Just Above Sunset Archives

October 19, 2003 Opinion

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)


Thoughts on nailing mashed potatoes to a wall.  Or - "We report, you decide."  "Disseminating Ignorance."  Basically, how watching the news can actually sometimes make you dumber, and have you believe things that just aren't so. 
Wednesday of this last week, Harold Meyerson had a piece in the Washington Post which was a summary, a bit of a sarcastic summary, of a study that has been in the news for the last two or three weeks.  [ Reference: Fact-Free News Wednesday, October 15, 2003; page A23 of the Washington Post, URL:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27061-2003Oct14.html
Meyerson reviewed the results of a study done by researchers from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (a joint project of several academic centers, some of them based at the University of Maryland) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.  These folks have spent almost a year tracking the public's misperceptions of major news events and polling people to find out just where they go to get things flat out wrong. 
Statistically, those who consistently get the actual facts wrong about what our country has done and is doing - and about much of what is happening in the world - use Fox News as their usual source of information.  The Fox News folks mocked this study on the air repeatedly.  CNN said little.  PBS reported it as a curiosity.  There were many, many folks writing about this in the opinion journals and the blogs.  Meyerson was actually a bit late in weighing in.
Meyerson nudges a little humorous idea at the end of his analysis, as if too afraid to come out and say it.  His particular conceit?  While most television and radio news organizations exist to provide facts, information, and some interpretation of events they believe of interest to their viewers, they do not assemble news shows with the intent to lie and deceive.  They may intend to pander to the bloodlust, plain old lust, greed and nosiness of their jaded audience, but they do not intend to actually lie, to make things up, to ignore some events and make others up.  Meyerson floats the suggestion that Roger Ailes, the fellow who runs things day to day at Fox News, does intend both those things - lying and pandering.  He suggests Fox News does this thing with the aim of "moving votes into Bush's column and keeping them there."
All in all I found Meyerson far too polite - he won't just come out and state the obvious but, rather, calls his idea a "wild flight of fancy."  He is strongly implying Fox News is not a news organization.  It is a wildly successful campaign organization for those now in power in Washington.  Why not just say that?  Why not argue it logically with precise examples?  Why be cute?
I would guess the Washington Post does not want to incur the wrath of Fox News, or have them sue the Post at the urging of Bill O'Reilly.  Or more importantly, being too blunt would get the Post cut off from its sources in the government - its leakers and informants.  Oh well.
From the Meyerson piece:
Ever worry that millions of your fellow Americans are walking around knowing things that you don't? That your prospects for advancement may depend on your mastery of such arcana as who won the Iraqi war or where exactly Europe is?
Then don't watch Fox News. The more you watch, the more you'll get things wrong.
After he introduces the study Meyerson summarizes the results:
... People are proceeding from radically different sets of facts, some so different that they're altogether fiction.
In a series of polls from May through September, the researchers discovered that large minorities of Americans entertained some highly fanciful beliefs about the facts of the Iraqi war. Fully 48 percent of Americans believed that the United States had uncovered evidence demonstrating a close working relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Another 22 percent thought that we had found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And 25 percent said that most people in other countries had backed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. Sixty percent of all respondents entertained at least one of these bits of dubious knowledge; 8 percent believed all three.
The researchers then asked where the respondents most commonly went to get their news. The fair and balanced folks at Fox, the survey concludes, were "the news source whose viewers had the most misperceptions." Eighty percent of Fox viewers believed at least one of these un-facts; 45 percent believed all three. Over at CBS, 71 percent of viewers fell for one of these mistakes, but just 15 percent bought into the full trifecta. And in the daintier precincts of PBS viewers and NPR listeners, just 23 percent adhered to one of these misperceptions, while a scant 4 percent entertained all three.
