Recently, I received a YouTube link to a 2004 documentary called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which can be seen here. But before diving into watching this hour and a quarter plus video, you might want to get some sense of how the dynamics described in this movie have affected your local community and more importantly who represents you at the local, state and congressional level.
Over two years ago, I wrote a letter to our local paper, the Central Virginian which they titled, “Media blamed for creating fearful tribal mindset,” although FOX Derangement Syndrome might have been a more accurate title. The number of responses that this letter generated was something to behold.
Where local conservatives demonstrated their skill at inadvertently making others points for them, with comments like; “Fox reports the news as it happens”, and they are “the most fair, accurate, and balanced news organization in existence today’ along with claims that they are “the only news outlet that has not been co-opted by this government.”
With several going out of their way to let us know how proud they are “to be labeled as a conservative Christians”, and are “offended by the notion that they are on the wrong side of moral and social progress. I believe our country was founded on Christian Judeo values and hope it is not trampled by those who disagree! God bless the USA!,” along with “I thank God for Fox News.”
Given how often we see arguments like this in the CV and other regional papers, one has to ask why? Is it because they are utterly convinced of their own infallibility, or are they suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, completely oblivious to the inherent contradictions of their arguments?
Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, understanding how this cultural virus has affected the nation is the first step in making informed decisions. Nor should anyone believe everything they hear, or read no matter what the source.
But when it comes to FOX News, study after study have shown that their viewers simply accept whatever they hear on FOX as the gospel truth, particularly their older viewers. Making it far more likely that their motto of Fair and Balanced is closer to this:
According to this article multiple studies have show that FOX viewers are not only the most misled — especially in areas of political controversy, and that over the past few decades, but that FOX has “brought about a hurricane-like intensification of factual error, misinformation and unsupportable but ideologically charged beliefs on the conservative side of the aisle.”
These studies it cites are derived from are public opinion surveys which asked about their beliefs on factual but contested issues, and also about their media habits. And they show that a significant percentage of FOX viewers were misinformed about the facts in a highly politicized way—and that their views of reality were being skewed in a right-wing direction. And that watching more FOX makes the chances of their viewers being misinformed even more likely.
The evidence is clear that Fox viewers are the most misinformed, but why?
To answer it, we’ll start by looking at the pioneering work by Stanford psychologist, Leon Festinger, who in his classic 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, built around his study of a doomsday cult about why human beings contort the evidence to fit their beliefs, rather than adjusting their beliefs to match the evidence.
That book predicted that those who are highly committed to a belief or view will actively go about seeking information that touches on that powerful conviction. And that once people have settled on a core set of beliefs, it shapes how they gather all other information. More specifically, people are likely to try to avoid encountering claims and information which challenge those beliefs, because these will create uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance.
And that we are far more likely to seek information which affirms our beliefs. The technical term for this phenomenon is “selective exposure” which means that we selectively choose to be exposed to information which is congenial to our beliefs, thus avoiding any “inconvenient truths.”
If those theories about selective exposure are accurate, then the problem may not be just that FOX is actively misleading its viewers or even that conservative viewers are seeking FOX out— because they highly predisposed to being misinformed, and temperamentally inclined to becoming even more so.
They are also highly likely to supremely confident about their incorrect beliefs and in imparting them to others, utterly convinced of many falsehoods which dovetail with their beliefs, allowing that misinformation to become a self reinforcing feedback loop, where both FOX and its viewers contribute to making the problem worse.
According to University of Alabama psychologist William Hart, who with a team of researchers did a meta-analysis — a statistically rigorous overview of published studies on selective exposure — pooling together 67 relevant studies, he noted that “Selective exposure is the clearest way to look at how people create their own realities, based upon their views of the world.”.
Finding that people overall were nearly twice as likely to consume ideologically congenial information as to consume ideologically inconvenient information—and in certain circumstances, they were even more likely than that.
When are people most likely to seek out self-affirming information?
Hart found that they’re most vulnerable to selective exposure if they have defensive goals—such as being highly committed to preexisting views, and especially if those views are tied to a person’s core values. Another defensive motivation identified in Hart’s study was closed-mindedness, since the definition of being closed-minded, or dogmatic, is that you prefer to consume information that agrees with what you already believe.
Multiple studies have shown that political conservatives—e.g., FOX viewers–tend to have a higher need for closure. Including a group called right-wing authoritarians, who are becoming increasingly prevalent within the Republican Party.
The evidence on selective exposure, as well as the clear links between closed-mindedness and authoritarianism, are grounds for believing that this phenomenon should be more common and more powerful on the political right. And that they are far more likely to select themselves into belief-affirming information streams, like Fox News or right-wing talk radio or Right wing conspiracy sites like, Breitbart and the Drudge Report, all filled with opinions which unlike facts can never be dis-proven — or confirmed.
In another related study, psychologist Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba has documented an above average amount of selective exposure in right wing authoritarians. Saying that authoritarians, “maintain their beliefs against challenges by limiting their experiences, and surrounding themselves with sources of information that will tell them they are right.”
None of which is to suggest that FOX isn’t also guilty of actively misinforming viewers. It certainly is.
The litany of misleading Fox segments over the years is quite extensive — especially on global warming. Just take a look at this internal FOX staff email which Media Matters disclosed about how FOX’s journalists should:
. . . refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.
