Politics & Policy

Is Brooks Partisan Enough?

The newest Times columnist is no Krugman. Nor is he a Coulter.

This edition of the Krugman Truth Squad is going to be a little different. Instead of dissecting a single Paul Krugman column from the New York Times, I’m going to focus on a rigorous measure of partisanship — that of Krugman and others. At the same time, I’ll explore the arrival of David Brooks to the Times’s op-ed roster.

I got quite a few emails from readers responding to my comments Wednesday about Brooks, who is also a Weekly Standard columnist and a PBS News Hour talking head. They all said the same thing — that Brooks is not aggressively partisan enough to hold his own in the Democratic bastion of the Times. That may reflect as much on the reputation for extreme liberalism at the Times as it does on the less-than-extreme conservatism of Brooks. But it’s not inconsistent with how Brooks evaluates himself. He told me that he wasn’t chosen by the Times because he’s a conservative:

They really don’t see this as a liberal slot versus a conservative slot. They want it to be just interesting. One of things they’ve emphasized is that it’s like a dinner table. They need different voices at the table or it gets boring. But I don’t see myself as rebutting anybody.

When measured in a rigorous and quantitative way, it turns out that Brooks will be the Times’s second-most partisan columnist (after Krugman), and the ninth most partisan among all the major columnists. The scores for the top ten (so far for 2003) appear in the table below, with Republican partisanship indicated in red, and Democratic in blue. These measurements come from research by Ken Waight, who has spent the last two years tracking the partisanship of America’s top columnists.

By day, Waight does computer modeling of the earth’s weather. By night, he models the earth’s pundits. He posts his results on his website, Lying in Ponds (visit the site and find out where that name comes from). Waight’s programs automatically read every new column every day, and tag any terms that seem to indicate references to political parties or individual politicians. Waight then scores each reference as either positive, negative, or neutral — and adds them up over time to build a picture of each columnist’s partisanship.

I always call Krugman “America’s most dangerous liberal pundit.” But according to Waight, he’s not America’s most partisan pundit. He was last year, but now Krugman is only the third most partisan — behind Ann Coulter at number one and Robert Scheer at number two.

Note that partisanship, as Waight measures it, is not the same as ideology. Waight doesn’t score words like “liberal” or “conservative.” To Waight, there’s nothing wrong with a pundit having an ideology — what he objects to is the knee-jerk adherence to particular political parties. Waight thinks that such partisanship compromises a columnist’s independence, and actually may interfere with the integrity of a consistent ideological position.

Coulter earned her number-one position by being very unbiased in her partisan bias, if you will. In other words, she both praised Republicans and trashed Democrats. Waight counted 235 negative Democratic references (and 15 positive ones), with 143 positive Republican references (and 14 negative ones). Waight told me that even though Coulter is all alone out front at number one, her partisanship score should even be higher. She systematically uses the words Democrat and liberal as interchangeable synonyms — and Waight’s technique ignores the word liberal.

Krugman, on the other hand, earned his number-three position (number one at the Times) by specializing in hating Republicans. Just this year alone, he made 461 negative references to Republicans (and 32 positive — hmm, I don’t remember those), while making only 41 positive references to Democrats (and 8 negative ones).

At number three overall, Krugman has slipped from the number-one position last year. Waight said it’s not that he’s gotten any less partisan — it’s just that Waight only started measuring syndicated columnists like Coulter and Scheer this year. Indeed, Krugman has gotten worse over time. Said Waight,

Over these two and a half years of columns, Paul Krugman’s commentary has been one-sided to an extraordinary degree. It is simply astounding that not a single one of his 243 columns has been devoted mainly to criticism of Democrats or praise of Republicans. At first, Mr. Krugman wrote many witty, thought-provoking and completely apolitical columns about economics, but they have dwindled as the frequency of partisan screeds has increased. In 2000, 53 of his 98 columns contained no party references, but in 2002, only 8 of 99 did, and so far this year only one lonely column of 46 was non-political.

Compared to heavy hitters like Coulter, Scheer, and Krugman, Brooks is indeed not very partisan. He may be ninth overall, but he’s only slightly more than half as partisan as Coulter. But readers will be relieved to know that he’s almost three times as partisan as the Times’s other conservative, William Safire. Waight said,

Brooks’s relatively high score is mostly due to extravagant praise of George W. Bush — in fact his columns resemble Peggy Noonan’s in that respect. He has made over 80 positive references but only a few negative references to the president. Although much of the praise is in the context of Brooks’s strong support for the war in Iraq, his columns on other subjects — Bill Frist, Michael Kelly, Arnold Beichman, welfare reform, and economics — also stay safely within party lines.

When I told Brooks about Waight’s evaluation, he said, “It’s a question of my temperament, and my temperament is not particularly partisan.”

For Waight, the Times’s reputation for partisanship is overblown — but then again, he draws a sharp distinction between partisanship (which he is explicitly measuring) and ideology (which he is not). In his terms, the Wall Street Journal is much more partisan. When I asked him how a Times columnist like Maureen Dowd could possibly not make the top ten, he told me that Dowd is a perfect example of a very common illusion. “People tend to remember one column they really hated,” he said, “so they think of the columnist as terribly biased. So you have to look at all their columns.” Waight said that the reality is that Dowd writes a fair number of non-political columns, and that she is surprisingly even handed: over time she has bashed Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and other Democrats about as much as she has bashed George Bush.

Bottom line: To many readers, Brooks may seem like a lightweight compared to a fire-breather like Krugman. But if Waight is right, then once Brooks has had some time to settle into the context of the op-ed page of the Times, he may provide a lot more partisan balance than you’d think.


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