Meyerson does talk about the obvious, how this could just be "pre-sorting by ideology: Conservatives watch O'Reilly, liberals look at Lehrer, and everyone finds his belief system confirmed."  But the study took that into account, and found that even among people of like mind, where they got their news still shaped their notion of what were the actual facts.  Among those who said they would vote for Bush in next year's election more than three-quarters of the Fox watchers thought the United States had uncovered a working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, while just half of those who watch PBS believed this to be so.  And this is even after Bush and Rumsfeld have said, publicly, well, there really was no connection at all.  The vice president, Cheney, is still maintaining there might have been a connection - "We just don't know."
Now news consumers (viewers) getting the basic facts wrong could be a matter of just not paying attention - hearing something is so and then not paying attention to the retraction or denial.  But the researchers also controlled for intensity of viewership, and concluded that, "in the case of those who primarily watched Fox News, greater attention to news modestly increases the likelihood of misperceptions." 
Well, Fox did report every possible discovery of weapons of mass destruction, touting it as - "This may it - the SMOKING GUN!"  Then they would later say, well, maybe next time. 
Meyerson concludes with the "fanciful" suggestion that while this may be bad news reporting, a failure to present facts, is may be quite successful Republican campaigning. [... emphasis mine ]
One question inevitably raised by these findings is whether Fox News is failing or succeeding. Over at CBS, the news that 71 percent of viewers hold one of these mistaken notions should be cause for concern, but whether such should be the case at Fox because 80 percent of their viewers are similarly mistaken is not at all clear.  Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and the other guys at Fox have long demonstrated a clearer commitment to changing public policy than to reporting it, and an even clearer commitment to reporting it in such a way as to change it.
Take a wild flight of fancy with me and assume for just a moment that one major goal over at Fox is to ensure Bush's reelection. Surely, anyone who believes that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots, that we've found the WMD and that Bush is revered among the peoples of the world - all of these known facts to nearly half the Fox viewers - is a good bet to be a Bush voter in next year's contest. By this standard - moving votes into Bush's column and keeping them there - Fox has to be judged a stunning success. It's not so hot on conveying information as such, but mere empiricism must seem so terribly vulgar to such creatures of refinement as Murdoch and Ailes.
When I sent out a note discussing this with my friends, Rick Brown, a retired news guy who once actually worked for Roger Ailes - or maybe he worked for him twice - sent this along:
Myerson may be late on getting around to this study, but I must admit, I hadn't seen it until you sent me this.
Up until now, trying to find solid evidence to support the argument that Fox leans conservative has been like trying to tack mashed potatoes to the wall, but this survey seems to nail it fairly well.
Maybe someday, some study will show, specifically and conclusively, how Fox, through its coverage and reporting, accomplishes this feat of disseminating ignorance. Or maybe it will show that they don't; maybe its just that the kind of viewers who watch Fox come with preconceived (or should I say "prepercieved") notions of what's happening out there, and Fox simply does nothing to upgrade their mindsets.
But there was another bit of evidence of Fox's bias I saw over this last weekend.  In his article, "Notion Building." in The New York Times Magazine, writer Matt Bai shows John Podesta trying to get his new "Center for American Progress" off the ground, arguing that, while Republicans "have a dozen think tanks," this actually may be the only one for Democrats.
While researching the article, Bai attended a meeting of the conservative "Free Congress Foundation," founded by Paul Weyrich (who also founded the Heritage Foundation) and was treated to this pep-talk by Weyrich to his troops:

