Byline Inequality Matters
Anna Quindlen relayed an eye-opening and hair-raising experience to her readers in 1990.
“A newspaper editor said to me not long ago, with no hint of self-consciousness, ‘I’d love to run your column, but we already run Ellen Goodman,’” the New York Times columnist wrote. “Not only was there a quota; there was a quota of one.”
A quarter of a century later, many newspapers still have far to go. On a recent slow news day, white men wrote every bylined commentary in the The Washington Post’s op-ed pages.
Even the most well-meaning white men can’t speak for the rest of us.
Granted, the Post regularly features the analysis of Eugene Robinson, an African-American man, and Fareed Zakaria, an immigrant born in India. It also runs Kathleen Parker and other white women. Several of the paper’s Metro and Business section columnists are people of color, including at least two black women.
But that pale and male lineup that caught my eye was no blip.
While the Post does distribute columns written by Esther Cepeda and Ruben Navarrette, it doesn’t publish work by either of them or any other people of Latin American descent in its own pages. Given that the 54 million Latinos living in the United States compose our largest minority, can’t Washington’s dominant news source find room for the opinions expressed by a single person from this community?
Detailed research on byline balance is clear if infrequent. A 2012 Op-Ed Project study found that male opinion-page writers still outnumber female writers four-to-one.
This leaves most op-ed sections more testosterone-laced than the subset of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers who cheer when he disses Megyn Kelly.
In addition to this quantity problem, there are quality concerns. The Op-Ed Project found that a disproportionate share of women’s commentaries address “pink” things like gender, food, and family, versus economics, politics, national security, and other hard-news topics.
The mainstream media’s even more muffled when it comes to amplifying voices from communities of color. The last time the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did the bean-counting, whites wrote up to 94 percent of the opinion pieces that ran in the three most prominent newspapers.
And like The Washington Post, The New York Times still doesn’t publish a single Latino columnist.
How does OtherWords, the editorial service I run, measure up?
Some background: William A. Collins founded Minuteman Media in 1998 as a bulwark against the growing dominance of conservatives in the nation’s opinion pages. When this avuncular former Norwalk, Connecticut mayor handed me the reins of his editorial service six years ago, most of the folks writing the commentaries we distributed were pale and male.
By 2012, women were writing a quarter of the pieces that this editorial service, by then renamed, got published in newspapers. That was better but not good enough. Today, partly because of my column, women pen half of our work.
Achieving gender equality makes our scrappy outfit stand out. But people of color wrote only 5 percent of our commentaries in the first half of this year, in line with the media’s overall lack of diversity.
Working within the confines of a shoestring budget, OtherWords brings under-exposed yet bold voices to the kitchen tables of the good people from Union, South Carolina to Gardena, California — and hundreds of towns in between. Now that we’re less male, can we get less pale? We can and we must.
Because byline inequality matters.