Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 23, 2005
By: Garance Franke-Ruta

THE BROADER PROBLEM....Thanks to Katha and Amy for starting this off. I think I agree with just about everything that Katha said, and appreciate how forthright she has been (as always!). I also want to thank Kevin for pushing this story forward. I have a fair bit to say on this topic, but wanted to start off responding to a factual query raised by one of Amy's interlocuters in the comments about the relationship between functionally tenured men on Op-Ed pages, the gender of editors, and opportunities to promote more women on those pages.

There are an increasing number of women editors in critical roles at newspapers. Amy asserts, in her story, that the Op-Ed page editors gender has made no difference at either The New York Times or at The Washington Post. I'm not so certain we can make that judgement yet, at least when it comes to the Times. Gail Collins has only made two hires since taking them helm of the editorial page of Times in 2001: David Brooks and John Tierney. Both are conservatives. And, as Michael Kinsley has noted, theres been a bit of a trend in that direction thanks to present political realities and a desire for more ideological diversity on Op-Ed pages. Still, in the past two months, according to Anne Applebaums column on the topic, the Times has been better than the Post in publishing women. That may be a reflection of the fact that they have fewer in-house columnists and so more room for external submissions from women, but it also means, given how many male columnists they do have, that they must be publishing more than 17 percent women outside writers.

Also, it's hard to generalize about the impact of women editors on staff diversity from only two newspapers, and worthwhile to look at places like the Philadelphia Inquirer, edited by Amanda Bennett. Though its editorial page may not be widely read outside of Philadelphia, it does seems pretty balanced in terms of gender with two male and two female opinion writers and a broad array of men and women writing columns in other sections. I dont know if that predates Bennett or not, but Id be curious to know more broadly what the impact of women editors is, and Im not convinced that we yet know.

As far as The Washington Post goes, the story is also not so cut and dry. Meg Greenfield passed away in 1999. At the time, the paper had local columnist Judy Mann, who retired in 2001; national columnist Mary McGrory, who passed away after a long illness in 2004; and Donna Britt, who still covers local affairs in her Metro Section column. Anne Applebaum came on in 2002. So the paper had three and now has two women opinion columnists, in addition to various other columns in the Style section and elsewhere in the paper, many of which are written by women. Additionally, Marjorie Williams wrote episodically for The Post between 2001 and 2004, passing away in '05, and I distinctly recall Hanna Rosin gracing the editorial page for a space in late '02-early '03, before she joined the Style section. Today Applebaum is the only regular female Op-Ed columnist. But in discussing the work of women opinion writers at that paper its probably worth noting that half a dozen different women have written columns there in just the past few years, and looking at the trends rather than just counting bylines. The Post seems to be in a bit of a transitional period between women like Mann, the late McGrory and the late Greenfield, and a somewhat younger generation. Mann got her start in the 1970s, McGrory in the 40s, and Greenfield in the 60s. Applebaum has been writing only since the late-'80s.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that a substantial subset of The Posts male columnists have held their posts for more than two decades, as I learned from checking their online bios and Nexis.com. Richard Cohen has been a Post columnist since 1976. George Will has been a commentator since the 1970s, winning the Pulitzer for his work in 1977. Robert Samuelson has been writing a Post column since 1977. William Raspberry has been writing a column since 1966 (his Pulitzer came in 1994). David Broder won a Pulitzer for commentary way back in 1973. So thats five of the 19 columnists right there who were appointed in a much earlier era, before there was as much focus on diversity. All male, one African-American.

Somewhat less recently appointed columnists include: Sebastian Mallaby, Colbert King, Robert Kagan, David Ignatius, E.J. Dionne, and Fred Hiatt. They were appointed in the 90s, while Charles Krauthammer (Pulitzer, 1987), came aboard in the mid-80s, as did Jim Hoagland. Again all eight male, and, except for King, all white.

More recently appointed columnists include: Eugene Robinson and Jabari Asim (who are both African-American), Applebaum, my colleague Harold Meyerson (who, Ive been led to believe, was the actual replacement for McGrory, not Applebaum, because he added a liberal voice to the page), the late Williams, Jackson Diehl, and Michael Kinsley. Two women, two African-Americans, three white men. Asims column appears only online, not on the Op-Ed page itself. Still the trend here is clearly toward more diversity on the Op-Ed pages, even if the net result has not upped the number of women.

Im not really sure what conclusion to draw from this, except that it looks like the Post has been really trying, under Hiatt, to get more ideological, gender, and racial diversity onto the page. Given the substantial number of white male columnists appointed during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, however, I doubt hes going to be making lots of progress any time soon unless a) theres a wave of retirements or b) an expansion in the number of slotted columns.

The area where editors can most rapidly make progress in diversifying opinion pages is in the area of columns written by outside writers. But here, too, I fear the Post, most of all, is going to find it somewhat slow going no matter what they intend. Who gets published on its Op-Ed pages, after all? Members of Congress who are 85 percent male. People who run think tanks and advocacy organizations again, Id wager, largely male. Academics writing about federal policy. People in the military. Business leaders. The foreign policy community. Former politicians. Political staffers. In short, I suspect, the reason most submitted and published outside columns at Op-Ed pages come from men has less to do with women being hesitant to voice their opinions and much more to do with the internal dynamics at the sorts of organizations that submit columns, which are, by and large, heavily male at the top.

This is a much bigger issue than just the decisions by a handful of Op-Ed page editors and their relationship to women writers. Op-Ed pages reflect who has power in our society. Whether or not they should do only that is a question that very much needs to be debated, and I hope will be. But it is this underlying reality of a persistent and broad inequality in institutional power between men and women and not just what Michael Kinsley has or has not been doing at The Los Angeles Times that is the cause of this present debate and has given it its staying power. As Tad Bartimus of United Feature Syndicate told Editor & Publisher, It's like one of those peat fires in Alaska that was burning underground for 28 years before finally exploding." Garance Franke-Ruta 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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