Supply Side Op-ed-nomics

In a post bemoaning the lack of diversity on America’s op-ed pages, Sara Libby acknowledges the talent of young writers like Ezra Klein, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Chris Cillizza, but wonders why the top tiers of American opinion journalism are so white and male.

She writes:

…there’s Ross Douthat, the first under-30 writer to nab a regular Op-Ed column at the New York Times; Brian Stelter, also at the Times, who was hired straight out of school at age 21; and Dave Weigel, a blogger recently hired by the Post to cover the conservative movement. In hiring the likes of Klein and Weigel, the Post seems to be actively turning a cold shoulder to the advice of one of its own, former ombudsman Deb Howell (herself one of the few women who managed to climb to a newspaper management position despite the handicap of having two X chromosomes) excoriated her colleagues in a 2008 Op-Ed, in which she wrote: “The Post’s Op-Ed page is too male and too white. And there aren’t a lot of youthful opinions, either. I have nothing against older white men; I’m married to one. And the nation’s power structure, often represented in Post Op-Eds, is white, male and at least middle-aged. But a 21st-century Op-Ed page needs more diversity.”
The Post had a chance to incorporate more diversity into its commentary when it held a gimmicky contest in which it invited people of all stripes to try and become “America’s Next Great Pundit.” Of the 10 finalists picked to compete for a weekly Op-Ed column, five were women — and two or three were even under 30. Ultimately, though, the winner was yet another white guy, Teach for America executive Kevin Huffman.
It’s hard not to be infuriated by this — particularly when I find myself continually blown away by young female reporters like Dana Goldstein at the Daily Beast and Ann Friedman at the American Prospect. Combine that with the fact that journalism schools report overwhelmingly female enrollments, and you do have to wonder why no women are handed the big-time opportunities being doled out to the likes of Klein and Douthat.

I happen to agree that there are a lot of talented young women doing journalism these days. In fact, several months ago I attempted to persuade a bunch of my favorite young DC based writers to collaborate on a book of essays about living in that city, and found upon drawing up my dream list of contributors that it included several more women than men. Ann Friedman is indeed a talent, and I wish that Vanity Fair would hire her as a contributing editor, taking advantage of her rare ability to write intelligently on subjects as diverse as politics, culture, and style. Dana Goldstein is great too — especially on education, among other subjects — though she was recently made an editor at The Daily Beast, and I’ve heard she’s since scored a prestigious reporting grant, so I don’t think her talent is going unrecognized. Angela Valdez is a top-notch practitioner of investigative narrative non-fiction who ought to have a multi-piece deal at Harper’s, Dayo Olopade does great work at Slate, Elizabeth Nolan Brown is one of my favorite essayists, Cheryl Miller is adept at reported pieces and a truly exceptional editor, and I’d buy a print subscription to Kerry Howley’s work if one were offered.

As it happens, I don’t think any of these exceptional journalists would cover the conservative movement day-to-day better than Dave Weigel, or blog about health care policy better than Ezra Klein — it isn’t merely that I can’t think of a woman who could replace either, but that I don’t think there is anyone in American journalism better suited to those particular gigs (nor do I doubt that those particular gigs are worthy ones to be filled at this particular political moment). As for Ross Douthat, I’ve said before that I find him to be an exceptionally good choice for that slot at the New York Times, irrespective of his political beliefs, but if you assume that the op-ed page was going to hire a conservative for that slot, as it traditionally has, I defy anyone to name a female opinion writer 30-years-old or younger who is both a conservative and anywhere near as talented as Mr. Douthat. Sure, Heather MacDonald or Peggy Noonan could ably write that column, and even a contrarian liberal like Katie Roiphe would add to the page’s intellectual diversity, but that would merely be shuffling around the existing supply of established female pundits, not giving a career break to a talented young woman. (It’s worth noting that despite his youth, Mr. Douthat has an exceptionally accomplished resume: he was the author of two very good books — one co-written with Reihan Salam — a senior editor at The Atlantic, a film critic for National Review, and an essayist for The Claremont Review of Books. Who can compete with that, man or woman?).

Here’s the thing: if any of the women I’ve mentioned deliberately sought out a gig on a major op-ed page, I haven’t any doubt that they’d soon make it, assuming that newspaper op-ed pages last another five years. But I don’t actually think that any of them is actually trying to fashion their career after Ezra Klein. Certainly none of them are blogging as prolifically as he or Matt Yglesias do — Megan McArdle is the only young woman I can think of that built her own brand over many years as a highly prolific blogger, and indeed she is a successful female opinion writer and economics analyst highly sought after by prestigious publications. (Should the Times ever seek a libertarian op-ed columnist she’ll be even higher on the short list than she’s been before, and deservedly so, though they’d better give her a blog right off the bat). Surveying the blogosphere, I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of political opinion writers are men, even in a venue with very low barriers to entry, so I can’t say I’m surprised that the pattern holds at op-ed pages. When I think about my experiences in journalism school at New York University, and hanging out with acquaintances at Columbia University, I can report that the same pattern held: men were far more likely than women to write about political topics, especially if the writing was straight opinion as opposed to reporting, whereas women were far more likely to eschew that kind of writing. Nor did I get many political opinion pieces from women while reading countless pitches a day at Culture11. (Indeed I pestered many of the above-mentioned writers to contribute pieces, often unsuccessfully).

Obviously I am less bothered than Ms. Libby by the gender imbalance on op-ed pages. This is partly because I think women who actually pursue those slots can get them. But I also dissent from the assumption that op-ed pages are particularly important as vehicles of cultural influence, and my own feeling is that folks like Jane Mayer, Caitlin Flanagan, Joan Didion, Tina Brown, Adrian Nicole Leblanc, Hanna Rosin, Heather MacDonald, Virginia Postrel (ah, to replace Paul Krugman with her!) and so many other accomplished women writers enjoy gigs that are more important, influential, rewarding and enjoyable than what Thomas Friedman or George Will do twice a week. Do lots of talented young women journalists really want to be op-ed columnists or twelve-post-a-day political bloggers?