Conservative Bruce Bartlett recently penned an interesting piece delving into the effects of Fox News on American politics and media. A former Reagan advisor, Bartlett has been a prominent dissident on the Right for the past decade plus. Bartlett’s main contention is that Fox leaves its viewers less informed and more radical. There is value in Bartlett’s piece, certainly; it provides useful historical background on the rise and evolution of Fox News, and it may be right that Fox is a net negative for Republicans, if it tends to drive conservative politicians to take positions further outside of the mainstream. But Bartlett is overly credulous about the survey data he uses, and too simplistic in his discussion of media bias.
Bartlett’s article was immediately seized on by some of Fox’s more vociferous critics
on the Left. It hit a veritable Bingo card of “Facebook bait”: it provides hard evidence of conservative stupidity or ignorance, backed up by “social science” research; it has a conservative hitting his own side; and it demeans Fox News, the once and future bogeyman of the Left. The meat of Bartlett’s piece is a compilation of surveys that consistently show Fox viewers as less informed than consumers of other media. Among others, Bartlett cites one 2010 study
from the University of Maryland. He quotes it as follows:
Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:
• most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely)
• most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
• the economy is getting worse (26 points)
• most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
• the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
• their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
• the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
• when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
• and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)
The piece commits a key analytical error in the above passage, conflating two very different concepts: “indicate that they believed” is not necessarily the same as “believe.” In fact, most of the answers described to survey questions in this piece can be explained by assuming that a bunch of the respondents were answering different questions than the ones asked. So, some plausible translations, in the order in which the UMD study’s contentions were presented.
- The stimulus was bad.
- The health care law is bad.
- The economy is bad.
- I don’t care about climate change.
- The stimulus was bad.
- My taxes are too high.
- The auto bailout was mostly Obama’s fault.
- Republicans are better on bailouts than Democrats.
- I dislike Obama.
Think about the average watcher of Fox News. They’re probably pretty engaged and passionate, above all else. (After all, why watch cable news if you don’t get animated by current events? And if you don’t dislike the current trend of things, why would you possibly watch Fox?) What makes us think that these people will be fully invested in answering our surveys truthfully? It is quite possible–indeed, almost likely–that a bunch of the survey respondents were simply answering questions other than the ones that were asked. They’re opinionated. They’re frustrated. And they certainly don’t care about the accuracy of your survey. You may think that your respondents are answering the questions you’re asking, but it is equally likely that they’re answering their own questions, or just venting at you.
Perhaps most importantly: seen in this light, these answers aren’t right or wrong. They’re value judgments or opinions. You may say that the stimulus or health care law were good things, but it’s perfectly reasonable to hold the opposite opinion.
Social science is incredibly difficult because of factors like this. People don’t answer the questions we want them to answer. People act differently when being examined. People change behaviors in response to new information. Slight changes in contexts result in vastly different outcomes.
We want to draw solid conclusions about society and the world around us, but oftentimes, all we get is noise, or very limited results–if we interpret our data carefully. (Ultimately, this is why I’m more in favor of the approaches of the humanities than social sciences: the humanities broadcast their uncertainty by default.) The surveying methodology has value, but it needs to be viewed critically and skeptically. Who are the people we’re studying? How do they think? What is their worldview? What do they care about? What are their motivations? These are difficult questions to answer. Social science only gets us a little bit of the way there.
I’d like to suggest an alternate explanation of the media environment. It’s merely a hypothesis, but it strikes me as more plausible than a reality where people who consume more news–even biased news–become more ignorant.**
All media coverage–indeed, all writing and argumentation–is impregnated with a worldview: a guiding set of assumptions about how the world works. The “mainstream media” position is what we might call “liberal internationalism.” From this perspective, government is often a force for positive good; markets require robust regulation to function fairly; race, class, and gender are the most important prisms through which we can evaluate public policy questions; the media has a role in advancing positive social change; military action is generally unjustifiable unless for humanitarian reasons; the death penalty is cruel and outdated; etc.
Meanwhile, Fox stands alone among major outlets working from what historian Walter Russell Mead would call a “Jacksonian
” worldview. Jacksonians are fiercely loyal to members of their tribe, they emphasize and venerate beliefs in notions like honor and dignity, and they have no compunction about the use of overwhelming force when they feel it is justified–either with the military, or with law enforcement. If liberal internationalism is easy listening, Jacksonianism is country music: it’s Toby Keith and Willy Nelson singing “Beer for My Horses
” or Garth Brooks singing “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association
.” (Read the lyrics to those songs, if you’re not a country music listener. That’s
Part of the reason that Fox News has grown so remarkably is because news consumers with a Jacksonian worldview were previously so under-served. Columnist and Fox pundit Charles Krauthammer cleverly described
Fox as having found a “niche market” of “half the country.” For a person coming from the Jacksonian worldview, press coverage of, say, the structural inequalities behind the Baltimore riots while businesses are being destroyed seems inappropriate. First and foremost, they think, stop the riots!
Then they’ll be willing to consider social inequalities.
So CNN, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the BBC, all of these major news outlets are coming from the same place, and are fighting over the same subset of news consumers. Fox has some competition from the Internet, but it’s not nearly the same dynamic as what the other outlets see.
The reason that so many see Fox as “biased” is because Fox is on its own island; it differs dramatically from other networks. But it only looks particularly egregious because the rest of the media shares an underlying worldview. Ultimately, the assumptions inherent in the worldview aren’t generally falsifiable; they just are what they are. Assumptions come from our values and our read of the past. We all have assumptions: some are more shared than others, but ubiquity and validity are not necessarily correlated.
Unfortunately, when it turns out that our different worldviews and concerns–and not an innate lack of intelligence, deliberate bias, or misinformation–are the source of different responses to surveys, this brings many of us to an uncomfortable position. Many politically-engaged people, particularly on the Internet–derive self-actualization by being “rational” and “intelligent,” and such intelligence is often evaluated in contrast to the imbeciles on the other side.
But when we view differences as the products of conflicting assumptions and values, rather than by disparities of intelligence, it becomes much harder to derive worth and meaning from one’s intellectual superiority. If our conclusions about a particular an issue are because of the innate values we have and assumptions we hold, it’s hard to claim superiority over other people. And that makes following the news–and basing our identities on it–a lot less satisfying.
So Fox may well have the effect of driving its audience to the Right, and electorally, that might not be the greatest outcome for the Republican Party. But that is not the same as spreading misinformation.
**I actually believe that following the news intently can make you more ignorant of things that are important; news watchers sometimes get caught in media narratives and forget that most people don’t really care about most things that the media cares about or focuses on–particularly in political coverage! But this is a different phenomenon than being made more ignorant by watching the news.
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