Hazardous to the brain
December 17, 2010By Dick Polman
Fox News is breeding stupid people. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but now we have the proof.
I'm in South Florida today, preparing to give a speech about contemporary media and national politics; as part of my research, I read a new report, "Misinformation and the 2010 Electorate," sponsored by The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which confirms, via scientific survey, what many of us have intuited for a long time:
On the major issues, regular Fox News viewers are demonstrably dumber than the national norm. Or, to put it another way, Fox loyalists are less cognizant of factual reality than those Americans who regularly get their news from other sources.
This should hardly be surprising, given Fox's infauxtainment track record - the falsely inflated tea-party crowd estimates; the endlessly recycled lie about "death panels"; the announcement that President Obama's $3.6-trillion 2010 budget was "4 times bigger than Bush's costliest plan," whereas, in reality, Bush's 2009 budget submission totaled $3.1 trillion; a Fox editor's '09 email to his on-air troops, ordering them to "IMMEDIATELY" characterize the scientific consensus on global warming as merely a theory; and so much more.
Still, it's noteworthy to see the fruits of Fox's efforts reflected in cold numbers.
A few caveats: According to the survey - conducted for the University of Maryland by WorldPublicOpinion.org - the public during the midterm election season was generally ill-informed or misinformed. It's important to acknowledge this; watching CNN or PBS or MSNBC, or reading newspapers and magazines, did not necessarily guarantee enlightenment. For instance, even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the '09 stimulus law has sparked an uptick of between two and five million full-time equivalent jobs, as of the third quarter of 2010, most people don't know this - regardless of what they watch or read. Ninety-one percent of loyal Fox viewers were in the dark about that, but so were 84 percent of regular CNN viewers and 87 percent of regular PBS/NPR consumers.
And, on at least one issue, it's the liberal audience that's out to lunch. Regular MSNBC viewers were far more likely than regular CNN and regular network TV viewers to mistakenly believe that the U. S. Chamber of Commerce irrefutably spent foreign money to back Republican candidates.
But that particular finding was the exception to the pattern. Across a whole range of issues, the Fox devotees (those who watch the network "almost every day") were by far the most clueless. Or, in the dry words of the report, "greater exposure" to Fox yielded "increased misinformation." For instance:
Even though the CBO and most economists have repeatedly reported that the health reform law will modestly lower the budget deficit over the next 10 years, 72 percent of Fox devotees mistakenly believe that the experts have said the opposite - whereas, among those who never watch Fox, only 44 percent believe this falsehood.
Sixty percent of Fox devotees mistakenly believe that climate change is not occurring and that scientists are evenly divided on the issue. Among those who never watch Fox, only 30 percent believe this falsehood.
Forty nine percent of Fox devotees mistakenly believe that their federal income taxes have risen since Barack Obama was inaugurated. Among those who never watch Fox, only 33 percent believe this falsehood.
Sixty three percent of Fox devotees mistakenly believe that Obama's '09 stimulus package contained no tax cuts. Among those who never watch Fox, 49 percent believe this falsehood.
Fifty six percent of Fox devotees mistakenly believe that Obama, not Bush, launched the GM and Chrysler bailouts. Among those who never watch Fox, 43 percent believe this falsehood.
And this piece de resistance: 63 percent of Fox devotees believe it's unclear whether Obama is American-born, or believe for certain that he is not. Among those who never watch Fox, only 30 percent buy the birther talk.
These statistics strongly underscore findings in previous polls - by the Wall Street Journal, and the nonpartisan Pew Media Center - which show that Fox ranks highest for low-knowledge viewers. (And how convenient it is that the Republican party reaps the benefits.) Perhaps the network should be required to broadcast a warning label that frequent viewing may be hazardous to the brain.