Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

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.

Tags: liberal entrepreneurship, Media, Media Matters, newspapers, op-ed, syndication industry (all tags)

Comments

12 Comments

Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

This is an extremely important subject as the nation's newspapers, radio & TV news outlets are the filters through which we receive information & receive opinions, which often become CW. Newspaper & MSM owners are usually conservative & usually leave their imprint on the political leaning of their property.

While there is some truth to it, I think you give way too much emphasis to reflecting the regional political orientation of the paper. My best counter example is the Washington Post (some people mistakenly think of it as liberal because of past Watergate reporting), a paper whose readership consists mainly of Federal Government employees (the most pro-government group in the country) & liberals living around the Washington beltway. Here in Philadelphia, Pa., the Philadelphia Enquirer has been recently bought out by a RW multimillionaire, Tierney (a prodigious Republican fundraiser), & boy you should see how the emphasis of the paper has shifted rightward in the op ed pages & includes stories on the front pages. NBC is owned by General Electric & surprise, surprise, you have a libertarian, Brian Willians, as the nightly anchor.

by carter1 2007-09-22 11:26AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

I'd be interested to take a really thorough look at the data, on a newspaper-by-newspaper basis, and see if you're right.  Certainly, there are anecdotal cases like the ones you cite which seem to support the conclusion that it's all about ownership.  But I wonder if there's any thorough statistical study of this kind of assertion.  (And by the way, the Washington Post is really a very special case among newspapers, since it's got such a large national audience.  But you're right, they are just a bit more liberal than your average feudal lord.)  Unfortunately, Media Matters didn't release the raw data from the study, so it's hard to do this kind of analysis.

One of these days I will try and get a chance to at least examine the other possibility, that regional ideological character, shifted rightward about 10-20%, explains part of the bias.  Luckily, there are two reasonably good data sources: MM's state-by-state breakdown of op-ed columnists, and CNN's 2004 exit polls, which, flawed though they were, are the most comprehensive, recent, state-by-state ideological data we have.  Perhaps I'll get a chance to write that up soon.

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-22 01:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Cause & effect relationships are difficult to determine in such a murky field as journalistic enterprise slants. I would welcome a rigorous statistical study but till then I'm afraid we're simply providing general interpretations.

My take (based on my living in different places & my background as a political scientist) is; 1) that small town papers both have the stamp of the small time, conservative business owner & reflect the  small town conservatism of the population,

2) the RW, through their organizations & RW wealthy donors, have been very effective in organizing campaigns to move the various media to the right. One of the effects has been more conservative voices in the media. In contrast, liberals have not had systematic campaigns to move the media. Thus, in very liberal towns such as Washington DC, NYC, and Philadelphia, where organized campaigns would move the RW papers (leave out the Moon paper) to the left, none has been forthcoming.

3) Wealthy RWers, who seem to have no interest, per se in the newspaper business, have been actively seeking to purchase major newspapers. Tierney's purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer led to my focus on the subject. The former CEO of GE, the far RWer Welch, sought to purchase a major Boston paper & there was a similar effort by a RWer to purchase the LA Times a couple years ago. The only logical reason seems to be a desire to propagate the RW perspective.

by carter1 2007-09-22 06:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Yeah, i think you basically hit the nail on the head.  It would be interesting to really do a systematic study of newspaper ownership to see how things really stand, but I think you more or less have the general shape of the industry down.  I'm curious about your third explanation.  It does sound like there's some kind of right wing campaign to buy up newspapers and turn them into propaganda rags.  The sad part is, this isn't exactly a case of billionaires taking a hit for the conservative movement - after all, newspapers make pretty good profit margins these days; the problem is that their subscriptions appear to be going down while their costs are going up, so their future prospects aren't bright.  There's also a movement afoot within the newspaper industry to revitalize the way the newspaper industry is run, and I wonder whether any part of that is connected to these apparent takeover efforts.

I'll see if I can dig around a bit and find some material on newspaper ownership.  It's an important topic, and I think having a solid data source on it would prove very interesting.

