Jon Stewart 1, Politifact 0: Fox News Viewers Are The Most Misinformed

I have a lot of respect for political fact checking sites. I think they play a critical role, especially in our misinformation-saturated political and media environment.

However, sometimes these sites fall for the allure of phony bipartisanship. In other words, in an environment in which conservatives are more inaccurate and more misinformed about science and basic policy facts, the “fact checkers” nevertheless feel unduly compelled to correct “liberal” errors too—which is fine, as long as they are really errors.

But sometimes they aren’t. A case in point is Politifact’s recent and deeply misguided attempt to correct Jon Stewart on the topic of…misinformation and Fox News. This is a subject on which we’ve developed some expertise here…my recent post on studies showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed, on an array of issues, is the most comprehensive such collection that I’m aware of, at least when it comes to public opinion surveys detecting statistical correlations between being misinformed about contested facts and Fox News viewership. I’ve repeatedly asked whether anyone knows of additional studies—including contradictory studies—but none have yet been cited.

Stewart, very much in the vein of my prior post, went on the air with Fox’s Chris Wallace and stated,

“Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.”

My research, and my recent post, most emphatically supports this statement. Indeed, I cited five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) separate public opinion studies in support of it—although I carefully noted that these studies do not prove causation (e.g., that watching Fox News causes one to be more misinformed). The causal arrow could very well run the other way—believing wrong things could make one more likely to watch Fox News in the first place. 

But the fundamental point is, when it comes to believing political misinformation and watching Fox News, I know of no other studies than these five–though I’d be glad to see additional studies produced. Until then, these five all point in one obvious direction.

Every poll,” to quote Stewart.

Politifact wasn’t even aware of the studies I’ve cited. Instead, the site’s attempt to debunk Stewart largely relied on misunderstanding what he meant.

What Stewart obviously meant—and what I mean—is that when it comes to politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky due to political biases, it is Fox viewers who are the most likely to believe incorrect things—to fall prey to misinformation. A quintessential example of such an issue is global warming, or whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or was collaborating with Al Qaeda. There are many, many others.

To rebut Stewart’s claim, Politifact relied upon irrelevant and off-point studies. Thus, the site cited a number of Pew surveys that examine basic political literacy and relate it to what kind of media citizens consume. E.g., questions like whether people know “who the vice president is, who the president of Russia is, whether the Chief Justice is conservative, which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and whether the U.S. has a trade deficit.

Too few citizens know the answers to such basic questions—which is lamentable, but also irrelevant in the current context. These are not contested issues, nor are they skewed by an active misinformation campaign. As a result, on such issues, many Americans may be ill-informed but liberals and conservatives are nevertheless able to agree.

Moreover, on such issues, I would expect cable news viewers of all types to be generally better informed than the general public, because such viewers are, by definition, politically engaged—they care about politics. So they are more likely to know the baseline stuff, whatever channel they watch. (Politifact partly acknowledges the criticism here, but still tries to save face.)

That’s precisely what was found in a study of a related type of media: Right wing talk radio. C. Richard Hofstetter of San Diego State and his colleagues found of right wing radio listeners that “despite the flamboyance of many hosts and messages, audiences nevertheless appear to hold higher levels of information in association with involvement with political talk.” And yet at the same time, the researchers also found that “exposure to conservative talk shows was related to increased misinformation, while exposure to moderate political talk shows was related to decreased levels of political misinformation, after controlling for other variables.” In other words, this study found something very similar to what has been repeatedly found about Fox.

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. By contrast, Politifact only cites two of these studies, and attempts to critique one of them (the 2010 election study)—misguidedly to my mind, but who really even cares. It is obvious where the weight of the evidence lies at this point, unless further, relevant studies are brought to bear.

As a result of all of this, Politifact should either produce relevant research to rebut Stewart, or run a far more forthcoming retraction than has been issued so far. Note, however, that the issue grew a tad more complicated last night when Stewart did an excellent segment on all of this, where he both dramatized how much Fox misinformed viewers and yet also kind of conceded Politifact’s point, when he didn’t actually have to. He wasn’t wrong. They were wrong.

When the fact checkers fail—and in this case, they not only failed, they generated a falsehood of their own–they have a special responsibility to self-correct.

UPDATE: I’ve run across (thanks to Steve Benen) a sixth survey that supports Stewart. It is a 2009 NBC News poll about health care misinformation, and guess what? 

