Media Matters has a new report about the “conservative advantage in syndicated op-ed columns.” Its title — “Black and White and Re(a)d All Over” — is presumably a reference to “red” as in “red states,” not, as in my formative years, to Communism. (Maybe Media Matters can follow up with a report on Republican-leading TV and radio and call it “Red Channels.”)
If you accept Media Matters’ division of columnists into “progressive,” “centrist” and “conservative” — a big if, at least if you’re a libertarian — the results are interesting in the way that the results of any quantitative analysis are interesting. But they don’t prove that the “liberal media” are really the “conservative media.”
An abundance of conservative op-ed columnists doesn’t mean (except at The Wall Street Journal) that the editorial policy of the newspaper leans right. Indeed, some newspapers use syndicated op-ed columns as counter-programming for their own opinions. As an editorial page editor in Pittsburgh, my stock response to complaints about a “liberal-leaning” editorial column was to point to the real estate reserved on our op-ed page for George Will, William Safire and Charles Krauthammer. (That argument seldom worked; conservative readers didn’t just want to see conservative opinions in the paper; they wanted them to be the opinions of the paper.)
But put aside that nuance. Assume that the Media Matters study is correct that “in paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts.” So what?
Does the disparity unmask op-ed editors as conservative symps? I doubt it. Op-ed editors are interested in entertainment value, and one can argue — I actually have argued — that since the 1980s conservative columnists have had most of the best lines. It’s also true that, readers being conservative in the non-political sense, writers like George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer are read because, two decades after op-ed editors scrambled to recruit conservative columnists, they are familiar presences. (And if you don’t think readers value familiarity, you haven’t tried to cancel a comic strip that’s past its prime. George Will may be the op-ed page’s Mary Worth.)
Or maybe we should be shocked and alarmed (as readers always say when they call to complain) because the underrepresentation of liberal columnists translates into an underrepresentation of liberal readers. This assumes, however, that readers are influenced by op-ed pieces with Pavlovian predictability. And that rests on a further assumption: that readers of op-ed pages are open to persuasion from any direction. Many, in my experience, are not. Ideologically intense readers gravitate to columnists who agree with them. For a supporter of the war in Iraq, reading a Krauthammer column is a liturgical act — like reciting the Nicene Creed at Mass — not a search for enlightenment. Ditto with devotees of Maureen Dowd, though her reference-rich style has a crossover appeal to pop-culture addicts.
The question left hanging by the Media Matters analysis is the one asked by Lenin: “What is to be done?” Newspapers these days are, if anything, overly conscious of their audiences. If a high-priced market study demonstrated a groundswell of support for replacing a conservative columnist with a liberal one, at least some editors would go along. I'm not sure that's a good thing.
Or maybe we need to ignore the First Amendment and establish a broadcast-style fairness doctrine under which a government commission would exquisitely police the apportionment of op-ed space. You want to run that Jonah Goldberg column? Then find space for Bob Herbert or face a fine.