The ‘most consistently misinformed media viewers’

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also flag this gem from Jon Stewart’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday” this morning. He was explaining that he, as a comedian, doesn’t deserve credibility in political media, and it’s ultimately the result of “the disappointment the public has in what the news media does.”

Chris Wallace rejected the premise, arguing that Fox News viewers “aren’t the least bit disappointed” with what their preferred network does. Stewart’s response was an important one.

“In polls,” Stewart said, in a surprisingly angry tone, “who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox. Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll.”

Wallace then changed the subject.

I suppose I can’t blame the host for that, because what Stewart said happens to be true. Fox News’ minions “aren’t the least bit disappointed” with what the Republican news network provides, but they’re not actually learning anything about current events or the world around them.

The quantifiable evidence is overwhelming. Eight years ago, just six months into the war in Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on the Republican network were “three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions — about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq.”

As Ben Armbruster noted a while back, “An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out [in 2009] found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly misinformed about health care reform proposals. A 2008 Pew study ranked Fox News last in the number of ‘high knowledge’ viewers and a 2007 Pew poll ranked Fox viewers as the least knowledgeable about national and international affairs.”

The problem is actually getting worse.

In December, PIPA published a report, this time on “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” (pdf). The point was to measure Americans’ understanding of a variety of key developments that news consumers would likely be familiar with. As was the case eight years ago, Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely” to be confused about reality.

Researchers found that Americans who paid more attention to the news were more likely to know about current events. But Americans who relied on Fox News were “significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe”:

* most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)

* most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)

* the economy is getting worse (26 points)

* most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)

* the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)

* their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)

* the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)

* when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)

* and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

This point, in particular, seems especially noteworthy: in some cases, regular Fox News viewers would have done better, statistically speaking, if they had received no news at all and simply guessed whether the claims about current events were accurate.

What’s more, this isn’t necessarily about party affiliations — Democrats who watch Fox News were worse off than Democrats who relied on legitimate news organizations (though Dems who watch Fox News were still less confused than Republicans who watch Fox News).

It would take an unlikely twist of self-reflection, but at a certain point, Fox News and its audience might take a moment to ponder why these viewers are so wrong, so often, about so much. That almost certainly won’t happen, of course, in part because the network and its viewers aren’t quite informed enough to realize they’re misinformed.

That said, Wallace is certainly correct in his observation: the network’s viewers “aren’t the least bit disappointed” with what Fox News airs.

Why would they be? Ignorance is bliss.