources are largely taken at face value. Thus, in the end, Heritage gets to tell a story of its own importance while the Times once again gets to show its “balance” by writing a familiar story about the Right.
Today, stories like these are causing fundamental misunderstandings of the current think tank landscape in Washington, D.C.. They inflate the importance of think tanks on the Right and downplay their increasing irrelevancy and sclerotic nature, while leading the public to ignore the more dynamic happenings in think tanks on the Left.
Here is more about Stahl's book on conservative think tanks, which has just come out in paperback.