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An Op-Ed Need for Diverse Voices

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 25, 2008

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 2008 numbers as of Wednesday: 654 op-ed pieces -- 575 by men, 79 by women and about 80 by minorities. The lack of diversity is partly a matter of tradition; The Post's longtime stable of regular columnists consists overwhelmingly of older white men. The op-ed page usually runs five pieces a day; four are from regular columnists. So only one of the 80 to 100 daily outside submissions gets in.

Another reason is that women and people of color don't submit nearly as many op-eds as white men do. Autumn Brewington, op-ed editor since January 2007, said she is eager to get more women, minorities and younger people to submit op-ed pieces.

Brewington said that men submit op-eds "much, much more than women do" -- by as much as 9 to 1. She solicits pieces based on the news. "I'm eager to read op-eds by women, and I work to get women on the page, but I won't accept a piece just because it was written by a woman. Often we are looking for a specific person in the news or someone well positioned to write on a topic. My goal is to have a thoughtful, provocative page each day with something for everyone," she said.

Of 19 weekly or biweekly columnists, 17 are men. Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus and former Post editorial writer Anne Applebaum are the only women with regular weekly slots. Two male columnists are African American -- Colby King and Gene Robinson. Fareed Zakaria, who also writes for Post-owned Newsweek, was born and raised in India.

As for political diversity on the page, there's quite a bit. The conservatives are Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush; Charles Krauthammer, Robert D. Novak and George F. Will. The liberals are Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne Jr., Harold Meyerson and Robinson. King calls himself a "curmudgeon with little tolerance for ideologues of any stripe." David S. Broder is the ultimate centrist and may be the last of a breed.

Columns by Applebaum, Marcus, Jim Hoagland, David Ignatius, Sebastian Mallaby and Robert J. Samuelson aren't driven by political views as much as by what they write about. Marcus writes about politics, government and culture; Applebaum, Ignatius and Hoagland write about foreign affairs; and Ignatius also writes about the military and other topics. Mallaby and Samuelson often write on business and finance. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl, his deputy, appear on alternate Mondays.

Broder, Dionne, Gerson, Ignatius, Novak, Robinson and Will usually run twice a week, and the rest run once a week, except for Mallaby and Zakaria, who write every other week. That gives an edge to conservative columnists -- as of Wednesday, 141 conservative columns to 114 liberal op-eds.

Of the four monthly columnists, three are white men -- Peter Beinart, editor at large of the New Republic; former Clinton administration diplomat Richard Holbrooke; and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. One is a woman -- Masha Lipman, a Russia expert. Beinart is The Post's only columnist under 40. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger contributes occasionally.

Many Post columnists are syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group -- Broder, Cohen, Dionne, Gerson, Hoagland, Ignatius, Krauthammer, Marcus, Robinson, Will and Zakaria. Ignatius, Marcus and Robinson are Post employees; former employees Applebaum, Cohen, Hoagland, King and Mallaby are on contract.

As on all op-ed articles, Brewington, Hiatt and Diehl make their own decisions on whether to run Writers Group columnists; several appear only occasionally. This came up recently when women e-mailed me by the dozen to ask that The Post run a column by a liberal Writers Group columnist, Marie Cocco, about sexism and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. As it turned out, Brewington saw it and ran it and later also ran a column by conservative Writers Group columnist Kathleen Parker that brought a number of complaining e-mails from liberals.

The op-ed page can't open up space for other voices unless some regular columnists appear less often. And women and minorities must step up -- and be recruited -- to write for that daily open spot.

Everything in print also appears on washingtonpost.com, along with liberal Dan Froomkin's White House Watch, military blogs by Phil Carter and Bill Arkin, political columnist Andrés Martinez, Joel Achenbach's blog and Ann Telnaes's animated editorial cartoons.

Along with more commentaries by women and minorities, more op-eds about local issues are needed in addition to what Close to Home offers. And some that aren't deeply wonky -- maybe even with a laugh or two. I look forward to Marcus's columns because they often add a much-needed human touch.

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I got about 50 calls and e-mails from readers upset about the May 16 op-ed column by James P. Rubin, who was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. Rubin wrote that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was hypocritical to criticize Sen. Barack Obama for saying the United States should negotiate with its enemies. Rubin said that McCain, in an interview two years ago that touched on Hamas, told him: "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another." Complainers said a video showed the answer was more nuanced. That's true, but it didn't change the nature of McCain's comment.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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