A very public opinion exchange

Times Staff Writer

The editor of the New York Times editorial pages said she seldom addresses an audience without getting the question: Why aren’t more women columnists featured in her section? Her counterpart at the Washington Post said recently he’s working hard to improve that paper’s record -- just one in 10 opinion pieces written by women.

The dearth of female commentators at American newspapers is no secret, but the issue turned considerably more public and more rancorous in recent weeks as writer and feminist Susan Estrich intensified a long-running campaign to get the Los Angeles Times to publish more opinion pieces by women.

The USC professor demanded action by The Times and directed her anger at Michael Kinsley, a onetime Harvard Law School classmate and editor of The Times’ opinion and editorial pages.

In a series of e-mails to Kinsley -- some of them copied to journalists, who quickly posted them on the Internet -- Estrich questioned Kinsley’s mental powers and judgment, predicting his days at the newspaper were “numbered.”

Referring to Kinsley’s Parkinson’s disease, she wrote that “people are beginning to think that your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment and your ability to do this job.”

As a result, Estrich’s already icy relationship with the newspaper’s op-ed operation has gone into a deep freeze. Kinsley has accused Estrich of “blackmail” and called her comments about his health “disgusting.”

“The question of whether the newspaper is giving due visibility to women writers is a legitimate one,” Times Editor John Carroll added, in his own e-mail response to Estrich. “The way you are conducting yourself is a discredit to the cause.”

Forty-three prominent Los Angeles women signed Estrich’s original complaint about gender imbalance, and several interviewed after the furor with Kinsley erupted said they continue to stand by her. They said The Times’ shortcomings are proven by recent tallies demonstrating how few women write for the opinion pages.

In the first nine weeks of this year, women penned 20.5% of the paper’s op-ed columns, not including staff editorials, which do not carry bylines. That compared to the New York Times, with 17% women writers on its op-ed pages and the Washington Post with 10%.

The confrontation might not have drawn so much attention if the old Harvard classmates did not hold such high profiles, in Los Angeles and nationally.

A former editor of the New Republic and Slate.com, Kinsley helped ring in an era of broadcast punditocracy by jousting with Pat Buchanan on “Crossfire” from 1989 to 1995. Estrich, who gained national stature by managing Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988, writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column and provides commentary on Fox Television.

Kinsley, 54, said the fight with Estrich has been a painful distraction from efforts he said the newspaper had already been making to bring more women to the op-ed pages.

“I was on the case already. And now you feel a little queasy about pushing for more women because you think you are being used and you are giving this jerk a victory,” Kinsley said. “I have to force myself to sort of look beyond that and do what we were doing anyway.”

Estrich, 52, apologized for raising the issue of Kinsley’s health, saying she was only trying to “warn an old friend what was being said about him around town.” She said that misstep should not be a distraction from her larger cause.

“The minute people begin to count the number of columns by women, [newspapers] can’t begin to justify the outcome,” she said in an interview this week. “Because the fact is that 90% of the talent is not in men’s hands, but 90% of the columns are.”

A tenured professor of law and political science at USC, Estrich had been a fairly regular contributor to The Times’ opinion page -- with more than 50 bylined columns during the 1990s. But since 2000 she has written only two freelance columns and The Times has not carried her syndicated column.

In 2003, she surprised some of her feminist allies with an essay in The Times that chastised the newspaper for what she called an 11th hour “smear.” Just days before the recall election, The Times had told the stories of several women who said that then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped or sexually harassed them.

Since their days at Harvard three decades ago, Estrich and Kinsley had been mostly out of touch. But when Times editor Carroll named Kinsley to head the opinion pages last April, Estrich was soon repeating her complaints about the lack of women.

Over several months, Estrich alternately courted and cajoled The Times’ new op-ed man. She invited him to dinner and signed one message “xoxoxo.” She threatened to take her campaign to other media outlets or to women on the board of the Tribune Company, which owns The Times. (Estrich’s e-mails to Kinsley -- posted briefly on her website -- made those details public.)

Those salvos proved mild, however, compared to the fusillade unleashed, ironically, when The Times Sunday Opinion section published a column by a woman.

In the Feb. 13 piece, conservative author Charlotte Allen argued that few female “public intellectuals” remained in America, after the death of writer Susan Sontag. The headline on the piece -- “Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds” -- infuriated Estrich and her allies.

She immediately e-mailed Kinsley to say she had grown tired of his failure to acknowledge her or the issue. She gave him “ONE MORE CHANCE” to hire more women writers. Four days later, still unsatisfied, she wrote a letter to the editor, demanding more action and saying that a failure to cooperate would lead her to report the newspaper’s shortcomings on her new website, latimesbias.org.

Several dozen local women -- including Nancy Daly Riordan, education activist and wife of state education secretary and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan; women’s rights lawyer Abby J. Leibman; and Peg Yorkin, chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation -- signed the letter.