In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly. But it would be incorrect to suggest that this is ONLY coming from conservative viewers who tune in to FOX. In fact, 41% of CNN/MSNBC viewers believe the misinformation about illegal immigrants, 39% believe the government takeover stuff, 40% believe the abortion misperception, and 30% believe the stuff about pulling the plug on grandma. What’s more, a good chunk of folks who get their news from broadcast TV (NBC, ABC, CBS) believe these things, too.


I noticed another occasion lately where politi fact claimed that what a liberal said was false, even though it was about 80% true. In fact if you read the text it only barely proved them wrong on a technicality.

What Stewart said was true ISH, it was in the spirit of the truth, it was not a made up thing that does not exist or a completely false reading of a number. It was based on a subset of research. Is that really false? Or just a potentially misleading oversimplification?

last line, they show what they debunked. Politifact’s main contention is the phrase “every poll”, emphasis on “every”. They do not go after the “consistently” part. So, in that regard, they are correct. After all, reasonably there’s no way they’d rank that way in “every poll”. That said, it’s a weak point for Fox to hang their hat on. b

They admitted that Fox News viewers was the group with the highest percentage of “misperceptions” about factual data, which was what Jon Stewart was talking about. But how can one get “misperceptions,” unless what they perceive to be so is not so? How does one get misperceptions? Could it be from being misinformed? I’m guessing mmmmmmmmmmmaybe.

All Murdocks news outlets probably fit this picture.
For example:

The Wall St Journal has printed absolute rubbish on global warming.

The Australian newspaper has been so egregious in this regard, that Tim Lambert, at Deltoid blog, has written something like 61 articles titled. - The Australian’s War on Science.

What this article has to do with the “environment” is anyone’s guess.

It’s clear that, run by James Hoggan & Associates Public Relations Inc., is really nothing more than yet another far left-wing hate site, funded by millionaires.

There was a time when the environmental movement still had some legitimacy. It has long ago been co-opted and infiltrated by the political left to advance their agenda. Sad.

….because your tipical left-wing extremeists get funding from millionaires. Is say, “bravo!” for squeezing so much implausibility in so little space.

John Lefebvre, millionaire convicted money-launderer, funds Desmosgblog.

And how many billions is George Soros worth?

Not so implausible now, is it?

“Irrelevant” – True, the facts usually are irrlevant to neo-Marxists – oops, I mean, “environmentalists” – particularly when you’ve just lost another argument, and beclowned yourself. Again.

Funny how it’s not so “irrelevant” when you crybabies are wailing pitifully about the Koch brothers.

Oh, then it’s completely “relevant”, LOL!

You are bitchin’ about crybabies wailing about the Kochs while crying yourself. Damn hypocrite.

there are liberals who are millionaires and fund stuff, ergo any media outlet that’s liberal is funded by millionaires? That circumvents logic completely and is irrelevant.

And to the example you specify, it is relevant when public officials are given campaign contributions from a rich source because that turns the government that the official is running for into an oligarchy, which is a leap and bound from totalitarianism.

as for the rest of what you have to say, it’s as irrelevant as the quotations you use.

Chris wrote: “What Stewart obviously meant—and what I mean—is that when it comes to politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky due to political biases, it is Fox viewers who are the most likely to believe incorrect things—to fall prey to misinformation. A quintessential example of such an issue is global warming…” It helps if you actually read our articles before you repeat your inaccurate troll talking points.

Because we all know that there are plenty of millionaire and billionaire businesses lining up to support the environment.

Mr. Mooney, damn good analysis! This is the first time I’ve read your work but it won’t be the last.


It helps if you actually read our articles before you repeat your inaccurate troll talking points. And may I add..LOL?!

From an independent’s point of view, both left and right are not really uniformed or misinformed. They are simply blinded by ideology, caught in the construct of the corporatist plutocracy. Can’t you see that you are pawns pitted against each other by the globalist chess masters.

So it’s acknowledged that Fox viewers are about average on knowing simple facts that aren’t contested, like who the Vice-President is. The problem is that Fox viewers are wrong or misinformed about politicized or contested facts. OK. But then, as one of the World Public Opinion surveys admits, the problem becomes how do we objectively determine what the truth is when facts are contested. Their answer is- basically- that what the experts say is the truth is the truth.

So when these surveys ask about global warming, the arbiters of facts are the “majority of scientists”. When they ask about health care reform, the Congressional Budget Office is the expert. On the US economy, it’s a “majority of economists”. Does this seem right?

