This post has taken a fair chunk of time to research and write. I hope you’ll all forgive me for that, I feel the depth of the subject matter necessitated a more comprehensive approach. This is a topic that should be near and dear to the hearts of anyone with conservative parents. Today, we’re looking at the media in general, with a special emphasis on Fox News.
I grew up in suburban Texas, and as a result I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence with Fox News playing on our TV from the time I got home from school to when I went to bed at night. The parade of news would stop when there were sitcoms or American Idol to be watched, but otherwise we lived lives dominated by Bill O’Reilly, Shepard Smith and Sean Hannity. During my high school years, Glenn Beck added his voice to the conservative chorus. There was a time when I considered these men arbiters of truth, courageous voices who dared to speak out from within a media establishment that was overwhelmingly left wing.
They were plain-spoken pundits of truth. Barefaced ambassadors for the common man, avatars of the sensible masses who would steer this country in a better direction if only those ‘Hollywood elites’ and biased journalists of the liberal-industrial complex would stop confusing the issues. Fox News was a lone, courageous right wing voice in a sea of left-wing propaganda. As I grew older and traveled the world, exposing myself to a wider breadth of intellectual influences, I came to realize this for the lie it was.
But my parents never did. Fox News (and, to a lesser extent, the Drudge Report) are still their primary sources of world and national news. We argue about this frequently. And their points can be summarized as follows:
1. Fox News is no more biased than CNN or ABC or CBS, and they lie less often than any of those other organizations.
2. The Media as a whole leans very far to the left. So Fox provides a necessary counter-point.
3. While Fox News may lean to the right, they always tell the truth and their viewers are no less informed than the viewers of any other news site.
As is the tradition with this blog, I’ll meet each of these assertions with the best factual information hours of googling and a few pints of Leviathan IPA can provide.
One: “Fox News is No More Biased…”
There isn’t a form of media on this earth that isn’t biased. As George Orwell said, all art is propaganda. And good journalism is art in the same manner of Ulysses and the statue of David. It exists to reveal truths about the world and influence people to think, believe and/or feel certain things. If you believe journalists can sit embedded with soldiers or cover a riot or follow a candidate on the campaign trail and not allow his opinions on those events to influence his reporting, you are ridiculously naïve. As someone who spent several years working in journalism, I have no trouble agreeing that any news source in the world will have some manner of bias.
Once again, the facts back me up here. Scientists from Washington University fed news reports from various cable sources through a robot that studied the relative frequency certain words were pared with other words. So if the station used words like “untrustworthy” “liar” and “poop-faced cockbite” next to the names of conservative policitians and policies, they had a left-wing bias. And if similar words were found with greater frequency next to the names of liberal politicians and policies, there is a detectable right-wing bias. That’s a vast oversimplification, but it gets the basic idea across. So what did they find?
In short, every station surveyed showed some manner of bias. Fox News was skewed to the right, CNN and MSNBC were skewed to the left. This was more or less in line with what I expected to learn. But an analysis this shallow can’t be the last word on the subject. So I dug a bit deeper.
Here we have a study by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism. They’re a non-partisan (as much as anyone can be) group dedicated to watching for irresponsible reportage. They did an in-depth study on the presence of personal opinions in reporting during the Iraq War coverage.
“In the degree to which journalists are allowed to offer their own opinions, Fox stands out. Across the programs studied, nearly seven out of ten stories (68%) included personal opinions from Fox’s reporters — the highest of any outlet studied by far. Just 4% of CNN segments included journalistic opinion, and 27% on MSNBC. Fox journalists were even more prone to offer their own opinions in the channel’s coverage of the war in Iraq. There 73% of the stories included such personal judgments. On CNN the figure was 2%, and on MSNBC, 29%. The same was true in coverage of the Presidential election, where 82% of Fox stories included journalist opinions, compared to 7% on CNN and 27% on MSNBC.”
So Fox reporters present their own, unverifiable opinions as fact seventeen times as often as CNN reporters. When it comes to reporting on presidential elections, their correspondents substitute personal belief for fact eleven times as often as CNN. So “We Report, You Decide” is somewhat inaccurate as a tagline. I’d suggest “We Report (On Our Personal Opinions), You Decide (Without Being Exposed to the Actual Facts)”.
Boy, that’s slightly less catchy than the original. So, if Fox is so awful about letting personal bias slip through in their reporting, I must have some pretty damning individual examples of this happening? Yup,
If I were to provide evidence that, say, MSNBC had photoshopped pictures of Fox Reporters to make them look dangerous and untrustworthy without informing their viewers of the editing, you (the conservative parent) would be incensed. Well what about when Fox News does that? Because they totally did. For a report on two New York Times journos they described as “attack dogs”, Fox presented the following images without noting that they had been altered in any way:
Wow- huge noses, big bags under the eyes, yellow teeth and massive foreheads. Those sure are some seedy, wolfish looking journalists. Now, here are the actual pictures of those men- prior to the editing by Fox.
Wow, somehow they look much less like rape-hungry predators in the unaltered pictures. Could it be that Fox deliberately manipulated those pictures to influence their viewers opinions? Well, what the hell else could it be?