Kinsley responded that The Times did not run letters naming that many authors, adding: “And we don’t succumb to blackmail.”

He offered, instead, to let the situation cool for a few weeks and then to publish an Estrich column expressing the same views.

Estrich chose, instead, to push the fight into the public eye. She copied her next e-mail to a Washington-based newspaper reporter and the online journalism tip sheet the Drudge Report, among others. That missive called Kinsley’s blackmail claims “offensive and insulting” and added the comments about the op-ed editor’s mental capabilities.

A long veteran of public scraps, Kinsley distributed his response to the same people, saying he was withdrawing his column offer to Estrich because of her comments about his health. Carroll, The Times’ top editor, added his own retort, which accused Estrich of “extravagant malice” in her dealings with the opinion editor.

That, in turn, prompted Estrich to hire celebrity attorney Bert Fields. He wrote to Carroll demanding a retraction for what he called “false, defamatory and highly damaging assertions” -- a request the editor rejected.

Internet postings made the tit-for-tat a preoccupation, for a day or two, of the nation’s chattering class. One conservative columnist, Heather Mac Donald, accused Estrich of “insane ravings” and having a “hissy fit.” Feminists wrote her in solidarity.

If anyone’s reputation has been besmirched in the exchange, Kinsley said in an interview, it has been his. He said his mental powers and competence have been publicly questioned, despite his good-faith efforts to hire more women.

“I believe in diversity. I have written about this,” Kinsley said. He said part of his struggle has been in simultaneously trying to increase the number of writers from several groups -- including Latinos, African Americans and conservatives, the last of whom, he said, “at this point have become sort of another affirmative action class.”

“We want a diversity of viewpoints and of experiences in our editors and our writers,” said Kinsley, comparing one new op-ed writer to Estrich. “Who brings more diversity of experience, [Latino author and columnist] Gregory Rodriguez, who is coming to work for us

Several veterans of The Times op-ed operation said Estrich has long campaigned, sometimes angrily, to get her syndicated column printed by the newspaper. But she insists that her principal focus has been on supporting other women and, secondarily, on getting more support for local writers. She charged that Kinsley -- who has homes in Los Angeles and Seattle -- pays too little attention to Southern California and favors pundits from the East.

“Don’t hire me, hire others, left or right,” she wrote in an online column in response to Allen’s feminist critique, “women who know this community and are going to write about more important things ... than the silliness of [women’s] shrunken minds.”

As the controversy drags into a fourth week, Estrich continues to bounce from conciliation to confrontation. She seemed near tears in an interview, saying she never intended the fight to get so personal. She blamed the operators of her website for improperly posting comments about Kinsley’s mental health and contended she didn’t think e-mails to Drudge and others in the media would get into the public domain.

But she also accused Kinsley of “playing small and petty” by, among other things, ignoring her demands and then recently publishing two columns by her ex-husband. (Martin Kaplan is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.) And she said the newspaper continues to dwell on her comments about Kinsley as a tactic -- to avoid talking about the failure to give a larger platform to women.

“What do you do when you don’t have a defense?” she said. “You play this card.”

Nancy Riordan and other women backing Estrich did not want to comment on her feud with Kinsley. They similarly were not dissuaded by reports that the Los Angeles Times published more opinion pieces from women than the New York Times and Washington Post.

“I think it’s irrelevant what the others are doing,” Riordan said. “The [Los Angeles] Times needs to do something about this. Using someone else’s bad example doesn’t justify doing the wrong thing.”

Kinsley said he can’t explain why men have dominated op-ed pages at The Times and other papers. But he and the three men who help him run the section all said they were keeping an eye out for talented female commentators.

They noted the hiring in the last year of Margaret Carlson, a familiar voice from Time magazine and television, as a regular columnist. Kinsley added that he tried but was unable to make Barbara Ehrenreich a regular commentator. Her last book on the struggles of the middle class received wide critical acclaim.

Nick Goldberg, who oversees opinion columns and reports to Kinsley, said Carroll has put particular emphasis on another kind of diversity. “He made no secret he wanted the news pages to be politically objective and the opinion pages ideologically balanced, if not every day, over time,” Goldberg said.

Gail Collins, editorial page editor of the New York Times, said many newspapers need to confront the gender issue.

“I think you could fill every page, every day with great women opinion writers,” Collins said, “but, that said, the entire pool of people out there doing opinion writing right now is still tilted toward men.”

Despite writing an ambitious book on the history of women in America, Collins said she has no special insight into why the op-ed imbalance persists.

“I presume that it’s because we are coming out of two millennia of prejudice against women having strong public opinions,” Collins said, adding: “I don’t think this will last.... The person in my job in 15 or 20 years I don’t think will be having this conversation.”