The FOX factor
Can watching Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck actually make you stupid?
By Barry Gordon 03/17/2011
“Study Confirms That FOX News Makes You Stupid,” stated a recent headline from a progressive blog called News Corpse. I’m sure my conservative readers will be pleased to know that I do not agree with that statement. I’m sure that there are some very intelligent, intellectually acute people who watch the FOX News Channel. What I would say is that FOX News makes you ignorant or, at the least, incredibly misinformed.
The study the above headline referred to was conducted by the University of Maryland, and in it a representative sample of the population was asked questions about verifiable facts relating to the current economy. Recognizing that in today’s polarized society a fact can be a rather slippery thing, the researchers restricted the study to facts that were not dependent upon one’s political viewpoint. For example, rather than ask whether President Obama’s stimulus package saved or created several million jobs (a debatable proposition), they asked whether “most economists who studied it” came to that conclusion (most believe the stimulus has saved or created between 2 and 5 million jobs). In almost every instance, those who watched FOX News on a daily basis were flat out wrong.
One of my favorite TV shows is “Fringe,” which deals with the existence of two parallel universes. But you don’t have to turn to science fiction to find an alternate reality. Just switch on FOX News sometime. According to the Maryland study, FOX viewers live in a world in which the stimulus package either lost jobs or created very few (91 percent believe that), Obamacare will increase the federal deficit, the economy is getting worse, Obama has raised taxes, and Obama either wasn’t born in the United States or his birthplace is “unclear” — all of which is demonstrably untrue.
The scary thing about all of this is that FOX News leads their viewers to believe that they are the only news source that provides the unadulterated truth. Never mind the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (what do bureaucrats know?), the number-crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office and even nonpartisan studies like the University of Maryland’s. We here at FOX will tell you what’s really going on. And for the truly deep analysis, tune in to Glenn, Sean and Bill.
I don’t have a problem with politically biased opinion journalism. In fact I believe that, in many ways, it may be preferable to the false balance that passes for news at CNN. I sometimes picture Wolf Blitzer moderating a debate between a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a member of the Flat Earth Society — “Well, Mister Scientist, you have to admit that Mr. Flat Earth here does have a point.” Interestingly, CNN viewers aren’t all that better informed than the FOXers. Probably it’s because every fact seems to be turned into a subject for argument.
The FOX phenomenon is not new. Eight years ago, during the Iraq War, the same university did a similar study regarding misperceptions about the war. They discovered that FOX viewers were far more likely to believe that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were “working closely” together, that world opinion supported the Iraq invasion and even that we’d actually found WMD in Iraq. An even more disturbing finding of this most recent study suggests that the more you watch FOX News, the less informed you are. In other words, those who don’t watch a lot of news are better informed than those who watch FOX regularly.
FOX News Channel has emerged as the anti-truth network. Day after day, distortions, half-truths and outright lies are dumped on its audience. Starting with the spinmeisters on the morning show “FOX and Friends,” to the afternoon lunacy of premier conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, and into the primetime rantings of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, there is far more fiction than fact on display.
I have to confess, this saddens me in a way. I think there is a place for a channel that presents news accurately and also provides a political point of view. I think MSNBC does that quite well on the progressive side. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that MSNBC viewers were the best informed in the Maryland study, along with followers of NPR or public broadcasting. MSNBC is not a liberal version of FOX; it does not rely on distorting the truth to make its points. I frankly wish that FOX were a right-wing version of MSNBC, with bright, knowledgeable people who are strong spokespersons for the conservative cause — people who would not try to convince us that the Egyptian revolution was somehow linked to American “socialists” (How many of those are there?) or that God exists because Mars doesn’t have our moon (it has two of its own, thank you). Such a channel would create the possibility for an enlightening dialogue between two very different worldviews — the kind of dialogue that the American people deserve to have.
In a democracy, it is essential that the people at least agree on the facts. Then they are perfectly entitled to argue about what the facts mean. It’s kind of like agreeing to the rules of a football game before you take the field and bash each other’s heads in. Without that basic level of agreement, there is no game. There is only chaos.
Barry Gordon, a former Screen Actors Guild president, has taught political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.