Tuesday, November 3, 2009


If you watched Fox News, never having seen or heard of it before, it would not take you long to discern its strong right-wing bias. There are those who say that the bias is on the 'opinion' shows and not the 'news' shows, but the fact is that even on the news shows the story selection and the giving of credence to unproven assertions (reported as a 'controversy') that always favor the right rather than the left would be evidence enough that the bias affects everything shown by the channel. Another hint, however, would be that the channel was created by right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and the man he hired as its president was Roger Ailes, a staunch Republican who worked on right-wing political campaigns and was well-known in the political world for ruthless attack ad tactics. From the beginning, Fox asserted that it was 'fair and balanced' as opposed to the other media, all of whom supposedly had a liberal bent. This assertion, ludicrous on its face, signaled what was to become more and more clear as time went on: by giving the news and opinion shows from a conservative point of view while insisting that it was not, Fox would function as a propagandist for the right, creating and broadcasting its own version of reality: the one in which conservative ideas are always correct and validated, while liberal ideas are wrong, and even dangerous to the country. Fox would be the channel of American flags, 'heartland values', 'real' Americans, churchgoers, and ordinary working people tired of 'big government'.

From its beginning in 1996 to the present, Fox has gradually increased its audience to the point where in sheer numbers, it has passed CNN and leads by a significant margin. Its audience, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly conservative. Being in Japan, I don't and can't watch it, but I can see numerous YouTube and other video clips of it, and it's quite amazing. It occurred to me recently that if you watched only that channel for news, and uncritically believed everything it said, you would have political 'knowledge' that differed substantially from what most of us would consider the facts. In fact, surveys have shown that people who get their news primarily from Fox do more poorly on tests of knowledge of political information than those who get it from most other sources, and are more likely to believe factually inaccurate points of view pushed by conservatives. In essence, Fox News creates its own reality, and offers it to those who feel comfortable basking in the knowledge that everything they believe is correct.

As is true on the other cable networks, the opinion shows are much more popular on Fox than the regular news, and therefore, more is offered. On CNN, opinion shows like Crossfire featured liberals and conservatives arguing with each other, spouting talking points. The more heated the debate, the higher ratings the shows got. On Fox, the opinion shows only featured conservatives, except for one show (now gone) called Hannity and Colmes, in which the milquetoast liberal Colmes performed for Hannity the same function that the Washington Generals did for the Harlem Globetrotters. The more conservative the show, the more the audience liked it. The more anti-liberal assertions the hosts made, the more the viewers ate it up. This created a vicious circle: the conservative viewpoint got more extreme, which excited the viewers more and gave them a more and more skewed version of reality. The increased ratings pushed Fox to put on more and more extreme voices, and for those voices to be more extreme, which got even higher ratings, and skewed the viewpoint of the audience even further, which made Fox go even further to the right... you get the idea. This explains most of the absurd anti-Obama charges that were made during the campaign: Obama was a Muslim, he was born in Kenya, he sympathized with terrorists ('palled around' with them, as Sarah Palin famously charged during the campaign), hated white people, and so forth. Dismissed by the general population as ridiculous–53% of Americans did end up voting for him, after all–these charges were widely believed by Fox News viewers.

So, for a while I've had a general sense of the dynamic of this, but I recently read a detailed analysis which puts the whole question into sharp and disturbing focus. A political consulting firm conducted detailed focus group interviews with two groups: one group of conservative Georgians who watch (and believe) Fox News, and a group of conservative-leaning indepenents from Cleveland who didn't, or did only occasionally. While the two groups had generally similar leanings, what they believed about politics was very different.

The Fox viewers (quoting from the report):
The self-identifying conservative Republicans who make up the base of the Republican Party stand a world apart from the rest of America, according to focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps. These base Republican voters dislike Barack Obama to be sure – which is not very surprising as base Democrats had few positive things to say about George Bush – but these voters identify themselves as part of a ‘mocked’ minority with a set of shared beliefs and knowledge, and commitment to oppose Obama that sets them apart from the majority in the country. They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism. While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country’s founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail.

The conservative-leaning independents:
For additional perspective, Democracy Corps conducted a parallel set of groups in suburban Cleveland. These groups, comprised of older, white, non-college independents and weak partisans, represent some of the most conservative swing voters in the electorate, and they demonstrated a wholly different worldview from Republican base voters by dismissing the fear of “socialism” and evaluating Obama in very different terms. Most importantly, regardless of their personal feelings toward Obama or how they voted in 2008, they very much want to see him succeed because they believe the country desperately needs the change he promised in his campaign. Though we kept discussion points constant between the two sets of groups, on virtually every point of discussion around President Obama and the major issues facing our country, these two audiences simply saw the world in fundamentally different ways – underscoring the extreme disconnect of the conservative Republican base voters.

