Op-ed: Sutherland Institute: Think tank or advertising agency?

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

The Sutherland Institute, Utah’s self-proclaimed conservative think tank, suggests that it is a fact-based organization and that its positions and messages rise above the political fray. Well, its recent series of videos about Bears Ears suggests otherwise.

Sutherland launched an ad campaign attacking the Obama administration and calling for the rescission of the Bears Ears National Monument. The videos are replete with stirring music, emotional stories and, in one case, adorable San Juan County children telling us why the national monument will destroy their futures. While some of the videos contain some facts, that is not the case with all of the videos and, taken as a whole, they contain facts interspersed with emotional, conclusory statements. Not what one would expect from a purported think tank.

Admittedly, the designation by President Obama of Bears Ears as a national monument has pros and cons: It protects the land for future generations (both local residents and the general public), some local tourism-related businesses will likely benefit and it may have negative implications for other local residents and businesses. Accordingly, the designation has supporters and detractors.

However, it is hard to get beyond the music and to look past the young faces and locals who are the stars of the videos, but when you do, it is easy to see these videos for what they truly are: Scripted propaganda clearly meant to stir the emotions of Sutherland’s followers and others rather than a fair presentation of the facts supporting an intellectual debate. That approach is hardly rising above the political fray.

In an interview with Sutherland’s current president, Boyd Matheson, in 2016, the Deseret News wrote that Matheson vowed “to deliver Sutherland’s message absent emotion or outrage.” And yet, here are these advertisements.

By engaging in this form of promotion, Sutherland undermines its credibility as a think tank and its stated vision to “promote principled patterns for governing.” This campaign exposes Sutherland as an organization willing to attempt to manipulate our emotions, rather than to persuade us through principled debate supported by sound research, to get us to support its views.

The way in which the Sutherland Institute portrays itself and how it actually advocates for its desired policies on Bears Ears are worlds apart. Its statement that “[Obama’s] designation ignored local voices in favor of corporate interests and radical environmentalists,” is not only disingenuous — just because Sutherland’s arguments did not carry the debate does not mean local voices were ignored —but also lacks any evidence to support the claim that Obama’s designation was accommodating corporate interests. In fact, Obama’s designation was intended to protect Bears Ears from exploitation by corporate interests. And simply because environmentalists – like so many other Utahns – desire to protect Bears Ears from corporate exploitation and preserve it for use by future generations does not justify Sutherland’s label of radical.

And, as to ignoring local interests, what we do know – and which is not represented in Sutherland’s videos or website – is that five Native American tribes came together to protect Bears Ears, hundreds of local Utahns showed up at the Utah Legislature and field hearings in support of the designation, polls showed widespread support for the designation among Utahns, and the Obama administration had at least 11 communications with top Utah officials prior to the designation.

Unfortunately for all of us, the use of propaganda and emotion that purposely neglect to tell the whole story isn’t going away in American politics – or in Utah politics – anytime soon, so it is increasingly important that we recognize and consider the motives of those using such techniques.

The Sutherland Institute’s use of these tools in the Bears Ears National Monument matter shows Sutherland’s true colors: It is much more an advertising agency and propaganda machine for conservative policies than it is a contemplative, fact-based, conservative think tank. Rather than rising above politics-as-usual, it is chest deep in politics-as-usual. And that is not the way to educate our citizenry on contested issues and overcome the partisan divide that is poisoning our political system.

Jonathan Ruga is the CEO of Sentry Financial, a member of many charitable and social issue organizations (including the Alliance for a Better Utah), and a lifelong Salt Lake City resident. Karen Shepherd is a former member of Congress and a board member of the Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read Trib article here.

Scroll to Top
Better Utah is covering the Utah Legislature's 2024 General Session
Sign up for our daily legislative updates