It’s been a staple of news reporting on HCR that the CBO is required by law to spit out calculations based on whatever numbers congress inputs, no matter how absurd the underlying assumptions. Basic GIGO there.

And majorities of whatever expert profession you care to name have been and will continue to be wrong more often than any of us likes to think about. You don’t know history if you can’t see that.

So this business of Fox viewers being wrong on contested facts really comes down to who they (and you) trust to be the arbiter of what the truth is. So a great number of FNC viewers are misinformed- that means they don’t trust the same experts that you do. Why would that be? Our expert class has done a fabulous job so far.

I second that.

Global warming is an excellent example to use for this discussion. Though “a majority of scientists” may agree that we’re facing global warming, that’s not all scientists, and the ones who disagree aren’t all a bunch of crazy hacks. It’s not a “fact” in the same way that Joe Biden is the vice president, it’s an opinion, granted the opinion of people smarter and more knowledgeable of the topic than any of us here, but still an opinion. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that similarly smart people said we were heading for another ice age. You can’t be “misinformed” for not subscribing to an opinion, no matter how popular it is.

PolitiFact’s stance, though, was based on Stewart’s assertion that Fox News viewers are consistently the most misinformed, in every poll. Granted, they are listed low in some polls, but not in every poll. Stewart himself even conceded that.

“Global warming is an excellent example to use for this discussion. Though “a majority of scientists” may agree that we’re facing global warming, that’s not all scientists” This is a typical argument meant to distract from a level of agreement amongst experts that is described as consensus. Same approaches were used by tobacco companies, and those polluting air, water and food. Where would be be without experts - lower life expectancy, lower civil and rights, no constitution… It can be touch for some but experts know better than most the population but they face the wrath of special interests who exploit the poorly informed public.

Are you sure of this? Every poll I’ve seen shows that FNC viewers are, by a large margin, perhaps 5-9%, the most knowledgeable viewers. MSNBC viewers are the worst, followed by the networks sans ABC, followed by CNN, followed by ABC. I’ve seen this repeatedly in polls.

I never attributed it to FOX though. Many people who watch FNC are old, so I attributed it to that. You get smarter as you get older. Hopefully at least.

Can you link to them? Frankly Id have a hard time believing you. The entire world laughs at Fox News. It is synonymous with the worst type of propaganda disinformation. Over my side of the Atlantic not even a right winger would trust anything from that US Pravda outfit.

Wait, what?

“In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants…”

You believe that this is a mistake? Haha, who’s the idiot now? Wait and see, mon frere. I suspect that this is an example of how they judged FNC viewers as less knowledgeable. Like the time that they said that there would be death panels and Obama laughed it off… and then created the death panel.

Wait, what? Death panels exist????? Where did you get that piece of crap? Fox News?

“exposure to conservative talk shows was related to increased misinformation, while exposure to moderate political talk shows was related to decreased levels of political misinformation, …”

Let me add the term ‘dis-information’ to the continuum of uninformed to misinformed since what we’re attempting to measure is the exposure to deception. The nice way of describing Fox’s influence on its viewership is to ‘misinform’ them but the key issue is intent, even though this is harder to prove. Moreover, the term ‘misinform’ still preserves to some degree the knowledge-of-facts frame whereas the term ‘dis-inform’ denotes – at least in my opinion – an intention to suppress or distort truth.

Disagreements over climatological findings aren’t true debates in the sense that both sides have a desire to discover the truth, but rather, there’s an asymmetry of motivations. The goal for many critics of AGW is to defeat their perceived opposition by any means necessary. The following excerpt illustrates this strategy.

“Political warfare in short, is warfare–not public relations. It is
one part persuasion and two parts deception…. The aim of political
warfare…is to discredit, displace, and neutralize an opponent, to
destroy a competing ideology, and to reduce the adherents to political
impotence. It is to make one’s own values prevail by working the
levers of power, as well as by using persuasion.” (Frank Barnett, 1961).

“Jon Stewart 1, Politifact 0: Fox News Viewers Are The Most Misinformed”

I have to say, that kinda sounds like someone who’s misinformed might say. The facts are clearly with the FNC viewers. They’re slightly more well informed than the other viewers. Get over it. You should probably just say, “They’re smarter because they’re so old” or something. That way you’d still get a pretty good jab in.

Trying to misinform people that FNC viewers are not the more intelligent group is just going to make you look dumb, as if the polls didn’t already do that.

Seriously, go with, ‘damn, they’re old.’

Did you even read the 5 polls he linked to? They pretty clearly show Fox news viewers being the most likely to be misinformed.