Sunday, November 28, 2004

Are Fox News Viewers Dumb? No ... Just Woefully Misinformed

There's an adage that you shouldn't kill the messenger. But in the case of Fox News Channel, an exception could be made.

Conservatives are quick to toss out the charge of "liberal media bias," and suggest that CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN are all in cahoots to deny conservatives their vision of the truth. But while there are liberal reporters and liberal stories at each of those networks, there is still at the core a basic search for truth, a presentation of facts, and an effort at balance.

The New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages provide a balance of left and right, and media critics can find a mix of left-leaning and right-leaning reporters at each publication -- not by their voting records, but by what they put into print. Newsweek features George Will in their pundit rotation and Time features Charles Krauthammer.

Balance is not found at Fox News Channel. Lines are blurred between opinion and objective news coverage on shows such as O'Reilly Factor. Guests for featured interviews, on shows such as the marquee weekly news program hosted by anchor Brit Hume, are five times more likely to be identified as conservative or Republican than liberal or Democrat, according to a recent survey by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Conservative brought in to "analyze" the news are a who's who of well-known pundits. The "liberals" are a mix of Fox Democrats -- those who essentially agree with the conservative "opponent" -- or mush-mouthed no-names, easily defeatable by their well-rehearsed on-message adversaries. And if a liberal gets out of line, as Fox News viewers know, Sean Hannity is more than happy to talk louder so as to drown out the liberal, and Bill O'Reilly is happy to cut off the guest's microphone.

***

Let me be perfectly clear. This has nothing to do with conservative policy or punditry, or denying those voices from being heard. Balance of left and right is not only appropriate, but healthy for the populace. The search for truth is not a liberal or conservative ideal.

Nor should this be read as a whiny excuse for why Kerry lost the election, or why the Republicans gained in the House and Senate.

Nor should it be read as an effort to insult the intelligence of Fox News viewership.

Instead, I throw out this question: Why are those who get their news from Fox woefully misinformed, compared to, say, those who get their news from PBS or NPR?

Consider these results from a survey conducted by Program for International Policy Attitudes*, a program in part sponsored by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland:

Question: Is it your impression that the U.S. has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization?

67% of Fox News viewers said the U.S. has found clear evidence.
16% of PBS viewers or NPR listeners said the U.S. has found clear evidence.

Question: Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the U.S. has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

33% of Fox News viewers said the U.S. has found WMD.
11% of PBS viewers or NPR listeners said the U.S. had found WMD.

Question: Thinking about how all the people in the world feel about the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq, do you think the majority of people favor the U.S. having gone to war?

35% of Fox News viewers said yes.
5% of PBS viewers or NPR listeners said yes.

These results are not suggesting that Republicans are stupid. The PIPA survey found that 43% of Republicans had at least one misperception. But 54% of Republicans who said Fox News was their main source of news had at least one misperception. Just 32% of Republicans who said PBS or NPR was their main source of news had at least one misperception.

Another related point: 45% of those who claimed support for President Bush had at least one misperception, compared with just 17% of those who claimed support for Democrats.

***

Now, given the survey results, one can draw two potential conclusions. Either Fox News viewers are dumber than PBS/NPR viewers/listeners, or Fox News frequently misinforms their viewers.

I choose the latter explanation.

Blame the lack of balance. It's not just the lack of strong liberal voices on the network. It's the snide comments at Democrats' expense. For example, listen to Fox News long enough during the election campaign, and you were sure to hear about Kerry being a "flip-flopper." But you never heard President Bush called that, even in regard to issues such as the creation of the 9/11 Commission or Department of Homeland Security, two issues in which Bush clearly flip-flopped. You also heard during the campaign about how "French" Kerry looked. In one case, a Fox News anchor said to a guest, "Hello, or as John Kerry would say, bon jour."

Make snide remarks at Kerry's expense for months on end, and your viewership will accept that altered reality as fact.

On the flip side, criticism of Bush is hard to find on Fox News. Even when a Democrat or liberal is able to score a point at the expense of Hannity, O'Reilly or Hume, that comment can be taken out of context in the days and weeks that follow. Hannity prefers to distort his adversaries' views on his nationally syndicated radio show. O'Reilly and Hume refer to their liberal opponents in subsequent shows, with the goal of painting comments as un-American, against the troops, etc. And of course, at any time, a given liberal or Democrat can be trashed by the greater Republican Noise Machine, as Rush Limbaugh and like-minded local talk show wannabes nationwide echo the trashings by the Fox News commentators.

No other news network, or evening news broadcast, is run like Fox News. At Fox News, news chief John Moody issues a daily memorandum advising reporters as to what the key talking point of the day is.

In the documentry Outfoxed, former Fox News reporter Jon Du Pre discussed how the opinions of higher-ups directed "news" coverage. He highlighted a time when he was assigned, in February 2001, to cover Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday celebration. Du Pre was told to provide live updates throughout the day from the Reagan library. The problem: there was no significant celebration, nor any great outpouring of support from friends or tourists. Yet Du Pre was told to highlight such events as when a group of school children were prompted to sing "Happy Birthday." It was, in effect, a day-long farce.

