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Media Matters study fatally flawed

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By Bill Steigerwald
Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007

Is Morton Kondracke a conservative op-ed columnist• Are David Broder, Cokie Roberts and Thomas Friedman centrists?

That's what Media Matters for America, the left-wing media watchdog outfit in Washington, would have you believe.

Last week Media Matters released the results of "Black and White and Re(a)d All Over: The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns."

An ambitious paper-by-paper assessment of 1,377 dailies and the 201 syndicated political columnists they carry on a regular basis, the study alleges that conservative opinion-mongers appear in three times as many papers and reach more readers than do progressives (i.e., liberals).

It's touching that someone still cares about the ideological tilt of America's battered newspaper sector, which, despite the Internet, remains an important source of political opinion for the masses.

Media Matters' researchers dug up lots of interesting data: The Top 5 columnists by number of papers that regularly carry them are George Will (328), Cal Thomas (306), Kathleen Parker (282), Ellen Goodman (239) and David Broder (218). And in terms of regular circulation, the Top 5 are Will (21.3 million), Broder (15.1), Parker (15), Goodman (13.9) and Thomas (13.8).

To make its case, Media Matters crunched numbers every which way. The Top 10 conservatives, for example, collectively surpass the Top 10 progressives by 20 million readers. Progressive columnists dominate op-ed pages in only one region of the country -- the obvious one: the liberal Northeast.

Paul Waldman, the author of the study, said Media Matters tried to make as few subjective judgments as possible. He admitted the study wasn't as definitive or nuanced as he would have liked. The major columnists were put in one of three boxes based on the conventional wisdom (Maureen Dowd is a progressive, etc.) or by how they were labeled either by themselves or their syndicates.

Not surprisingly, the "centrist" category brought a few complaints, Waldman said. "We got e-mails today from people who said, 'How can you say that David Broder is a centrist when he's really a conservative?' Then someone else wrote in and said, 'How can you say that he's a centrist when he's really a liberal?'"

Ultimately, Media Matters failed in its quest to prove there is a conservative bias on the nation's op-ed pages. Its relative conservative/progressive rankings are fatally skewed, mainly because from its perch on the far-left end of the political spectrum, the group sees -- and classified -- East Coast liberals like Friedman, Broder and Cokie Roberts as "centrists," not progressives.

Meanwhile, Media Matters lumped all varieties of conservatives together -- as if there's no difference between New York Times house neocon David Brooks, paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan and free-marketeer Thomas Sowell. Plus, Walter Williams, Steve Chapman and John Stossel aren't conservatives at all; they are libertarians.

Media Matters' conclusion is further undermined by its emphasis on the number of papers a columnist appears in, not a paper's quality or clout. How many small-town papers does it take to equal one New York Times column that will be read by the East Coast political and media elites?

And, by the way, eight of the Top 10 columnists by average circulation are progressives like Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne.

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