Liberal bias? A Daily Beast investigation crunches the numbers and shows how conservative think tanks have quietly achieved domination over the opinion pages of America's biggest papers.
For all the noise about liberal bias in newsrooms, you'd think the country's big three papers had contracted George Soros, Ralph Nader, and Gloria Steinem as their exclusive opinionators.
But a Daily Beast review of the archives of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post tells a much different story: Conservative think tanks are pummeling their liberal peers in the race for the most prominent placement on op-ed pages. During the past year, 77 percent of pieces authored by think-tank affiliates came from conservative outfits, 18 percent came from centrist groups, and a tiny 5 percent came from the left wing.
With The Wall Street Journal carrying a heavier load of think-tank contributions than the Times and Post combined, conservative wonks are given a significant leg-up, according Alex Jones, former Times media reporter and current head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
"There are more conservative think tanks, first of all," Jones said, "and they are very aggressive and very effective. The Wall Street Journal op-ed page has been extremely accommodating. That's the character and nature of the page."
Which think tank takes up the most opinion-page real estate?
The American Enterprise Institute crushes the competition, liberal and conservative, in racking up bylines, scoring 99 of the total 217 pieces published by major think tanks from the third week of July 2008 to July 21, 2009, as shown by a review of the archives of the Times, Post, and Journal.
Of course, you're four times as likely to find an AEI piece in the right-leaning pages of the Journal than in the more liberal pages of the Times and Post put together. In fact, 79 AEI-bylined op-eds appeared in the Journal during the period surveyed. Considering that the Journal publishes only six days a week, that's one AEI appearance every four days. Bush hawks like John Yoo, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, who nest at the D.C. institute and are frequent contributors, help pad the stats. A recent offering from Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department official: " Why We Endorsed Warrantless Wiretaps." Last month, Bolton, Bush's former representative at the United Nations, floated this thought balloon in the Journal: " What Would Happen if Israel Strikes Iran?"
But it's important to note that the AEI crowd is not completely confined to the Journal. They also find themselves in the opinion section of the Washington Post more times-16 during the last year-than any other think tank.
"It's been something AEI has been really pleased about," AEI President Arthur Brooks told The Daily Beast. Brooks said he thought the AEI's reputation helped secure so many pieces: "Everybody knows the AEI guys write really good op-eds."
Stressing that he likes scholars to speak to audiences that aren't completely like-minded, Brooks nevertheless recognizes the special relationship between the Journal and his institute. "The Journal is certainly a big target," he said. "We love it."
Which think tanks does The New York Times seem to crush on?
Unlike the Journal, The Times has no consistent feeder like AEI. The most common partners are fellows from the left-center Brookings Institution, security analysts Michael O'Hanlon and Kevin Pollack, and the centrist New America Foundation, including foreign-affairs expert Peter Bergen.
The Times was generally more resistant to think-tank op eds; in The Daily Beast survey, the Journal had approximately five times more major think-tank bylines than the Times.
This absence may relate more to the approach of liberal policy centers than the direction of the Times. In recent years, organizations like the Center for American Progress have backed their own sites or affiliates as a way to get out opinions and comment on news stories rather than rely upon the traditional op-ed byline as the preferred platform.
But Jones, a former Timesman himself, said he worried that the Times is missing important policy voices if it continues to avoid think-tank denizens.
"My impression is The Wall Street Journal's ed page is more reflective of think-tank thinking," Jones said. "The Times is geared away from that.... I wish the Times devoted more of its space to the conservation at the highest level that is going on in this country about policy and politics." Of course, the Times has gobs of policy-oriented opinion writers, like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who are unaffiliated with a think tank. (Krugman teaches at Princeton and is member of the Council on Foreign Relations, which was excluded from The Daily Beast's survey as it tends to operate more as club than policy-driven organization.)
Jones suggested the Times should double the size of its op-ed page and become more accommodating to those at think tanks with policy experience. The Times runs about four op-eds on a typical weekday.
Neither Andrew Rosenthal, the Times' editorial editor, nor Paul Gigot, the Journal's opinion editor, returned request for comment. The Post's Fred Hiatt is on vacation and declined to comment.
Every moment has its think tank. The Brookings Institution, founded during the First World War, so frustrated Richard Nixon that the president told his aides to firebomb its Washington building. The 1980s were boom years for the Heritage Foundation, where Reaganites like former Attorney General Edwin Meese still walk the halls. For the 1990s, the Brookings Institution once again ruled the day: Its current president was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration. The election of George W. Bush meant the ascendance of the American Enterprise Institute, which was created in 1943 and where Bush advisers like Yoo and Bolton now reside. The coming of Obama puffed up the reputation of the Center for American Progress; its leader, John Podesta, became the head of the president's transition team.
But when it comes to the byline battles, no matter who is in the White House, Podesta and his allies face an uphill battle. When it comes to influence, conservatives have the broadsheet opinion war won.