Too Many Conservative Syndicated Columnists

A Media Matters study showing that conservative columnists outpace their progressive counterparts in both number and circulation is getting quite a bit of buzz on the leeward side of the blogosphere. The study’s top findings:

  • 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.
  • In a given week, nationally syndicated progressive columnists are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of 125 million. Conservative columnists, on the other hand, are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of more than 152 million.

One obvious concern in a study like this being conducted by an organization whose very mission is to expose conservative bias in the press is that the coding will be skewed. They looked at 100 columnists, many of whom I’m unfamiliar with, so I can’t provide detailed feedback on that score. Looking at the major columnists, though, raises a couple of red flags:

Top 10 Syndicated Columnists

Personally, I would score Broder and the Roberts family as progressive; still, while they’re clearly left-of-center, they’re hardly fire breathing liberal activists. But, surely, Mort Kondracke isn’t a conservative now? Yes, he’s on FOX News and the Weekly Standard‘s masthead. He’s always been a left-of-center guy, though; he just happens to be a hawk. Similiarly, on the top columnists by circulation list, they code Thomas Friedman and, quite curiously, Ron Brownstein as centrists.

Presumably, there are several cases among the lesser-known columnists where conservatives would question the coding. Just changing Kondracke and Brownstein, frankly, would have a big impact on the numbers.

My sense is that the coding decisions were honest but made from the perspective of rather hard core progressives who see very moderate liberals as “centrists” and generally left-of-center people who are security hawks as “conservatives.” That’s a perfectly natural bias. (Indeed, I did much the same thing with my Friendly Forces and Loyal Opposition feed lists, putting centrist libertarians who were staunch war opponents on the second list.) Still, if the purpose is to create a starting point for discussion across the aisle, the coding decisions should have been made by a more neutral committee.

There are other questions, too. King Banian suggests that papers are using syndicated columnists to balance out their own editorial slant and that, because reporters tend to be left-of-center and columnists tend to come from the ranks of reporters, the natural slant of the in-house columnists will be to the left. It would be next to impossible to put together an empirical study of this hypothesis, given the sheer number of papers and the difficulty in coding for all those local columnists, but it’s not implausible.

Duncan “Atrios” Black (a Media Matters fellow) suggests that publishers feel a lot of pressure to publish conservative columnists because of the longstanding “liberal bias” meme.

Matt Yglesias figures economics is the key. That’s always a good starting point in figuring out why the media does anything.

Ezra Klein provides another incredibly plausible explanation.

[H]ow “interesting” an opinion is largely depends on how much it diverges from yours. So a liberal op-ed editor may be quite hard on other liberals, who don’t sound, to him, like they’re saying anything new. Conversely, he could be quite easy on conservatives, because even their basic arguments are, to him, analytically fresh and innovative.

Maybe so. There is, after all, a contrarian bias in the punditry game. Heck, Slate has built a whole publication around it.

UPDATE: Even Andrew Sullivan doesn’t think Kondracke is a progressive, although he’d characterize him as a centrist.

My introduction to Kondracke was during his McLaughlin Group days when I was in high school or college. He was always cast as a liberal in those days. My guess is that both his views and mine have evolved considerably since.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LaurenceB says:

    The only exposure I’ve had to Kondracke is on Fox News, which I watch very seldom – so I’m not an expert on Kondracke. But, having said that, I’ve never seen him take a liberal view on anything, and I always assumed he was deeply conservative.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    Could it possibly be the conservatives are more popular because of the reason and logic in their writing.

  3. SDM says:

    Another useful point is not where the columnist stands purely on policy issues – as many of these columnists don’t expressly advocate for policy – but what they define themselves in opposition to.

    Kondracke may personally stand to the left of, say, Krauthammer, but both of them spend much of their column space criticizing liberals and Democrats.

    Sowell, Cal Thomas, Parker, etc. make it their stock-in-trade to decry liberalism and Democrats.

    Broder probably votes Democratic but in tone and inclination he is a pox-on-both-houses centrist with a disdain for ideological argument and a soft spot for people who he sees as somehow “beyond” partisanship – McCain, Lieberman, Bloomberg. Ditto your Fred Hiatts and Jim Hoaglands.

    Even Tom Friedman, clearly a lefty, generally defines himself in opposition to both the right and the left.

    Outright liberals who use their column real estate to advocate liberal policy and criticize conservatives, like Krugman, are much rarer than the equivalent Sowells on the other side.

  4. This is the most flawed study I have read in a while, and I understand how to read social science studies.

    I have provided for you the most thorough analysis on the Internet my analysis of Media Matters’ study. You can read it below. [Editing mine – jhj]

    Media Matters Spouts its Own Flawed Study as Fact: How They Did It, In Great Detail

  5. Tlaloc says:

    But, surely, Mort Kondracke isn’t a conservative now? Yes, he’s on FOX News and the Weekly Standard’s masthead. He’s always been a left-of-center guy, though; he just happens to be a hawk.

    This comment sparked an idea.

    maybe a better methodology than trying to identify a given commentator as liberal or conservative in total would be to look at a given issue, identify a number of liberal view, a number of conservative viewss, a number of mderate view and then quantify the number of columnists espousing the various types of views.

    For instance take George Will, he’s clearly very financially conservative but not very socially conservative at all (very libertarian). So is it fair, or more to the point accurate, to lump him in the same group as the Catholic League spokesman Donohue?

    If you borke it down by issue you might also find some interesting results. I’d guess that in economics you’d see a fair amount of populist (liberal writers) whereas on war issues it would be dominated by hawks. Always seems to be.

    Just a thought.

  6. James Joyner says:

    If you borke it down by issue you might also find some interesting results.

    Exactly right. There are a handful of firebrand columnists who are more-or-less pure progressives or conservatives but most are more complicated than that.

  7. Klein's Tiny Left Nut says:

    You think David Broder and Cokie Roberts are to the left? You can’t be serious. And Mort Kondracke a liberal? When — in 1979?

    And someone else describes Thomas Friedman as a lefty? C’mon. What kind of drugs are you people on?

    Take it from someone on the left, none of these people are remotely liberal. They spend a huge amount of their time trashing liberals and do virtually nothing to advocate progressive causes.

  8. Matthew J. Stinson says:

    I suppose the most obvious rebuttal to MM’s study is that they’re deliberately missing half of the picture by not looking at the staffed op-ed columns of the big papers. The Washington Post is pretty balanced but the New York Times boasts a 7:1 liberal advantage. When last I read my hometown St. Pete Times, there were no conservative pundits working for the paper directly. Enter the syndicated pundits to balance out the picture.

    At the same time, given the continuously critical nature of George Will’s commentaries on Bush for the past year-plus, shouldn’t he be ranked a “centrist”? After all, the moderate liberal columnists like Broder are labeled “centrists” because they’re not deemed bloodthirsty enough. And Kondracke a “conservative”? Now, in point of fact, I wouldn’t call Will a centrist, but based on the way MM seems to be scoring partisanship, he shouldn’t be used as their top data point.

  9. Mike Schilling says:

    Kondracke is in no way left-of-center. He does pretend to be on TV, but his act is so transparent you shouldn’t have been fooled. It inevitably goes:

    Kondracke: Liberal talking point.

    Barnes/Hume/Cavuto: Only a traitorous scum would say that.

    Kondracke: Yeah, you’re right.

  10. Slippery Pete says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  11. Slippery Pete says:

    I’m fascinated by these police-state blog baronies where comments are summarily executed at whim. Such sensitive souls. There, there.