Recently Jon Stewart sort of apologized on his The Daily Show for saying that watchers of Fox News are the most consistently misinformed media viewers. Well, he shouldn't have. Stewart was right, and the usually accurate PolitiFact was wrong in this case.
PolitiFact came in for a lot of justified criticism when it ruled that Jon Stewart's June 19 statement, ""Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? … Fox viewers, consistently, every poll," was false.
For one thing, PolitiFact often gives a lot of leeway to politicians and public figures who make similarly bold statements. Meaning, Politifact's rulings can be quite subjective.
Consider the recent determination that David Axelrod's saying, "When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation," is only half true. Actually, PolitiFact found that it was exactly true. Massachusetts did indeed rank 47 out of 50.
But PolitiFact felt that Axelrod should only get a half true because he was implying that Romney was responsible for his state's poor job creation performance. That wasn't what Axelrod said, though. His one sentence factual statement was completely true.
PolitiFact also introduced its own peculiar dose of subjectivity when it assessed Jon Stewart's claim that Fox News viewers are the most consistently misinformed. Note that Stewart said misinformed, not uninformed.
Yet PolitiFact didn't bother to search out surveys that asked Fox News viewers for their opinion on controversial political issues where there is a factually correct perspective, and a factually wrong perspective.
Instead, PolitiFact looked on surveys that focused on basic political literarcy, like whether people knew who the vice-president of the United States is, and if this country has a trade deficit. Chris Mooney discusses this PolitiFact error in "Jon Stewart 1, PolitiFact 0."
Thus, the bulk of the studies cited by Politifact have nothing to do with whether Fox viewers believe the truth, or falsehoods, on politicized and contested issues. I cannot stress how fundamental a distinction this is. Indeed, it is quite literally a separate issue from the perspective of psychology and neuroscience.
From the point of view of the political brain, whether 2 + 2 = 4, or whether Joe Biden is the vice president, is one type of question. It’s the type of question where there’s no political stake and anyone can agree, because it doesn’t require any emotional sacrifice to do so. It therefore likely engages circuits of “cold reasoning.”
However, whether global warming is human caused is fundamentally different. The latter issue is politicized, and thus engages emotions, identity, and classic pathways of biased reasoning. It therefore likely triggers circuits of “hot reasoning.” (For a study showing why the two are so different with respect to the brain, see here.)
It is of course around contested political facts, and contested scientific facts, where we find active, politically impelled, and emotionally laden misinformation campaigns—and it is in the latter realm that Fox News viewers are clearly more misinformed. Once again, I’ve cited 5 studies to this effect—concerning the Iraq war, the 2010 election, global warming, health care reform, and the Ground Zero Mosque.
[Links to those studies can be found in this earlier Mooney post.]
In every instance, just as Jon Stewart said, Fox News viewers were considerably more misinformed than watchers of other news media.
PolitiFact has replied to the criticism of its unjustified "false" rating in a decidedly lame fashion, even though their follow-up piece included this:
By contrast, many readers argued that the only legitimate way to test Stewart’s thesis was to refer to the worldpublicopinion.org studies, since they tested the extent of beliefs that were the result of misinformation, whether it’s Barack Obama being born in Kenya or the stimulus not creating or preserving a significant number of jobs.
Steven Kull, the director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, wrote us after the story appeared to say that testing for lack of knowledge is not enough. "We analyzed the effect of increased exposure to news outlets. We found that with all other outlets, increased exposure generally resulted in less misinformation. However, for Fox viewers, on nine points of information, increased exposure correlated with increased misinformation. This was true of only one point of information for public broadcasting and MSNBC viewers, and two points of information for network news. This effect was found in the 2003 study as well. Fox viewers were the only group for whom increased exposure resulted in greater misinformation."
Kull added that, "simply on face value, such issues as knowledge of who was vice president are unlikely to be related to exposure to news outlets. Information on issues that were very foreground in media reporting and analysis, which ours were, are more likely to be related to exposure" to media outlets.
Face it, PolitiFact, you blew it this time. Surveys indeed consistently have found that Fox News viewers are more misinformed than people who watch other news networks.
To understand why, check out the lengthy list of PolitiFact-certified Fox News falsehoods that Jon Stewart cited on his show.