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-23 09:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

When I see the likes of George Will, David Broder, David Brooks or local rightwing blowhard David Reinhard on the opinion pages of our local rag The Oregonian, I smile inwardly, skip their columns (which I know will be pro-corporate/military-industrial complex/Washington establishment excrement) and head to my 'puter to log in to The Internets to get a dose of the truth.

by Oregonian 2007-09-22 05:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

No surprise here.  Most columnists are old well-to-do white guys.  Most old, well-to-do white guys are Republicans.

by Stuart Shaffer 2007-09-23 10:20AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

What's amazing to me isn't that there is a conservative bias in almost all fields of communication, it's that in spite of this bias progressives and Democrats can still win.

What would be interesting to know is whether the shift to the internet has led to a decline in the actual readership of conservative columnists. I find myself, like a lot of people I imagine, reading actual newspapers less and less. I am getting more and more of my information from the internet. That means that I am actually reading conservative columnists less because I don't read the newspaper where they are appearing. I very seldom seek out such columnists to read on the net.

As one person pointed out above, not everyone has to read columnists to get their views into circulation. Likewise, if an increasing number of people are getting their news from the net, then those people are talking to family, friends, co-workers, and others and spreading the ideas they read. What this may mean is that the conservative bais of publishers and the owners of electronic media outlets will have less and less impact.

by mrgavel 2007-09-23 11:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Well, Media Matters argues, in the intro to their report, that newspaper columnists are still influential because they're followed by an older, more well-off population which is still in power and votes reliably, etc.  I'm a bit skeptical about that argument, but I think it makes some sense.  Also, at least on the conservative and centrist side, the topmost columnists tend to get picked up by Sunday talk shows and the like, amplifying their presence still more.  So while op-ed columnists are not terribly important to your average blogosphere reader, I think they still have an impact.

I think you're right that the rise of the blogosphere has diminished the power of conservative op-ed writers a great deal.  Nevertheless, we shouldn't cede the ground of newspaper op-ed pages to the conservative movement.  We should be working to weaken the conservative movement and to strengthen our own, and that includes weakening their grip on  newspaper op-ed pages.

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-24 05:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Why not think bigger?  Find some liberal entrepreneurs willing to finance the purchase of an established major-market newspaper, should one become available, and turn it into the progressive paper of record.  Use it as a base to establish a stable of progressive op-ed authors.

And buying an established paper is clearly superior to trying to start a competing rag from scratch.

by Anthony de Jesus 2007-09-23 04:02PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Well, that'd be great.  I'd love to see a rich progressive buy up a paper and start pulling a reverse Murdoch on it.  But getting rich progressives to do something isn't my specialty by a long stretch.  Starting a syndicate to compete with WPWG, TMS and Creators is something that one or two enterprising progressives could actually do with a pretty reasonably sized budget, and that's the key.

However, I will say this about rich progressives and progressive media.  This is the one area of movement building which, I think, rich progressives really "get", and probably that's in no small part due to Rob Stein's excellent powerpoint presentation.  (Stein presented his slideshow, which he used to start the Democracy Alliance, at YearlyKos; it focuses on the way the conservative media machine was built, although I believe it under-appreciates the importance of the religious right and the decline of unions.)  The establishment of REAL TV and Air America give me hope that we'll see more efforts by rich progressives to build progressive media.  Could it be that a progressive billionaire would establish a national newspaper with excellent reporting and progressive opinion, to counter the Wall Street Journal?  Here's hoping...

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-24 05:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

Air America hasn't been as successful as it could have been because it has been content in search of an outlet rather than a media outlet creating content to fill airtime.  TV and radio programming came about because the owners of TV and radio stations needed content.  Air America should have started out by buying flagship stations in New York, DC, and maybe a few other major cities.  Keep in mind that two of the three syndicates you mention appear tied to newspapers.

Right now, the left is too dependent on the good graces of government because it has no control over infrastructure (see net neutrality).

Herding liberal entrepreneurs is well beyond my abilities as well, but it has always bothered me that no one seems to think about these things, at least publicly.

by Anthony de Jesus 2007-09-24 12:58PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservative dominance of the op-ed pages

I haven't kept up to date on Air America, at least not recently, but last I heard they had been bought out by a progressive NYC billionaire who intended to turn it into a proper progressive radio station.  I'm hoping things have improved since then.

You're right that two of the big syndicates are tied to newspapers, but that is part of the reason I think there's opportunity for an entrepreneur to step in and shake up the industry.  If I were a newspaper editor, I'd prefer to pay syndication fees to an independent company, with no ties to a competitor like NY Times or Washington Post.

by Shai Sachs 2007-09-24 01:13PM | 0 recs

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