I'll cut and paste a few of the more remarkable comments and conclusions of the report:

The notion that Obama’s health care reforms represent a government takeover of all aspects of health care is an article of faith; they reject as laughable the suggestion that it might not, pointing to his arguments to the contrary as further proof of his determination to lie and deceive to fulfill his ultimate agenda.

This is a good example of what happens when you believe an alternate reality: if someone tells you the truth, instead of considering the possibility that it might be true, you call them a liar, which to you is obvious because are clearly not telling the truth: because, after all, you know the truth.

A central part of the collective identity built by conservative Republicans in the current political environment is their belief that they possess knowledge and insight that the majority of Americans – whether too lazy or too misguided to find it for themselves – do not possess. A combination of conservative media outlets are the means by which they have gained this knowledge, led by FOX News (“the truth tellers“), and to a lesser degree conservative talk radio. Their antipathy and distrust toward the mainstream media could not be stronger, and they fiercely defend FOX as the only truly objective news outlet.

So, looking at the world through their eyes, the Obama presidency is a very scary time, and only they know the truth. No wonder they're frantically trying to stop everything he does.

One man in the conservative group said:

I don’t just watch FOX News. I’ll watch CNN, I’ll watch regular you know prime time news just to get the comparison of the story and kind of figure out where the truth lies and facts don’t lie, and I think FOX News is reporting the facts… The other news stations aren’t picking this up and running with it tells you that, you know, I mean it tells you something.

Again, if you start from the notion that only Fox is objective and correct, then one can see where this would be disturbing. It's quite remarkable: it's as if a small but significant portion of the country has bought into a giant conspiracy theory.

Building an Underground Movement

The final aspect of the collective identity shared by conservative Republicans is the call to action. The attacks they suffer for their values and the special knowledge they share as a result of their devotion to conservative media and active rejection of mainstream media are ultimately meaningless if it does not help defeat Obama and his hidden agenda. This is where the sense of collective purpose is greatest. They see a nascent movement building, still not fully realized or activated but with a growing number of people watching and listening, growing increasingly frustrated, and looking for ways to stop the growing threat they perceive.

I strongly urge anyone who has more than a passing interest in American politics to read the whole report. It's long–it probably takes 20-30 minutes to read–but it's extremely informative, and explains a great deal. Most importantly, it explains why the Republican Party is tilting so strongly to the right: its base supporters have become more and more extreme, to the point that they disdain any cooperation with Obama or the Democrats whatsoever. It also explains why the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Republicans–20%–is at an all-time low. Many people, like the ones in Cleveland, can't stomach what the party has become, typified by Sarah Palin, who the Fox News viewers love.

So exactly what percentage of U.S. citizens, and what percentage of conservatives, can be described as the report does? The report doesn't give a number, though I'm sure there are numbers out there that would give a good approximation. But I'm sure that there are enough to have a real impact on the Republican party. The most popular Fox News programs get 3 million viewers, which is about 1% of the U.S. population. But these are the ones who are active in politics, the ones who vote, the ones who send political e-mail to their friends. They have a disproportionate effect on the Republican party, which can be seen when one reads the political news every day.

For example, one of the many real-world effects of the disconnect of the Fox News viewers with reality occurred recently: the special congressional election in the 23rd district of New York state. The local Republican party chose as its candidate a moderate-to-liberal Republican. Informed of her pro-gay-marriage and pro-choice views, the right wing was outraged, and strongly supported a right-wing businessman who joined the race as a third-party candidate. He got a lot of out-of-state money, made ads, climbed in the polls, and finally eclipsed the Republican candidate, who quit the race in disgust and endorsed the Democrat, who won a district that had been in Republican hands for over a century. I think this is bound to have a strong impact on the 2010 congressional elections: moderate candidates will be discouraged from running, or may be defeated in the primaries, ensuring that in a moderate district, there may be a moderate Democrat against a conservative Republican. This situation, needless to say, favors Democrats, who will become the party of the left and the center; their challenge will be to balance the interests of both groups.

I'm sure the national Republican leadership knows this full well. What I'm not sure of is whether they can do anything about it. And as long as Fox News gets good ratings by ever-fervently preaching to the converted, it's hard to imagine how the situation will change.


  1. I wish I could say this surprises me, but having talked about this with my friends in the US, and having seen some of these Fox News clips. Well, I'm not in the least bit surprised. It's kind of scary really, it's basically brainwashing :/

  2. Yes, it is. But to me, the even scarier thing is that it seems that these people *want* to be brainwashed. Some people would rather be sure they're right than have to think. That's part of the reason I named this blog as I did: people don't do enough serious thinking about things they should really be thinking about.