The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns

**The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns
There is a lot of discussion about media bias, and I’ve read several Great Debates about the topic on this board. What I’ve often seen is one side (conservative or liberal) complaining about media bias, with the other retorting that it’s really the other way round. Rinse and repeat. Part of the problem is that bias can be such a subjective determination, with one’s own views coloring how one sees the evidence.

Here is a study performed by Media Matters regarding syndicated op-ed columnists that purports to demonstrate that “in paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts.”

You can read the whole report, but here are some highlights:

One of the things that I think is good about the study is that it seems (to the best of my reading ability) to be entirely fact-based. In other words, they sought out the numbers, crunched them and displayed the results. The methodology used in the study is in the link, including how they determined who was “conservative” and who “progressive”. There are also several colorful graphs for those who like that kind of thing.

So, does this study tell us anything about media bias, at least with regard to syndicated op-eds? Is the methodology sound or is there a bias skewing the results (Media Matters being a “lefty” site)?

I don’t think people look at the Op Ed pages for “media bias”, since that is where you are supposed to find opinions. Rather, the allegation is that reporting of the news is slanted one way or the other.

So, I don’t see that this study shows anything about media bias. I also noticed that they didn’t include the editorial page itself, which I think is more telling about what the editors of that paper actually think. It would be interesting to see what they call the “relative voice” of Liberal vs Conservative Editorial pages. And since that is opinion also, it should be included in their data.

You would need to do some kind of analysis of the other editorials also published before you could determine if there was any systematic advantage. If you publish George Will three times a week, and editorials from a dozen other liberals (or, in Media Matters’ phrase, “progressive”) on the same page, the conservative voice has no advantage.

Plus, as you say, Media Matters is a left-wing outfit. What they might label “centrist” is quite possibly not what the broad middle of America would think of as “centrist”.

As John Mace mentions, media bias is slanting the news, not publishing five column inches in the midst of twelve “Letters to the Editor” all selected because they attack Bush. That’s tokenism.


This certainly seems to be the case, since they list David Broder as “centrist.” Broder is, by any standards, a liberal. Perhaps not a flaming lefty, but he’s as liberal as Mort Kondracke is conservative (to choose another name from the MM list).

Perhaps “media bias” is the wrong phrase? According to the study “conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts.” One of their data points is “Sixty percent of the nation’s daily newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists. Only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives, while the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced.”

So while obviously Op-Ed pages are opinions as you say, what the study suggests is that “conservative” opinions are more widely published than progressive. They also suggest that this is not a region-specific phenomenon. Their conclusion is: “Syndicated newspaper columnists have a unique ability to influence public opinion and the national debate. And whether examining only the top columnists or the entire group, large papers or small, the data presented in this report make clear that conservative syndicated columnists enjoy a clear advantage over their progressive counterparts.”

I agree that this would be an interesting study. Unfortunately, it is not included in this study, but that doesn’t necessarily undercut its usefulness.

I think this a good point. The report explains: “This report focuses only on nationally syndicated columnists, not each paper’s local columnists. It would have been impossible to determine the ideology of every one of the thousands of local columnists in the country, whereas the smaller number of syndicated columnists make them much easier to classify.” I don’t mean that quote to counter your point - it doesn’t - but only to point out why they say they did what they did.

However, I think the report does to a good job of indicating that *nationally syndicated *conservative opinion pieces get wider distribution than *nationally syndicated *liberal opinion pieces. Do you disagree with that conclusion?

It would also be of interest to consider columnists featured in major newspapers, including those with a strong regional and national distribution presence.

If you stack up the N.Y. Times, Washington Post and similar giants against a larger number of papers that are much less well read and less influential (but may have a proponderance of canned conservative columnists), conclusions would be different. The Tiffin (IA) Barometer-Chronicle* may run a bunch of Cal Thomas clones on its editorial pages, but if only 13 people read them regularly their influence is questionable.

I agree that measuring opinion doesn’t answer questions about media bias, as public distrust of the news media only partially relates to editorial opinion and is centered more on perceptions of manipulation of “hard” news by reporters and editors.
*The actual name of this paper is the Tiffin Maculopapular-Zeitgeist.

