What's wrong with the Washington Post op-ed page?

Media criticism.
March 16 2010 7:07 PM

What's Wrong With the Post Op-Ed Page?

No, it's not the number of conservative columnists.

Washington Post domestic-policy blogger Ezra Klein encroached on my beat yesterday with an item griping about the surplus of op-eds by politicians on the Post's op-ed page. Such pieces "waste so much real estate publishing talking points," he declares as he pins his prey to the ground and bloodies his teeth shredding it. He writes:

These carefully vetted bits of politi-speak are not interesting op-eds (and the least interesting, I should say, are those written by members of the White House), and they are frequently misleading. They also make the op-ed page a confusing place: Pieces written by writers and experts are published for a different reason, and written for a different purpose, than those written by political actors.

This compact iteration of an old complaint about the Post op-ed page deserves expansion only to correct Klein's view that the page is paved with writings by politicians—as well as ambassadors, leaders of trade associations, heads of state, and other Important People spouting their well-worn views. A quick scan of Nexis reveals that politicians—no matter how grating and predictable their op-eds may be—are relatively infrequent contributors to the Post op-ed page.

My imperfect count detects only one contribution to the Post op-ed page by a member of the House of Representatives and only two by U.S. senators over the last month.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

During the same interval, the Post published one op-ed co-written by two Maryland state legislators and another co-written by two Utah state legislators. The head of the Federal Communications Commission also got a byline on the page, as did an Obama pollster, two members of Obama's Cabinet (for separate op-eds, one of which was co-written by a White House official), the head of OMB (byline shared with the same White House official), a former acting solicitor general, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve board, a retired federal judge, a Yale University professor of law, and a former assistant secretary of state.

Lesser mortals also contributed, including a half-dozen think-tankers and academics, a community organizer, a nutritionist, an NPR/Fox News analyst, a composer, a clean-energy businessman, a teacher, an executive from a car-research firm, and the wife of Bill Gates, who happens to be a member of the Washington Post Co. board of directors.

I'll grant you that this list looks less like America than like Washington the federal city (or Sally Quinn's idea of a proper Georgetown dinner party). The problem with the Post op-ed page, however, is not the over-representation of Washington officials and bigwigs. It is the stranglehold that the at least two dozen (!!!!) regular contributors have gained over it.

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Several of the Post op-ed page's regular contributors also write unsigned editorials for the paper (Ruth Marcus, Jackson Diehl, and Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt). Other monthly, weekly, or twice-weekly Post political op-ed columnists include Anne Applebaum (whose columns are also published in Slate), David S. Broder, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson, David Ignatius, Robert Kagan, Colbert King, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Harold Meyerson, George F. Will, Dana Milbank, Kathleen Parker, Eugene Robinson, Robert Samuelson (whose columns are also run in Newsweek), Marc A. Thiessen, America's Next Great Pundit Kevin Huffman, and Fareed Zakaria. In addition, the page also runs "mini" op-eds by Matt Miller, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jonathan Capehart, Stephen Stromberg, Charles Lane, and others lifted from the "Post Partisan" blog. (Capehart and Lane also write unsigned editorials.)

Together, these Post regulars hog journalistic real estate that could go to less predictable writers and provide more variety for op-ed gluttons like Klein and me. So absolute is the regulars' lock on the Post op-ed page that it's not uncommon for its every column inch to be filled by one of them. (See the March 9 edition.) Meanwhile, the New York Times makes do with 11 regular op-ed columnists, routinely giving more space to outside contributors, especially outside-the-beltway contributors.

Now, before anybody jumps to tweet that I've set up an unfair comparison, relax. I don't expect the Post to be the Times or the Times to be the Post. Seeing as the Post is located in a company town, it's only natural that itshould run more political columnists. But how many more?

Instead of discovering America's next great pundit, I'd rather the Post give its op-ed page some breathing room by undiscovering a few of its current chin-strokers and recruiting unconventional writers (John Ellis, James Altucher, and Heather Mac Donald, just to get the conversation rolling) to fill the space with a few ideas we haven't heard 25,000 times before. (I'm talking about you, Richard Cohen.)

In a perfect world, a publication is edited for readers. In the imperfect world that we inhabit, too many publications are edited for the benefit of their staffs and their friends and associates. The Washington Post op-ed page, which hoards its space for its own, is one of the worst offenders.

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If you could remake the Post op-ed page, who would you oust besides Cohen? Broder? Oh, yeah, baby! While we're at it, who should we dump from the Post editorial board? (I have my favorites there, but I'm not saying until I really need another column to write.) Send e-mail suggestions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For unconventional brevity, see my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.