Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages
by Shai Sachs, Sat Sep 22, 2007 at 09:45:34 AM EDT
Last week, Media Matters released a comprehensive report on the conservative bias of newspaper op-ed pages. The report confirmed what media critics like Eric Alterman have charged for a long time: that there is a pronounced right-wing bias in newspaper op-ed pages, in particular, in the ranks of nationally-syndicated opinion columnists. The bias is wide and deep: there are more conservative than progressive columnists in almost every region and state in the nation; three times as many newspapers have a conservative bias as those that have a progressive bias; and conservatives dominate in total readership as well. This report highlights an important problem that is hampering the ability of the progressive movement to set the agenda in national political discourse.
There are a number of hypotheses swirling about to explain the emphatic conservative bias. Alan Shearer, the editorial director of the Washington Post Writers Group (which syndicates many of the most prominent columnists) suggests that the bias is due to the conservative bias of newspaper owners. I think that the answer may be a bit more complicated.
If you look at the regional and statewide breakdowns in the report, it does look like a newspaper's prevailing political environment, or perhaps readership preferences, do play a part in determining balance among op-ed columnists. Progressive columnists have a slight edge in the northeast, and a slight disadvantage in the west. With a few interesting eceptions, the states where progressive columnists outnumber conservatives tend to vote Democratic in national election. (And actually, a more detailed look at these exceptions would probably prove very interesting: the exeptions are Montana, Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado, New York, and Arizona.) There's not a perfect correlation, of course: the distribution of conservative and progressive columnists by region looks like the distribution of ideologies in that region, shifted rightward about 10-20%. In fact, it could be that these numbers reflect the approximate ideological makeup of newspaper subscribers or advertisers - that is, a broad but fairly well-off section of the population - within a given region.
I am also curious about the role of syndicates in maintaining this ideological regime. While the conservative movement benefits from the conservative bias in op-ed pages, the real winner is the Washington Post Writers Group, which represents the lion's share of the most prominent columnists. The Tribune Media Service, which syndicates Cal Thomas, also does quite well. What, exactly, goes on in the business dealings between a newspaper syndicate and an op-ed page editor? Who makes these decisions, and how? That's really the heart of the question here.
My guess is that the heart of the explanation is a complex combination of subtle or overt bias handed down from the newspaper owners; the conservative makeup of newspaper subscribers or advertisers; and the way the syndicated works are marketed and organized as a business. The trick to establishing balance in nationally syndicated newspaper op-ed columns is probably going to require a reorganization of the syndication industry, in some way. Is there an opportunity for a liberal entrepreneur to step into this space and offer low-cost but popular progressive syndicated columnists?
It certainly seems possible: the syndication industry has every mark of an industry set in its ways, instinctively afraid of change. The industry appears to be doing everything it can to ignore blogging altogether (with a couple of minor exceptions, like the Tribute Media Service's syndication of Huffington Post content). Syndicates also don't seem to grasp that the social web presents an immense opportunity - the ability to foster a direct connection between columnists and readers. The industry appears to be dominated by a few big giants, like WPWG, TMS and the Creators Syndicate. Despite a few high-profile minority and female columnists, the opinion industry is dominated by white men. Finally and perhaps most significantly, the syndication industry has not localized in any way: syndicate offerings are, at least by appearances, uniform throughout the country, and do not offer newspapers any kind of local flavor. In short, the syndication industry appears ripe for an entrepreneurial challenge.
I'd be very interested to see a liberal entrepreneur create a new syndicate to compete with the titans of the syndication industry. Certainly, the raw materials for such a company are in abundance: the progressive blogosphere is well-stocked with a diverse collection of intelligent, articulate writers who can give George Will and Cal Thomas a run for their money. Aside from a chorus of fresh progressive voices, such a syndicate could offer services like localization (helping newspapers identify columnists in their region), integration with social networking sites, and increased writer/reader interaction. No doubt, it would be tough to drum up business, but I think it would be an interesting experiment, and it could help restore balance on op-ed pages.