"'There are 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts,' Weyrich boasted. "You have Fox News. You have the Internet, where all the successful sites are conservative. The ability to reach people with our point of view is like nothing we have ever seen before!'"

Remember to cite this reference the next time you hear Roger Ailes or any of his minions try to pass Fox off as centrist in nature. Tell them if that were true, the founder of the Heritage Foundation would not be claiming Fox as one of their own.
Indeed.  I did tell Rick that if you plug "Program on International Policy Attitudes" into the GOOGLE news search engine and youll see the last seventy or so articles on the topic.  Myerson was late, but not alone.
The study in question was published October 2nd and the full results are here - http://www.pipa.org/ - "Misperceptions, The Media and The Iraq War - A PIPA/Knowledge Networks Study."  TruthOut.com here - http://www.truthout.org/docs_03/100403F.shtml - has a useful table of the results.  Most of the opinion sites, left and right, do not have internal search engines so it's a little hard to reference all the rants.  Not that they matter.
As for the evidence Rick seeks about Fox News, it's not that folks aren't trying to nail those particular mashed potatoes to the wall. 
Along with Al Frankens Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them we will next week have Michael Moore's Dude, Wheres My Country?  The Guardian in the UK has been publishing excerpts from the Moore book - some last week, some this week.  In print now are Molly Ivins' Bushwhacked, Joe Conason's Big Lies and Eric Altermans What Liberal Media?  The Conason book specifically deconstructs Fox News in a few places.  The Alterman book has been out for a year or two - it's general, nor current.

As for nailing "specific" mashed potatoes to that particular Fox News wall?  At http://www.oreilly-sucks.com/ you will find some of that, but that hits one guy, not the whole operation, as does http://www.hannityisamoron.com/ of course.

But note this: "I challenge anybody to show me an example of bias in Fox News Channel." - Rupert Murdoch (Salon Magazine, 3/1/01). 

The folks doing this study report on the effect, but don't speak much to the causes.  The books mentioned above sort of do that.  A full media analysis of Fox News?  None yet.

My impression of those I know who swear Fox is the only really fair news source?  They believe that. 
Tell them Fox News makes it so the believe things that just aren't so?  They get quite angry. 
I wouldn't go so far to say it's a victim thing, where they feel the rich, Jewish, New York, liberal, college or even (horrors!) grad school educated touchy-feely folks are ganging up on the honorable hard-working white guys who know reading too much is a crock of shit and foreigners are coming here to steal our white women.  But it's something like that.

It seems that railing against the liberal media and keeping certain misconceptions alive serves a purpose.  1.) No, Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were not working together at all.  There is no evidence.  At all.  The President and the Secretary of Defense have now said that, on record.  2.) No, we did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we so carefully listed, by amount with likely location.  David Kay's report last week found one vial of botulism culture that had been stored in a fellow's refrigerator for the last ten years.  That's it.  And Kay explicitly said there was no nuclear weapons program at all.  None.  Only Vice President Cheney is still saying that, well, maybe there could have been something and one never knows.  His position is unique.  3.) Oh, and by the way, world opinion was not with us regerding this preemptive/preventative/prophylactic war, no matter what Fox News says.  Almost all other sources report that not just most major governments and the United Nations, but most ordinary citizens around the world, thought an immediate war to overthrow the government of Iraq was a stunningly bad idea.
I guess it comes down to who you're going to believe.

What's the point of Fox News, and until recently the current administration, keeping alive things they know not to be true?  It's a matter of who controls what people think are facts, and that is the source of the political power to get what you want.

Sometimes lying - or suggesting enough to make sure folks think the wrong things - backfires.  Folks just laugh when you tell them black is white and white is black and the sky is falling.  Just think about those who try to control the facts elsewhere, in order to keep deep fear and resentment alive, in order to gain and keep political power. 

In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen tried that and he is an embarrassment, pretty much a cruel joke, or is now.  In Austria that Jörg Haider fellow sank back to obscurity.  Silvio Berlusconi lauds Mussolini in Italy, but Silvio seems more of a buffoon as each day passes, kind of like Mussolini was.  Berlusconi may own most of the press and almost all of the television outlets in Italy, but folks know when they're being fed crap. 

Over here their conservative brothers control a large block of opinion, maybe half of it, and, it would seem, control what folks think are the facts.  Oh well.  Something to work on.  Laughter might actually work.

And as for Rick Brown's nailing stuff to the wall metaphor?  Somehow one thinks of Martin Luther nailing something or other to a door way back when.  It was a dramatic gesture.  Time for another?

Reaction? -- Send a comment to me via the "Contact" page.

October 19, 2003  [ Typographical errors corrected October 20, 2003 per Rick Brown ]

Other Current Topics:

These are a continuation of several "open forum" pages.  I will not add to them myself.  Send your comments to be posted to these topics, or suggest additional topics.