Bruce Bartlett, who served as a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and as a Treasury official under George H. W. Bush, and who now makes his living as an historian, has a new paper examining the damage inflicted upon the American body politic and media by Roger Ailes’ GOPropaganda network, FAUX News. The paper is available at the Social Science Research Network. How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics – SSRN. Excerpts:
The creation of Fox News in 1996 was an event of deep, yet unappreciated, political and historical importance. For the first time, there was a news source available virtually everywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a conservative tilt. Finally, conservatives did not have to seek out bits of news favorable to their point of view in liberal publications or in small magazines and newsletters. Like someone dying of thirst in the desert, conservatives drank heavily from the Fox waters. Soon, it became the dominant – and in many cases, virtually the only – major news source for millions of Americans. This has had profound political implications that are only starting to be appreciated. Indeed, it can almost be called self-brainwashing – many conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth.
Fox viewers were very right-wing from the start. Numerous surveys show that Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly favor Fox in their news viewing. A 2010 Pew survey found that Republicans and conservatives favored Fox over all other news sources except Rush Limbaugh. The survey also revealed that Fox had fewer well-educated (college graduate) and well-to-do ($75,000+/year income) viewers than other news sources. A 2015 PPP poll found that for 56 percent of Republicans, Fox was their most trusted news source.
A 2014 poll showed that Fox’s popularity among Republicans has only grown, especially among seniors. Fox has a very old viewership; according to Nielsen, its median viewer is 68 years old – great for ratings, but bad for advertising. Companies tend to shun programs with an older demographic because seniors are assumed to be set in their ways and unlikely to be swayed by advertising to buy different products from those they are already using.
Studies show that Fox viewers have a distinct set of political attitudes and voting patterns that are as much anti-liberal as they are conservative. Indeed, they have a different perception of political reality than those of all other television news viewers. As media critic Michael Wolff put it early in the Fox era:
Fox is not really about politics….Rather, it’s about having a chip on your shoulder; it’s about us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, phonies versus non-phonies, and, in a clever piece of postmodernism, established media against insurgent media.
In the George W. Bush years, however, and especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there was a noticeable shift in tone at Fox. Rather than being satisfied with a position relatively to the right of the other news networks, it began objectively tilting well to the right of center. The shift was immediately noticed by media observers.
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Economists and political scientists began studying the “Fox News Effect,” in which the introduction of Fox News on a cable system had a significant impact on voting for Republican candidates in that area. It also caused both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to increase their support for Republican policies.
Buoyed by its success as an explicitly conservative network, it appears that right-wing bias, including inaccurate reporting, became commonplace on Fox. For example:
• A study of network coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2005 found that Fox was alone in supporting the Bush administration during a period when the wars were going badly by any objective standard. It concluded that “scholars should consider Fox as alternative, rather than mainstream, media.”
• Fox instructed its on-air talent to avoid using the term “public option” when discussing health reform and are required to say that global warming is merely a theory “based on data that critics have called into question.”
• A 2010 study found that Fox actively spread rumors and inaccurate information about a proposed mosque planned for lower Manhattan.
• A 2012 study found that Fox takes a dismissive tone toward climate change and interviews a much larger number of doubters than believers. Fox viewers are much more likely to be skeptical of global warming. A 2014 study found that 72 percent of references to climate change on Fox in 2013 were misleading.
• Fox consistently downplays gun violence.
Fox’s bias is so bad that even some conservatives can’t stomach it. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, has said, “There are certain shows on Fox I can’t watch. Because they’re totally not fair and totally not balanced.”
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It is widely known among public relations professionals that Fox has an “enemies list” of people who are not permitted to be interviewed on the network. All proposed guests are vetted by senior executives and banned if they have criticized Fox or hold views likely to rile its conservative viewers.
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A number of surveys have found Fox views to be less well informed and more likely to have factually untrue beliefs than those who receive their news from mainstream sources. A 2003 University of Maryland study compiled a list of 9 misperceptions about the Iraq war, such as there being a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, neither of which were true, and asked people which of these misperceptions they believed. Fox viewers were more likely to be misinformed than those getting their news elsewhere.