And after watching the Outfoxed documentary, which is now 12 years old, it should be clear that this ideologically slanted approach to journalism continues to be repeated on issue after issue. A Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) study conducted in 2009 was very telling, because it didn’t just show that FOX News viewers were more misinformed than viewers of other channels.
It also showed that just watching more Fox made believing in nine separate political misperceptions far more likely.
A unique effect, unlike any observed with the other news channels. With PIPA’s director, political psychologist Steven Kull saying, “with Fox, the more exposure you had, the more misinformation you had.”
This effect was even present in non-Republicans–another indication of FOX’s ability to influence people. With Kull explaining, “even if you’re a liberal Democrat, you are affected by the station.” If you watched FOX, you were more likely to believe those nine falsehoods.” And since other media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and even NPR have copied FOX’s style of reporting, it’s likely that this dynamic has intensified.
The FOX “effect” occurs both because the media churns out falsehoods which conservatives readily accept —and even convincing liberals on occasion — and while conservatives are overwhelmingly inclined to choose to watch FOX, it’s important to note that they’re also disinclined to watch anything else.
Since Fox keeps constantly repeating the idea that the rest of the media are “biased” against their brand of “fair and balanced” reporting, is it any surprise to see conservatives duly respond by saying other media aren’t worth watching—and that they are nothing but a pack of lies.
There is an even more telling study of “FOX-only” behavior among conservatives, from Sanford University’s Shanto Iyengar who did a classic left-right selective exposure study, giving members of different ideological groups the chance to choose stories from a news stream with a headline and a news source logo—FOX, CNN, NPR, and the BBC—but nothing else.
The experiment was manipulated so that the same headline and story were randomly attributed to different news sources. The result was that Democrats and liberals were definitely less inclined to choose FOX than other sources, but spread their interest across the other outlets when it came to news.
But Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly chose FOX for hard news and even for soft news, and ignored other sources. With the author saying, “The probability that a Republican would select a CNN or NPR report was around 10%,” making FOX both the deceiver and the enabler simultaneously.
Whose existence creates the opportunity for conservatives to exercise their biases, by selecting from the FOX information stream, and imbibing FOX-style arguments and claims which fuel their biased reasoning about politics, science, and anything else.
And while the root of much of today’s political dysfunction appears to be rooted in differences in brain physiology and psychological outlook, with the penchant for selective exposure and closed-mindedness and authoritarianism — running much stronger in some than in others. It took the emergence of an organization like FOX before these tendencies could be fully activated — polarizing America not only over politics, but over reality itself.
Which brings us to the emergence of Donald Trump, who from all appearances has become the de-facto leader of what appears to be a white nationalist party, and who is currently being “advised” by the disgraced former CEO of FOX News, Rodger Ailes.
Who just replaced his former campaign manger, Paul Manafort amid charges that he orchestrated an illicit and likely illegal lobbying campaign, with Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway who has no experience running a campaign.
And who appointed Stephen Bannon the executive chairman of the right wing conspiracy web site Breitbart as his campaigns new CEO. Oblivious to the fact that Bannon has been described as the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement” and such stand up guy that he’s been called “the most dangerous political operative in America”.
When a former spokesperson for Breitbart, Kurt Bardella in an op-ed for The Hill wrote, “What eventually caused me to terminate my relationship with Breitbart was Steve’s guidance of Breitbart to become the de facto propaganda machine for Donald Trump. […]This is one of those times where the best interests of the whole outweigh any partisan allegiances or any specific issue. It’s why I’ve made the personal choice to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. Donald Trump is dangerous for America.”
And when asked on FOX if these changes were a sign that the Trump campaign was now back on track, his reply was” one speech on message doesn’t make an entire campaign, and certainly doesn’t erase an entire year’s worth of work.”
With the exception of Rodger Ailes, Trumps latest inner circle has nobody with any significant campaign experience or ties to the Republican Party’s leadership. Making it clear that this campaign will be run by partisan hacks and in Trumps case, new and innovative ways to fleece the rubes .
That Trump has succeeded in becoming the Republican Party’s nominee was in many ways the predictable end product of nearly 30 years of non-stop propaganda by FOX, and other corporate controlled media outlets.
So I suppose it’s a matter of perspective, whether Trump rise to the top of the Republican’s heap represents the pinnacle of his political success, or if he has managed to do what even FOX couldn’t — bury the Republican Party beneath their own hubris.
To say that the widespread dissemination and acceptance of propaganda has done incalculable and perhaps even irreparable damage to our political system is an understatement. But there may be an even more corrosive legacy of FOX’s brand of indoctrination lurking in the shadows.
There is growing body of evidence which shows that notions of what constitutes reality have shifted so far, that a significant portion of the population now accepts the supremacy of their beliefs over facts, and have become almost pathologically contemptuous of any new evidence, regardless of its source or validity.
And we’re not talking about the usual garden variety “conspiracy theories,” such as aliens in Area 51, or who shot JFK. We’re talking about fundamental distortions of reality as these graphics from a recent media analytic study below indicate.
Over the course of this presidential election, and the elections between 2017 through 2020 we must choose between two radically different visions of what this nation is all about.
One hand; a fearful, tribal and deeply suspicious mindset little removed from the magical thinking of the Dark Ages. And on the other, those who still believe in rational choices.
Which side will ultimately prevail in this struggle will depend mostly on “whichever side is feed the most.” And it remains to be seen if the American people have the courage to reject this authoritarian fantasy.
Or will they continue to be caught in a endless loop of propaganda becoming both the medium and the message — just like FOX News.