Politics & Policy

The Fox News Obsession

It’s an exercise in confirmation bias on the Left.

The “Fox News Is Stupid and Evil” article is by now its own genre of journalism, albeit one that almost nobody does very well. In the course of attempting to enlighten some not especially bright Democrats earlier this week — hola, @mcspocky! — I went looking through a few of the so-called studies that purport to demonstrate that Fox News viewers are deeply and uniquely misinformed about public affairs. They are mostly horsepucky, as I demonstrated with this assortment of dim-witted accounts of the PunditFact “study” (which is not a study) of disputed Fox News statements, the authors of which rightly warn against using it to make general conclusions about Fox News, inasmuch as the data sample is admittedly arbitrary and biased — not out of malice or bad faith, but because the very structure of such fact-checking columns ensures that it is so, among other things by examining only disputed statements.

Other entries in the genre are not holding up well over time, either. The gentlemen-scholars of Alternet gave it their very best with a piece published under the subtle headline “Study confirms that Fox News makes you stupid.” The column contains a bullet list detailing nine outrageous things that Fox News viewers believe in error, which I have reproduced here with my comments in brackets.

‐91% believe that the stimulus legislation lost jobs. [Some highly credentialed academic economists believe exactly that; economists at large remain sharply divided on the effect of the stimulus.]

‐72% believe that the health reform law will increase the deficit. [It almost certainly will, if you believe the Congressional Budget Office and the (ho, ho!) Government Accountability Office. Here, Fox News viewers were hardly alone: The majority of respondents answered the same way.]

‐72% believe that the economy is getting worse. [Measured by GDP growth, no; measured by relative wage growth, yes. And, again, Fox News viewers answered the same way as the majority of voters.]

‐60% believe that climate change is not occurring. [They’re probably wrong, but their views are not radically different from those of the average American. The study purports to show not only that Fox News viewers believe untrue things, but also that they believe untrue things at a rate significantly different from Americans at large.]

‐49% believe that income taxes have gone up. [They have — the top rate in 2009 was 35 percent; it’s now 39.6. Assuming that 39.6 percent is still more than 35 percent, 49 percent of Fox News viewers are bulletproof here; one wonders why the number isn’t higher.]

‐63% believe that the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts. [It did, of course, though for a great many people they were so tiny that they were overlooked — a phenomenon that is, like global-warming skepticism, hardly unique to Fox News viewers.]

‐56% believe that Obama initiated the GM/Chrysler bailout. [His administration in effect did do that; the limited financial assistance authorized — stupidly, in my view — by the Bush administration became a very different program under the Obama administration; the key elements in the restructuring of GM and the giveaway of Chrysler were products of the Obama administration, not its predecessor.]

‐38% believe that most Republicans opposed TARP. [Most Republicans in the House did — they voted 108 to 91 against it.]

‐63% believe that Obama was not born in the U.S. (or that it is unclear). [That’s nuts.]

The actual study is itself a bit more nuanced than is Alternet’s description of it. (Surprise!) For example, it does not ask whether Obamacare is going to reduce the deficit; it asks whether the CBO says that it’s going to reduce the deficit. Likewise, it asks what economists say about the stimulus, although the authors of the study apparently are ignorant of the level of disagreement among academic economists regarding its effects.

But the study is clearly not simply designed to discover whether certain Americans believe things that are not true, and that such beliefs correlate with partisan affiliation, ideology, media preferences, etc. That’s the sort of thing you can do all day: Democrats, for example, are about twice as likely as Republicans to believe in astrology, and are significantly more likely than Republicans to believe in a great deal of other superstitious nonsense, such as ghosts and fortunetellers. It is no surprise that the signature piece of legislation produced by the united Democratic triumvirate of Obama-Pelosi-Reid produced a health-care program that will pour subsidies into such discredited claptrap as chiropractic, homeopathy, and acupuncture. (Given the demographics of cable-news audiences, it’s a safe bet that MSNBC viewers believe in astrology at much higher rates than Fox News viewers.) That the nation is scandalized by conservatives pushing “intelligent design” but not by a federal law mandating subsidies for equally nonsensical quackery has nothing to do with our alleged regard for science and everything to do with the class biases of media people.