I think it does. If the majority of the newspapers out there have a liberal slant to their Editorial page, then they should be putting more conservative writers on their Op Ed pages. Now, I’ve only lived in big cities so my experience is skewed, but every newspaper I’ve ever read (NYT, Boston Globe, LA Times, SF Chronicle, SJ Merc) has a decidedly liberal Editorial page. I would be very surprised if you did a similar study of the Editorial page and didn’t get the opposite results of this study.

This is the same thing that people are complaining about wrt Petraeus’ data-- that it is selected to skew the conclusion. Or, if I tell you how great things are in Kurdistan, and ignore what’s going on in Baghdad, that would certainly “undercut the usefulness” of that study.

Well, I don’t know about “any” standard. A brief internet search turned up Broder criticizing Patrick Fitzgerald on the Scooter Libby prosecution, harping on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “ineptitude” (equating him to former AG Gonzales), criticizing Clinton and Obama on their war-funding votes, and more. I don’t think categorizing him as a centrist is necessarily out of line.

FWIW, here is their explanation of how they classified the columnists: “To avoid charges of injecting subjectivity into our process, we used, whenever possible, the syndicates’ own description of their writers to define the writers’ ideological alignment. For example, Universal Press Syndicate describes writer Maggie Gallagher as writing “right-leaning social policy analysis,” which would give her a designation in this study of “conservative.” In addition, we also went by political and media affiliations (for instance, a syndicated columnist who is also an editor for National Review can be safely classified as conservative) and writers’ own definitions of their politics, whenever available. For those whom we still could not comfortably identify, we read a sampling of columns to arrive at a designation.”

Let’s make a few observations:

First of all, it is true that a great many papers in the country have a liberal editorial slant to their unsigned op-eds. Many of these papers will make a conscious decision to add conservative commentators to the page in order to counterbalance what they understand to be the editorial direction of their paper and bring other perspectives to their readership not provided by the editors of the paper.

Without knowing the slant of the unsigned editorials, we do not know if the conservatives were added to balance the page or reinforce the tone of the paper. Frankly, it really doesn’t matter either way - conservatives often disagree with each other (as do liberals), many of them have carved out respected careers in opinion journalism, and the views therefore of Buckley, Will and Novak ought to be considered on their own merits, much as the views of Broder and Kinsley ought to be weighed the same way.

If the argument is that the far left is marginalized on op-ed pages in favor of a range of opinion running from moderate conservatism to moderate liberalism, I can see that as being a defensible argument, to a point. Unfortunately, newspapers have no obligation to print anything, and the far left has always been a particularly hard sell in American politics. If there is product to be sold, Buckley can sell his column, Will can, and Broder can. Ted Rall can’t (who knew he had a syndicated column? I sure didn’t before researching this answer.)

You may be right about that. My (limited) experience with large city paper editorial pages is similar to yours. But again, this study is ONLY about syndicated columnists. So, looking away from the broad concept of media bias (which maybe I should not have brought up), I’d be interested to know if you find the study convincing on this one point (syndicated columnists).

That would be true if study tried to “prove” a larger point on media bias. But I think they are pretty clear that the study is ONLY about syndicated columnists (to use your analogy, Kurdistan), and not about media bias in general (Baghdad). So if someone says “Here’s a study about Kurdistan: things are really great there” and you reply with “But things suck in Baghdad, so don’t tell me the GWOT is going really great,” that’s apples and oranges. Or tangerines and oranges, maybe :slight_smile:

Does anyone actually read George F. Will, who is not under threat of violence?

So, all the editors at the New York Times can be “safely classified” as liberals?

Well, that sounds scientific. :dubious:

He’s not bad on baseball.

He’s probably not bad on barbiturates either, but I haven’t any.

George Will is one of the few conservative columnists who has changed his mind about the Iraq War. I would say he’s one of the better editorialists out there-- left or right. He doesn’t have quite the wit of a Molly Ivins (rest her soul), but he usually offers good, sound reasoning to back up his arguments.

No? And the weekend is coming up. :wink:

Is that mockery, or an offer to share?

Most Dopers read sources from multiple sides, don’t we? I know from the howls of outrage that many of the leftward Dopers do.

Not really. The National Review makes no bones about being a platform for conservative opinion. The New York Times is a newspaper, and a darned fine one. at that. Conservatives are fond of citing surveys saying that most reporters are liberals. They don’t tell you that most editors are conservative. Reporters, bound by journalistic ethics, strive to present no political positions in news stories. They are honor bound to not endorse candidates. Editors are in a different position. A paper may endorse a candidate, but a news story may not.