Jon Stewart recently went on Fox News and said, “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? ... Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.” The St. Petersburg Times evaluated the claim and deemed it “false,” but its investigation reveals a lot more about the sorry state of news and the problems with trying to identify informed Americans.
As you can tell from the video below, Stewart is otherwise as intelligent, charming and funny as usual.
Regardless, we should first explain why Stewart’s claim is false. The paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact project looked at five polls and found only one that strongly backed Stewart’s claim that Fox viewers were the most misinformed. Other news outlets, the morning shows, for instance, lagged behind Fox in some polls. Also, there were some Fox shows, Bill O’Reilly’s in one poll, that had relatively “informed” viewers (we’ll explain those quotes in a minute). Saying that “consistently, every poll” found Fox News viewers to be the most misinformed is just wrong. However, the network overall did poorly in every poll. Stewart would have been correct to say “polls show that Fox News does a bad job of informing its viewers” or “there’s a poll that shows that Fox News has significantly more misinformed viewers than other major media organizations.”
Why the quotes around “informed”? Because these polls are flawed, to say the least. For the most part, respondents are asked where they get their news and a series of questions like “who is the secretary of state?” and “which party controls the House of Representatives?” If you watch Fox News, a network that has been bashing Hillary Clinton since she ran for class president (an intentional exaggeration, fact checkers), you’re likely going to know her current job. You might also think that global warming isn’t real, dinosaurs once shared the Earth with man and Saddam Hussein was the 20th hijacker.
One 2003 poll asked respondents three factual questions about the war in Iraq (excerpted below from PolitiFact):
“Is it your impression that the U.S. has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaida terrorist organization?” “Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the US has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?” And whether, “The majority of people favor the US having gone to war.”
Not surprisingly, that’s the poll that shows Fox News doing the worst job of informing its viewers. As PolitiFact tells it:
On these questions, Fox clearly did the worst among the major news outlets. The “misperception rate” for Fox was 45 percent. The highest for other news outlets was CBS News at 36 percent; those with lower “misperception rates” included CNN, ABC, NBC, the print media and NPR/PBS, which was lowest at 11 percent.
Fox News isn’t always the least informative network when it comes to the absorption of names and titles. When it comes to the facts behind the names and titles, Fox News betrays its viewers. Stewart is wrong that Fox consistently has the most misinformed viewers. It’s a good thing he said so on Fox News, where viewers are used to misstatements and falsehoods. —PZS