Lamenting the decline of informed citizenry…

A Facebook friend called my attention to Edwin Lyngar’s recent Salon editorial1. Lyngar recounts his father’s descent into a sort of Fox-induced madness, a bizarre alternate reality where science is at once a backroom conspiracy and belief system virtually indistinguishable from religion. To be fair, Lyngar’s father sounds like a particularly curmudgeonly old troglodyte, but the overall point is accurate. Fox News seems to erode people’s ability to think critically, or at least fails to give unfortunately credulous people reliable information against which to judge the inanity of their more ridiculous ideas and paranoid delusions.

Fox News gets a pretty bad rap in this piece. Deservedly so, in my opinion. But we should give credit where credit is due. Convincing members of the largest ethnic (whites 72%2) and religious (Christians 78%3) cohorts in the United States that they are members of some persecuted minority, and that the most watched cable news network in the nation is some exclusive, underground conduit to Divine Truth, is a pretty impressive feat. In a banquet set with an impressive array of options, they’ve managed to convince a hefty chunk of the population that a heaping pile of sewage basted bullshit is the most delicious option.

The industrialized West abounds with easily accessible information. In many respects, this is a very good thing. If I want to learn something new about the world, I can do so pretty easily. But it also seems to lead to a process of ideological self-selection4,5. Individuals with a mind to do so can avoid encountering ideas that might challenge their preconceptions of how the world is and ought to be. When it comes to the best way to build a model train set or get a good idea of which movie to watch next, that’s fine. It’s okay if those types of things are tailored to taste. But in a participatory Democracy, the successful function of government is based on the active contributions of an informed citizenry. In that context, a conservative who consumes only conservative ideas is nothing more than fodder for partisan intransigence. Same goes for liberals.

This problem is compounded when people buy into a fact-free narrative of oppression and tyranny like that perpetuated by Fox News. There are plenty of real problems in the world, none of which are addressed by that network. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that Fox News viewers are the least informed audiences of any major news outlet6,7. The average Fox viewer is also a member of the age group most likely to vote in a given election8. Generally speaking, this spells bad news for Democracy.

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To be clear, this isn’t supposed to be a bout of liberal/progressive evangelizing. It is good to have a diversity of opinions on matters of national interest. That goes for conservative voices just as well as it does liberal – or any point along the political spectrum in between. My point is that it is important to be informed. And in that respect, you’d be hard pressed to find a worse source of news and opinion than Fox.

Works Cited:

  1. http://www.salon.com/2014/02/27/i_lost_my_dad_to_fox_news_how_a_generation_was_captured_by_thrashing_hysteria/
  2. http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=DEC_10_DP_DPDP1
  3. http://religions.pewforum.org/reports
  4. Baum, M.A. (2011). Red, blue, and the flu: media self-selection and partisan gaps in swine flu vaccinations. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. 36(6):1021-1058
  5. Baum, M.A. & T. Groeling. (2008). New media and the polarization of American political discourse. Political Communication. 25:345-365
  6. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2011/11/21/fox-news-viewers-uninformed-npr-listeners-not-poll-suggests/
  7. http://mediamatters.org/blog/2011/11/22/seven-surveys-make-a-trend-for-fox-and-viewers/167217
  8. http://dailyinfographic.com/who-votes-in-america-infographic/voting-infographic
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