[Note: This FAUX News misperception is still evident in this week’s Quinnipiac Poll:
71. Do you think going to war with Iraq in 2003 was the right thing for the United States to do or the wrong thing?
Tot Rep Dem Ind Men Wom Right thing 32% 62% 16% 26% 32% 32% Wrong thing 59 28 78 65 61 58 DK/NA 8 10 6 9 6 10
Going to war with Iraq was the wrong thing to do, American voters say 59 – 32 percent. Republicans support the 2003 decision 62 – 28 percent, while opposition is 78 – 16 percent among Democrats and 65 – 26 percent among independent voters.]
A 2011 survey found that Fox viewers were much more likely to be ill-informed about the Affordable Care Act than those of CNN or MSNBC.
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Another 2011 survey by the Public Religion Institute found that Fox viewers were more likely to believe that whites are as discriminated against as members of minority groups and to hold silly and bigoted views toward Muslims.
Also in 2011, Farleigh Dickinson University surveyed New Jersey residents on their knowledge of various foreign and domestic issues in the news. It found that Fox viewers were consistently more likely to have an incorrect understanding than those getting their news elsewhere.
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A follow-up poll in 2012 asked New Jersey residents 4 questions about domestic and foreign policy issues in the news. Again, Fox viewers were more likely to answer incorrectly.
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A 2015 Farleigh Dickinson national poll again found that Republicans and Fox viewers were more likely to be misinformed about factual matters relating to public policy such as the false beliefs that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Barack Obama is not a citizen of the United States.
Fox Peddles Propaganda
A number of Fox competitors and others have charged that Fox long ago ceased being anything remotely akin to an objective news source and now functions basically as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.
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Although this arrangement unquestionably aids Republicans in winning elections and votes in Congress, it is not without its downsides. One is that Fox now exercises such powerful control over the GOP that it has become the party’s kingmaker in presidential primaries. Indeed, during the 2012 election cycle, a number of aspirants for the Republican nomination had been paid Fox commentators, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. And woe to the Republican who runs afoul of Fox’s top brass or ignores their advice, as Mitt Romney did on one occasion in 2012. Fox is now so important in GOP primaries that candidates must put aside pressing campaign concerns when summoned to a Fox interview, where any error is magnified within the Republican bubble.
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Another problem is that Republican voters get so much of their news from Fox, which cheerleads whatever their candidates are doing or saying, that they suffer from wishful thinking and fail to see that they may not be doing as well as they imagine, or that their ideas are not connecting outside the narrow party base. As a recent academic study found:
Exposure to programs featured on Fox News, such as those hosted by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, resulted in a greater wishful thinking effect by Romney supporters. In other words, while Romney supporters were substantially more likely to predict their candidate would win the 2012 presidential election, watching Fox News programming exacerbated this effect. [Who can ever forget Karl Rove on election night telling Fox News viewers not to believe that the election has been called for Barack Obama. “It’s not over!”]
It may be that some Republican Fox viewers became complacent and didn’t work as hard as they might if they had been more aware of how badly Romney was doing in the final days of the campaign.
Consequently, some political observers now question whether Fox is a net plus or a net minus for Republican presidential candidates. As Columbia University political scientist Lincoln Mitchell put it after Romney’s loss:
Fox has now become a problem for the Republican Party because it keeps a far right base mobilized and angry, making it hard for the party to move to the center or increase its appeal, as it must do to remain electorally competitive….One of the reasons Mitt Romney was so unable to pivot back to the center was due to the drumbeat at Fox, which contributed to forcing him to the right during the primary season. Even after the primary season, when Fox became a big supporter for Romney, the rift between official editorial position and the political feelings of Fox viewers and hosts was clear.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum perhaps put the complicated, double-edged relationship between Fox and the GOP best when he said, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”