Now and then politicians let their tongues slip and tell the public what they really think about certain things. Last November, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shared what most astute observers of Fox News already know about the right-wing news network, but what no conservative will ever admit – that much of what is said on the network is not factual and is often complete rubbish. When a woman asked Gingrich a complicated question about the Obama Administration’s AIDS policy at a gathering in South Carolina, Newt indicated that the information presented in the question was new to him and that he did not know enough to give a response. (Gingrich should be given credit for being honest about that and not trying to make up an answer from thinair on something he didn’t know about – or something for which he didn’t have a pre-rehearsed, memorized talking point.) Then Gingrich said, “One of the real changes that comes when you start running for President — as opposed to being an analyst on Fox — is I have to actually know what I’m talking about.”
Around the time of Gingrich’s comment, a poll from the Fairleigh Dickinson University revealed that Fox News viewers are less informed about current events than people who don’t watch any news! A political science professor at the university explained the poll results: “Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News. Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”
And the Fairleigh Dickinson poll is not alone. In 2010, a University of Maryland study found that Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely” to believe false information about various political issues, including believing the following demonstrably false statements:
George Orwell would be proud. The right-wing media has managed to convince an incredibly large segment of the population that the only “news” sources they can trust are Fox and right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. I observed this while in living in Utah- many of my conservative acquaintances refused to look beyond these “sources” of news information. It should go without saying that talk show hosts are entertainers first and not good sources of news. If you want to know about the situation with Iran and nuclear weapons, Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show is not the first place you should go. Likewise, if you want to know about the U.S. federal budget and specifically how we went from a surplus in 2000 to our current trillion dollar-plus deficit, you should consider reading something written by an economist or budget expert, not tuning into “Hannity’s America.”
Of course there is no perfect source for news and thus for someone who honestly desires to be well-informed, it is best to look at many news sources, including foreign media. Many people don’t realize that all media has some inherent bias because journalists, no matter how objective they try to be, have a paradigm influenced by their environment. American media have a clear paradigmatic difference from overseas news outlets such as BBC, Al Jazeera, and Der Spiegel. The problem with Fox News, and especially with talk show hosts, whether conservative or liberal, is that these sources, for the most part, do not even try to inform. Their purpose is to persuade you, not to be objective.
Newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have become lightning rods for criticism by conservatives, partly due to the effort of many right-wing media elites to convince all conservative Americans of the “us versus them” paradigm on American media. And it plays nicely into their desire to have a large swath of the electorate rely on clearly biased news sources that offer preconceived notions. But “mainstream” sources like the Post, Times, Associated Press, and so forth, generally try to be as objective as possible in their news coverage. And the studies referenced above show that consumers of these types of news sources are much better informed than most others. Of course, their opinion pages and editorial boards have clearly biased views, often center-left. The problem with media in general is its bias towards sensationalism. Bad news, scandals (especially those involving sex and politicians), and violence sell papers and television ad time. Not many people like “drier” news. Have you ever watched the PBS News Hour? It is incredibly informative and usually very fair, offering in-depth interviews with experts on many sides of an issue. But it doesn’t have the American flag waving behind the news anchor with adrenaline-pumping music in the background. It doesn’t have the 24-hour urgency feel that the cable news networks have, where every “breaking story” is touted as monumental information. Nor does the PBS News Hour have the routine angry and emotionally-charged interviews that are the signature of Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” show on Fox. There are no cool graphics. It’s plain and often boring.
I generally prefer print journalism over cable news because there is less sensationalism. It’s best to go to news sources that try to be objective and have built-in accountability mechanisms to correct mistakes. The Post and the Times, like most major newspapers, have ombudsmen who don’t answer to the news editors and whose sole job is to ensure that reporting is accurate. The existence of these ombudsmen demonstrates that the news sections of these papers try to be objective. And in the end, if we refuse to go to these kinds of news sources in favor of entertainers and political spinsters, we have no one to blame for our ignorance but ourselves. This brings me back to the point made by Gingrich and the FDU and UM studies- Fox News continues to show that its main purpose is to tow the Republican Party line, when there is one, rather than to inform its viewers. So Fox viewers be ye warned. You might end up being more ignorant by watching Fox than people who don’t watch the news at all.