People who work at Fox News might like to think that they are despised by real journalists only because they are conservative and most journalists are liberal. Anyone who read the admiring obituaries of William F. Buckley Jr. in mainstream and liberal outlets would know that is nonsense. Journalists, both liberals and ones with no ideology in particular, are quite capable of respecting conservative pundits and reporters who deserve their respect.
But Fox does not. The reason is not because it holds a set of values that others may not share. And that is only partially because it claims to be “Fair and Balanced” when it is neither.
Rather, it is because it fails the fundamental test of journalism: are you informing your audience? According to a new study by Farleigh Dickinson University, Fox viewers are the least knowledgeable audience of any outlet, and they know even less about politics and current events than people who watch no news at all.
Respondents to the survey were able to answer correctly an average of 1.8 of 4 questions about international news and 1.6 out of 5 questions about domestic affairs. “Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge,” said Dan Cassino, the poll’s analyst.
“The study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly,” wrote Cassino and his colleagues. “The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly—a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly.”
This should come as no surprise if you follow Fox. Consider some recent history. Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy invented a quotation from President Obama completely out of thin air. He falsely claimed that Obama had said he and Michelle were not born with silver spoons in their mouths “unlike some people,” in reference to Mitt Romney’s privileged upbringing. In fact, Obama did not say “unlike some people” and he has been using the silver spoon line for years. Several other news outlets repeated Doocy’s assertion as fact and Doocy initially avoided correcting the record after it was revealed he was wrong. Eventually he admitted that he “seemed to misquote” Obama, instead of stating that he did, in fact, misquote him. And he did not apologize for the error.
When Fox isn’t inventing smears against Obama, it uncritically regurgitates corporate-funded lies about him. Consider a segment of Sean Hannity’s show from last week. He showed a TV commercial by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded and funded by the Koch brothers, that attacks President Obama’s record on investing in renewable energy. Hannity and Frank Luntz praised its effectiveness, with Luntz saying, “It was fact-based, not assertions. You see the facts come up on the screen. There's specific numbers.”
The only problem is that the factual assertions are incorrect. The ad says that “80 percent of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries.” But the article it cites as a source clearly states only that the money went to foreign firms. The bulk of American tax dollars spent on the subsidies, according to Politifact, went to American subsidiaries of the firms.
The ad goes on to offer specific examples: “$1.2 billion to a solar company that’s building a plant in Mexico. Half a billion to a car company that moved American jobs to Finland. And $39 million to build traffic lights in China. President Obama wasted $16 billion on risky investments.” I won’t bore you with all the details of how each of these claims is untrue; each has been labeled false or mostly false by Politifact or Factcheck.org and you can go to Media Matters for the full rundown.
Hannity routinely takes Republican misinformation as the gospel truth. To choose just one particularly embarrassing example, he let Herman Cain’s spokesman Mark Block declare, absurdly, that a woman named Karen Kraushaar who accused Cain of sexual harassment was the mother of a Politico reporter named Josh Kraushaar. Hannity did not challenge either the veracity of this claim nor question why this “fact” would cast doubt on Politico’s thoroughly reported revelation that Cain has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. In fact, Josh Kraushaar had left Politico for National Journal over a year before the story even ran, and he is not related to Karen Kraushaar. It would have been easy for Hannity to check on these facts and correct Block’s assertion, but he did not. Here is what Josh wrote about it the next day:
Anybody with Internet access would, at the very least, been able to figure out that I haven't worked for Politico since June 2010—and have been working at National Journal since then. I even Tweeted the fact that I wasn't related to Karen Kraushaar earlier that evening before Hannity's show to clear up any potential confusion.
That didn't stop Block. When I heard what Block had said on Hannity's show, I immediately e-mailed him informing him of his mistake. I still haven't heard back.
This laziness, partisan hackery and lack of regard for basic accuracy is what separates Fox News from outlets that merely have opinions. And it is doing their audience a disservice. This Fairleigh Dickinson study is not the first to find that Fox News viewers are the most ill-informed of any news consumers. As of November 22, 2011, Think Progress had found seven studies showing Fox News’s viewers to be the worst informed of all news consumers. In a post about a report that had just come out in the International Journal of Press/Politics, by communication scholar Lauren Feldman of American University and colleagues which found that “Fox News viewing manifests a significant, negative association with global warming acceptance,” Chris Mooney cited six previous studies with similar findings.
I identified 6 separate studies showing Fox News viewers to be the most misinformed, and in a right wing direction—studies on global warming, health care, health care a second time, the Ground Zero mosque, the Iraq war, and the 2010 election.
I also asked if anyone was aware of any counterevidence, and none was forthcoming. There might very well be a survey out there showing that Fox viewers aren’t [emphasis in original] the most misinformed cable news consumers on some topic (presumably it would be a topic where Democrats have some sort of ideological blind spot), but I haven’t seen it. And I have looked.
In the last year, since Fox News fired Glenn Beck and has sought to line up behind more establishment Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney, the new conventional wisdom has been that Fox is tacking back to the center. As a purely strategic move within the Republican party, that may be true. But, unfortunately, this has not been correlated with any improvement in the quality or independence of its journalism.