Fact-Free News

By Harold Meyerson
Washington Post, Wednesday, October 15, 2003; Page A23

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.

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, have spent the better part of the year tracking the public's misperceptions of major news events and polling people to find out just where they go to get things so balled up. This month they released their findings, which go a long way toward explaining why there's so little common ground in American politics today: 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.

Now, 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 Knowledge Network nudniks took that into account, and found that even among people of like mind, where they got their news still shaped their sense of the real. Among respondents who said they would vote for George W. Bush in next year's presidential race, for instance, more than three-quarters of the Fox watchers thought we'd uncovered a working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, while just half of those who watch PBS believed this to be the case.

Misperceptions can also be the result of inattention, of course. If you nod off for just a nanosecond in the middle of Tom Brokaw intoning, "U.S. inspectors did not find weapons of mass destruction today," you could think we'd just uncovered Hussein's nuclear arsenal. So the wily 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." Particularly when that news includes hyping every false lead in Iraq as the certain prelude to uncovering a massive WMD cache.

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.