The George Will Effect


A new report from Media Matters for America concludes that the op-ed pages of U.S. newspapers are "dominated by conservatives." The group contacted all 1,430 English-language daily newspapers in the country and asked them which nationally syndicated columnists they ran regularly and which they ran occasionally. Based on responses from 1,377 (96 percent), it found that "conservatives" had a distinct advantage over "progressives" by various measures. Although MMA counts more progressives than conservatives among nationally syndicated columnists (79 vs. 74), it finds that "sixty percent of the nation's daily newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists," while "only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives" and "the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced."

That sounds impressive, but those numbers do not take into account circulation or the size of the conservative edge at each paper. By other measures, the rightward tilt is less dramatic:

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.

The top 10 columnists as ranked by the number of papers in which they are carried include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.

I won't quibble over MMA's decision to classify libertarians such as Steve Chapman and Walter Williams, who often part company with conservatives, as right-wing columnists. That sort of misclassification does not make much difference in the overall numbers. Not so the decision to separate "centrists" from "progressives." Placing David Broder, Cokie and Steven Roberts, and Thomas Friedman one degree left of center would make a substantial difference. The "top 10 columnists," whether measured by number of papers or total circulation, then would be evenly split.

Then there is the George Will effect: He is so popular, running regularly in 328 papers with a combined circulation of 21.3 million and occasionally in another 40 reaching an additional 5 million or so, that taking him out of the mix would virtually eliminate the conservatives' readership advantage. If you took out Will and the libertarians (all right, now I'm quibbling), progressives would come out ahead. 

So perhaps the question is not so much why op-ed editors prefer conservative columnists (a question MMA does not try to answer) as why they like George Will so much. Maybe it's because he's a clear thinker and an elegant stylist. Although I don't read him every week, I much prefer Will to the rest of the top 10 columnists (measured by circulation): David Broder, Kathleen Parker, Ellen Goodman, Cal Thomas, Leonard Pitts Jr., Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and David Brooks. All right, I confess I don't know who Leonard Pitts Jr. is. But Will is definitely more interesting and more of a pleasure to read than the rest of them. Possibly those things matter to newspaper readers, and therefore to newspaper editors. I'm sure Will's Pulitzer and his high profile, thanks to his regular TV appearances, don't hurt either.

Comparing MMA's lists of the top 10 conservative and progressive columnists (measured by total circulation), I see three conservatives (Will, Jonah Goldberg, and Robert Novak) whose work is generally not a waste of time, and maybe one progressive (Clarence Page). I don't think it's because I agree with the conservatives more; I'm not even sure that's true. Could it be that conservatives are doing somewhat better on the op-ed pages because they are, on average, producing more interesting and entertaining work? Discuss.