AND EVEN MORE ON CONSERVATIVE COLUMNISTS. Kate and Ezra have already referred to the Media Matters study findings on TAPPED. Those findings suggest that if you want to be an op-ed columnist in politics you'd better be very conservative. That's the way to maximize your market appeal.
The interesting question is naturally why that would be the case. But first I should point out that the opinion pages might not be quite as red as the study suggests if the local columnists the newspapers hire are mostly liberals. The study only looked at nationally known columnists, and it's not too far-fetched to think that some newspapers might have a lot of local liberal talent but not that much conservative talent. Those newspapers might then subscribe to George Will to balance their opinion pages. But in the Media Matters study they would come out looking weighted to the right.
I know, I know. This is unlikely to change the overall findings very much, as in many areas the local talent would be to the right of Attila the Hun, and the same argument would work in the opposite direction. Still, I feel more righteous for having mentioned that.
Then to the really fascinating questions: How do we decide that liberals are underrepresented among op-ed columnists? What is the basis for this? Is it voting patterns in a particular newspaper's circulation area? The percentages of newspaper readers in the country who hold certain opinions? Or the idea that each political value system should be represented by the same number of column inches?
It seems to me that it's the last measure that is being used in these discussions, but with a certain twist: For many in the media the dividing line between "liberal" and "conservative" has shifted, and the Media Matters category "centrist" is pretty much subsumed under "liberal." This is like the shifting center in general political discourse, and it means that quite extreme conservative voices are now regarded as necessary on opinion pages, to balance those polite centrists who really are rabid communists in disguise. Note that at the same time the really left voices are extremely rare in op-ed columns. The need for balance doesn't go quite that far.