Outfoxed also showed how Fox News regularly interrupts programming to broadcast President Bush's campaign rallies, or to show the president doing mundane things while traveling. By showcasing presidential addresses, Fox News, in effect, is allowing itself to be an unfiltered megaphone for GOP spin. No such coverage was provided for Kerry during the presidential campaign, or for other prominent Democrats outside the campaign season.

***

How factually challenged is Fox News? So much so that Media Matters for America (http://www.mediamatters.org) is never lacking for material. That site and others are able to provide near-daily accounts of incorrect facts, GOP spin presented as fact, or snide remarks from anchors or pundit guests.

Fox News has re-shaped the media landscape. Its viewership is on the rise, and its prominence has led other networks, most notably MSNBC, to drift rightward in an effort to gain ratings.

If Fox News were truly "fair and balanced" -- and there are lawsuits under way questioning Fox' use of that phrase with regard to truth in advertising -- it would use the same facts as every other news outlet. It would offer conservative and liberal viewpoints equally. It would be held accountable for its failures, lest it fear the label of "conservative media bias."

That's not happening, of course. As a result, Fox News' viewers are worse off, and democracy suffers.

* The survey of 3,334 adults was conducted from June to September, 2003. Of those surveyed, 18% said that Fox News was their primary source of news, while 3% said NPR or PBS was their primary source.


7 Comments:

Blogger Batman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Batman said...

JABBS/David: Surely you cannot be serious in citing the deeply flawed and biased PIPA study? It is methodologically flawed, the questions are flawed AND most importantly, why would you of all people trust a study that refuses to disclose the majpority of the questions it asked in order to draw the conclusions that it did? If you will go back, you will see that fully 50% + of the questions that were asked were not disclosed, yet PIPA did not hesitate to draw conclusions from these undisclosed questions. If a conservative site tried to pull this you'd be apoplectic....
Additionally, the other PIPA study you cited was even more deeply flawed from a methodology perspective. If you would like I would be happy to dissect it for you..you need but to ask...

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about David, but I'd love to hear how the study was flawed.

Keep in mind, though, that the study was just one part of the overall item David posted.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical, Batman. Nit-picking on a small detail when there's a mountain of evidence. In a sane world, we wouldn't even be debating this point.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical ? Batman pointing out that the study that was used as the basis for this article and argument was fundamentally flawed and biased is nitpicking? That sounds like CBS's defense of Rather running a story based on fraudulent documents.

The reality is that Fox is considerably more conservative than the other networks, so you liberals and Democrats will notice that more. Also, it is glaring obvious that they are more conservative as the basis for comparison is so much further to the left. For decades, Rather, Jennings, Cronkite, PBS, Clinton News Network, etc ... have had to competition in the marketplace of ideas, and now that FoxNews has entered the market, it is more and more apparent that the traditional media sources are further left than was previously thought, as there was nothing to compare them to.

I always find it ironic that the left seems to be so incredibly apoplectic about FoxNews. Their viewership is miniscule in comparison to the so called mainstream media at NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, LA Times, New York Times, PBS, CNN, et al. I can assure you that Roger Ailes would gladly trade his market share with any of the major networks. There are literally millions more than watch the big three than even the highest rated Fox show, but that is always brushed aside.

Let's see, a liberal orginization publishes a flawed study that purports to show that conservatives are dumb. Why does that not surprise me ?

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Batman made an unsubstantiated charge about the study. He has failed to follow that up with proof to support that charge. I'll go with JABBS and believe the study until other evidence emerges.

As for Fox -- their ratings dwarf the other cable news networks, and they had more viewers during the conventions than the major networks. Hardly miniscule.

I don't think JABBS has ever defended Dan Rather, btw. So maybe we can stop trotting that one out. Dan Rather screwed up, big time. So did Jayson Blair. So did that guy from USA Today. Fox distorts news content on a daily basis -- just listen to Hannity or Hume or O'Reilly, and then fact-check. Carl Cameron should never be allowed to cover politics again after he wrote those fake Kerry stories that wound up on the Fox News web site.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another point that the left is either unwilling or incapable of understanding. Hannity, O'Reilly (a libertarian, not a conservative), etc ... are OPINION journalists, while the entities you use to support your proposition are purportedly unbiased news organizations. Hannity is paid to give his opinion, as is his co-host, Alan Colmes. CBS, NBC, ABC, NY Times, LA Times, etc ... are news organizations, not opinion journalists.

As I said previously, if Fox is such an influential player in this arena, I am sure that they would be willing to trade their audience for the audience of any of the major networks, in a heartbeat. Sure, they are the highest rated CABLE network, and had a pretty good night on election night, but night in and night out, their numbers are simply dwarfed by each of the major networks, and taken as a whole, occupy only a tiny portion of the news market audience.

As I have stated, the left is apoplectic about Fox, since they are the first entrant into this market, that has otherwise been a monopoly of left and center left ideology for as far back as I can remember. Apparently, diversity of thought is not included in the left's diversity manifesto.

12:34 PM  

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