Media Matters for America, has just done something herculean and, I suppose, useful — it scoured the nation’s op-ed pages, counted noses, and reached a conclusion it hadn’t been alone in suspecting: “In paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts.”

Media Matters’ inventory of 1,377 dailies — 96 percent of all there are, it says — led it to 201 syndicated columnists. And though it categorized 79 of them as “progressives,” 75 as “conservatives,” and 47 as “centrists,” it advised: “The truth is that conservatives have a clear and unmistakable advantage. Conservative columnists appear in more papers than progressive columnists do, and conservatives reach more readers.” Here are the numbers: 60 percent of the dailies publish more conservatives, 20 percent publish more progressives, and 20 percent strike an even balance. When columnists are multiplied by circulation to get an abstract figure that this survey calls the “total ideological circulation,” that TIC is 48 percent conservative, 38 percent progressive, and 16 percent centrist.

Media Matters identifies itself as a “Web-based, not-for-profit . . . progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” I wouldn’t expect an outfit that’s happy to label itself to have a problem with labeling everyone else — though Media Matters says it tried to do this as objectively as possible, whenever possible choosing the pigeonhole chosen by a columnist’s own syndicate in its promotionals. 

But still . . . Nat Hentoff, progressive? Hentoff actually rates a qualifying footnote that concedes “he holds conservative stands on a few issues, including abortion [but] he is progressive on most issues.” Steve Chapman, conservative? Actually, Chapman’s a libertarian, and — for whatever it signifies for his place on the ideological spectrum — as fierce a critic of the war in Iraq as you’ll find. Pat Buchanan, conservative? Well, he is, of course, but he despises the war too. Maureen Dowd, progressive? No, she’s snarky. She doesn’t care whose head she bites. Garrison Keillor, progressive? He’s a humorist, and I’m not sure humorists believe in progress. Do you think Keillor thinks Lake Wobegon has a prayer of becoming a place where the kids don’t grow up and leave?  Hah — not even if Nissan builds a plant there. Bill O’Reilly, conservative? Try nitwit.

Media Matters has broken down its findings by states, so let’s look at Illinois.  It’s the same story: “Illinois Op-Ed Pages Dominated by Right” says the report. The Media Matters survey was taken from mid-2006 to mid-2007, and when it reports that 87 percent of the Sun-Times’s op-ed voices are conservative, it’s obviously missing  the paper’s recent Road to Damascus conversion to old-fashioned liberalism — strike that, progressivism. One of the survey’s big failings, in my eyes, is its failure to take local columnists into account. Carol Marin wasn’t counted. Dennis Byrne wasn’t counted. Neil Steinberg wasn’t counted — I dare them to put him into one of their categories anyway. In Chicago, around Illinois, and all across the land the local news columnists weren’t counted — sharp populists like Bill McClellan at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Phil Kadner at the Daily Southtown, Mark Brown at the Sun-Times.

Then there’s John Kass at the Tribune. You might think of Kass as a conservative, but you’d be wrong. He’s conservative on a dozen issues that no one reads him for. But like every local news columnist anywhere worth his or her salt, he stands for cleaning up the mess in City Hall. He believes in honest government. So he’s a progressive. 

Needless to say, Media Matters had no place for Roger Ebert. Yet a couple of days ago Forbes named him America’s most influential pundit. “Unlike political pundits who bring a liberal or conservative voice to the table,” Forbes explained, “his strong opinions are generally confined to individual movies. Hence, he’s not drawing cheers from half the population and jeers from the other half.” Don’t sound naive, Forbes. Ebert’s a liberal — a smart, open-minded, eloquent liberal — and by writing about movies he’s managed to write about everything on his mind. A survey that weighs Oliver North and Ann Coulter on the one hand but not Ebert on the other didn’t go about its business quite right.