Media

Jon Stewart Was Right About Fox 'News' Viewers Being the Most Misinformed Citizens

In refuting Stewart's claim, Fox naturally went ahead and misinformed its viewers.

Fox News' attempts at humor have failed miserably over the years. Think of its snooze-fest “comedies” -- shows like the “Red Eye” (filler broadcast at 3am) and the rapidly canceled “1/2-Hour News Hour.” But its capacity for unintentional humor is truly unparalleled.

On Monday, the Fox Nation website featured a report about Jon Stewart's much-discussed dustup with Chris Wallace last weekend. During the back and forth, Stewart asked Wallace, “in polls, who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed?” His answer: “Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll.”

Fox Nation offered a sneering rebuttal to that claim, dismissing it as yet more evidence of the Vast Liberal Conspiracy to oppress conservatives. The piece would be hilarious if not for the fact that it casts the Right's counterfactual worldview in sharp relief.

The site answered Stewart by posting the results of some Fox viewer polls and then asking, "Does this sound misinformed to you?"

• 91 percent believe the stimulus legislation lost jobs
• 72 percent believe the health reform law will increase the deficit
• 72 percent believe the economy is getting worse
• 60 percent believe climate change is not occurring

Does this sound misinformed? Why, yes, very much so! Maybe a step above the level of angry seniors whose hypertension spikes over right-wing chain-emails, but just a step, and there's plenty of audience overlap. 

On the first point: as the Washington Post reported last summer, “Obama's much-maligned economic stimulus package added as many as 3.3 million jobs to the economy during the second quarter of this year, and may have prevented the nation from lapsing back into recession, according to a report released Tuesday by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.” Yet nine out of 10 Fox viewers believe the opposite to be true.

The CBO also said that the Affordable Care Act will decrease projected deficits in the future, and that repealing it would make our fiscal outlook significantly worse. Seven out of 10 Fox viewers believe the opposite to be true.

The consensus among economists is that the U.S. economy is in a very sluggish, lackluster period of recovery. A few predict that we may be heading toward a “double-dip” recession at some point in the future, but I'm unaware of a single expert, anywhere on the political spectrum, who would argue that the economy is now actually getting worse than it has been over the past three years. Yet seven out of 10 Fox viewers believe it is.

Here, via Seeking Alpha, is a graphic presentation of some key economic indicators. It's clear that we're suffering through a disastrously sluggish recovery from an extraordinarily painful crash, but those lines are nonetheless trending upward, not downward, since hitting the trough in 2009.

Click for larger version
(click for larger version)

And 60 percent of Fox viewers believe that climate change isn't occurring, which means that 60 percent think that virtually all of the world's climatologists are engaged in a grand conspiracy to deceive the public in order to … well, to destroy capitalism, according to some of the more unhinged conservative voices in the debate. That should come as no surprise – a leaked memo from Fox News' Washington managing editor ordered the network's correspondents to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."

But all that's just a punchline. The joke is that in an attempt to push back against the demonstrably accurate claim that Fox viewers are the most misinformed news consumers, Fox Nation… misinformed its readers.

Note the sleight of hand: Stewart said that “every poll” showed the same thing, but Fox Nation told its readers that Stewart had cited a single poll, which it dismissed because the organization that conducted it received some funding from George Soros' Open Society Institute, and Soros moves at the center of so many feverish right-wing conspiracy theories. Fox quoted right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism site to make the case:

A poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a "project" run out of the University of Maryland, was the toast of the left-wingers last week for its finding that Fox News viewers were the most "misinformed" during the 2010 election cycle. Sadly, few of the news pieces on this poll mentioned that WorldPublicOpinion.org is funded in part by such far left-wing organizations as the Ben and Jerry's Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, the United States Institute of Peace, and the George Soros-backed Tides Foundation.

It's a project – Fox puts the word in scare-quotes for some reason – of the University of Maryland's Project on International Public Attitudes, a highly respected global polling organization that also receives funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the German Marshall Fund.

More to the point, as Steve Benen noted, that poll is just one among many:

Eight years ago, just six months into the war in Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on the Republican network were “three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions — about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq.”

As Ben Armbruster noted a while back, “An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out [in 2009] found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly misinformed about health care reform proposals. A 2008 Pew study ranked Fox News last in the number of ‘high knowledge’ viewers and a 2007 Pew poll ranked Fox viewers as the least knowledgeable about national and international affairs.”

The problem is actually getting worse.

But Fox Nation readers will be comforted in the “knowledge” that they are being given fair and balanced and factually correct information, and that any suggestion to the contrary is yet more evidence of the liberal “bias” that runs rampant throughout the institutions that provide us with information – the media, the academy and even official government statistics.

This highlights the conservative media's role in staving off the cognitive dissonance that people suffer when confronted with information that conflicts with their worldview. In 2008, the Washington Post reported that “a series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people's minds after it has been debunked -- even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.”

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler did a study in which two groups of volunteers were offered George Bush's claims that Iraq was bristling with WMD. One was also given information debunking those claims. The researchers found that “Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.”

That's what the “balance” of Fox News is all about – advancing the misinformation that can never be fully corrected by contrary information in the eyes of its viewers.

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