Americans at large believe all sorts of things that are demonstrably untrue; if you’d care for a weaker version of that statement, they believe a great many things that put them at odds with the experts in the relevant fields. (I refer readers habitually to Bryan Caplan’s excellent contribution on this subject, The Myth of the Rational Voter.) That Fox News’s heavily conservative viewership turns out to be relatively skeptical of received opinion when that opinion conflicts with their understanding of the world is utterly unsurprising. What’s surprising is that in the bullet list above, they were mostly right to do so.

It is possible — I would not go so far as to say that I am sure it is the case — that Fox News viewers disagreed with the CBO’s assessment of Obamacare’s effects on the deficit because they are better informed rather than less well informed. People who were paying attention to the debate knew that there was reason to be skeptical about CBO’s claims about Obamacare and the deficit — not least because the CBO itself was openly skeptical of its forecast and its reports said as much, repeatedly. Specifically, what CBO said was that Obamacare would reduce the deficit if everything in the real world were implemented exactly as planned in the bill — if, for instance, the Obama administration did not shy away from enforcing unpopular mandates or if Congress did not reduce or repeal unpopular taxes that cheese off special interests dear to Senator Elizabeth Warren. And CBO did not think that was very likely to happen, because the people at CBO apply higher standards to their work than do horoscope writers and aromatherapy quacks. In that case, Fox News viewers weren’t wrong — they were ahead of the curve.

A great many of those bullet points are contentious; consequently, what the study really proved was that Fox News viewers were less inclined to defer to the received narrative and expert consensus when that narrative conflicts with their views. Sometimes this led them to an intelligent position, as with Obamacare and the deficit, sometimes it led them to nonsense (“He’s a Kenyan!”). Many Fox News viewers, and most of the hosts, see themselves as a sort of political insurgency; that’s part of a neat little trick Fox News does: It’s the largest cable-news network, but it convincingly presents itself as the scrappy opposition, the lone voice in the wilderness. It is also an opinion-driven operation rather than a news-driven operation. It is at least as likely that people who hold certain opinions — not all of them necessarily well grounded in fact — are drawn to Fox News as it is that people without such opinions turn on the television and get infected by them. Most of the questions in the study involved information used to cast the Obama administration in a bad light, rightly or wrongly: that taxes were up, the economy was stagnant, Obamacare was inflating deficits, etc. Change that dynamic and you’ll almost certainly change the findings.

Example: MSNBC viewers were most likely to believe untruths most often when those untruths supported liberal views, specifically about the Chamber of Commerce’s role in the 2010 midterm election. That was the sole question inquiring about misinformation that might have been used to hurt Republicans rather than Democrats. The least likely to believe that misinformation? Fox News viewers, of course.

What is notable (though not entirely surprising) is that misinformation was utterly common: More than a third of MSNBC viewers, for example, believed that the stimulus package contained no tax cuts, and a third of them believed what Fox News viewers believed about the auto bailouts. As the authors of the study note — and as the clowns at Alternet do not — “this suggests that misinformation cannot simply be attributed to news sources, but are [sic] part of the larger information environment that includes statements by candidates, political ads, and so on.” As Professor Caplan points out, voters have a strong bias toward pessimism in economic matters. And confirmation bias is as common as dirt.

Ironically, these “Fox News Viewers Are Stupid!” stories are little more than a large and intense exercise in confirmation bias, indulgences of the very thing that the people who push them attribute to their antagonists. The Left has learned over the years that winning debates is difficult but discrediting people and institutions is relatively easy. You point the finger and yell “racist!” or “stupid!” or “stupid racist!” long enough and loud enough and it will start to stick. And for a long time, the Left did not have to do very much debating, because there was no Fox News, no Rush Limbaugh et al., and no conservative alternatives online. Now there are, and so the Left’s most pressing order of business is the delegitimization of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh et al., and conservative alternatives online. And if that doesn’t work, Harry Reid is ready to repeal the First Amendment, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is ready to see you locked up for your political views.

And when that happens, you can bet that somebody will publish a study finding that it’s the only rational thing to do.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.


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