Oh my, and that’s far from the only example we find. When Mark Sanford admitted his affair, Fox reported the Republican governor to be a Democrat. When Mark Foley was revealed to be a pedophile, his orientation magically switched from “R” to “D”. Sure, you can argue that they recanted both of these errors. But admitting their mistake via a press release with a far lower circulation than their cable news broadcast doesn’t exactly undo the damage.
I could keep going for days. But I won’t, because we have two other points to address and I have paying work to get to before the night is over. So let’s move on to point number…
Two: “The Media, as a whole, leans left…”
This is probably the most widespread and oft-repeated accusation in American politics. The folks who claim this usually use ‘well its obvious’ or ‘just watch TV’ as a source. But there is one legitimate, scientific origin for this belief. This comprehensive UCLA study found that, on the whole, more media outlets screwed to the left than to the right. This study got quite a lot of play across the media world. But how valid was it, really?
Well, for one thing the study was funded by three conservative think tanks. And their definition of bias, which basically looked at which politicians quoted what sources to determine where they lay on the ideological spectrum, was extremely problematic. If a study showing the opposite findings had noted the same issues of bias, I feel fairly confident my conservative friends and family would have rejected it.
But we’ll look a little deeper. At, say, this study by the Pew Research Center on ideological bias in non-profit news sites. They looked at 46 different national and state reporting agencies. And they found,
“The most liberal sites were nine operating under the umbrella of the American Independent News Network, which is funded by a variety of individuals and organizations including the Open Society Foundations founded and chaired by billionaire financier George Soros. The most conservative sites were 12 that shared the common name “Watchdog” and were funded chiefly by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which was launched in part by the libertarian group the Sam Adams Alliance.”
Of the 56% of news sources that showed strong ideological bias, 30% more showed a conservative bias than a liberal bias. Other studies have shown the general mass of reporting to scew further to the right than to the left”. But it’s worth noting that substantial amounts of diligent research will pull up many sources who argue for either a left or a right wing bias. There isn’t a clear, authoritative answer to this question that puts one side ahead of the other.
But we’re not trying to prove a conservative bias in the general media here. Nor are we trying to refute that many sources lean to the left. All this blog post attempts to show is that there is absolutely no evidence of left wing domination over American news media. The idea that the mainstream media has any sort of monolithic political opinion is entirely unsupported by the data that I have been able to gather. Mom and Dad, you are speaking without support. Or, as a cruder man would put it, you are talking out of your asses. So, at the risk of lapsing into more pointed language, let’s move on to point number…
Three: “Fox Viewers Are No Less Informed Than Anyone Else”
Even my parents will agree that Fox News leans more to the right than their competitors. And only the craziest of crazies would assert that they have a bias that skews anywhere but in the favor of conservative policymakers. But we’ve already established that bias is inherent to the craft of news reporting. Fox may favor the right wing, but there’s no evidence that they do a worse job of informing the public than their left-loving fellows at CNN or ABC. Except, of course, there is.
Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted a pole of New Jersey residents which found that Fox News viewers tend to be less informed than people who watch no news at all.
“For example, people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.”
But hey, that’s just one study. As always, we need to look a wee bit deeper. So I dredged up this study by Ohio State on the spread of erroneous facts about the so-called TERROR MOSQUE in New York City. Scientists looked at four inaccurate beliefs about the proposed worship/community center:
“‐ Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam backing the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, is a terrorist‐sympathizer who refuses to condemn Islamic attacks on civilians.
‐ The Muslim groups building the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque have deep ties to radical anti‐American and anti‐Semitic organizations.
‐ The proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero is scheduled to open on September 11, 2011 in celebration of the 10‐year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.
‐ The money for the proposed Islamic cultural center is coming primarily from foreign financial backers associated with terrorist organizations in Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
All of these “facts” are disputed by the Pulitzer-prize winning Politicfact and FactCheck.org. In other words, they are complete bullshit with no factual backing whatsoever. And yet, viewers who report a “high reliance” on Fox News are 35% more likely to believe these non-facts. It’s worth noting that,
“In contrast, reliance on other cable news networks, including CNN and MSNBC, does not
influence rumor exposure.”
So viewers of Fox News are more likely to believe things that are demonstrably untrue. While viewers of other cable news sources are no more likely to believe horseshit than the general population. The University of Maryland conducted a further study on the matter found that regular Fox viewers were “significantly more likely” to believe any of seven non-factual statements about the American political climate.
“In addition, the study said, increased viewership of Fox News led to increased belief in these false stories.”
The study itself is rather damning. But what’s really pertinent here is the Fox corporate response. Michael Clemente, SVP of Fox, said this:
“”The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.'”
Which is an entirely fallacious claim. The U of Maryland actually ranks as the 19th best “party school”, nowhere near the top. And “the Princeton Review says the University of Maryland ranks among the “Best Northeastern Colleges.” So, true to form, when Fox News hears something they don’t like, they pen the responsibility for denigrating the source on someone else (who never agreed with their assertions) and blatantly lie about that source’s real qualifications. Meanwhile, the Universities actual assertions remain entirely unchallenged. Probably because they are true.