THE CORE THESIS: Authoritarian people have a stronger emotional need for an outlet like Fox, where they can find affirmation and escape factual challenges to their beliefs.Insights from Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.Now I know this is going to raise all kinds of hackles but I find the book fascinating and the article referred to here does a reasonable strong job representing a research heavy 336 page tome. The Amazon Link provided provides more insights in the reviews there. Here is one of them: “Drawing on a growing body of empirical research, he provides an intelligent, nuanced and persuasive account of how conservatives and liberals tend to differ at the level of psychology and personality” (Financial Times, April 2012)The author explores the findings of seven surveys. These are public opinion surveys that ask citizens about their beliefs on factual but contested issues, and also about their media habits. Inevitably, some significant percentage of citizens are found to be misinformed about the facts, and in a politicized way—but not only that. The surveys also find that those who watch Fox are more likely to be misinformed, their views of reality skewed in a right-wing direction. In some cases, the studies even show that watching more Fox makes the misinformation problem worse.
The issues were the Iraq War, Global Warming, Health Care, Ground Zero Mosque, 2010 Elections. The author goes on to explore the evidence that supports his key tenet: Fox viewers are misinformed. Of note, this means, in his study, that Fox viewers are both misinformed in term of what they know, and that they have been misinformed by Fox as a source of what they know.
Looking at a variety of studies, the author comes to the conclusion that
Fox is imparting misinformation even as politically conservative viewers are also seeking the station out—highly open to it and already convinced about many falsehoods that dovetail with their beliefs, certainty is driven by a kind of feedback loop. Those seeking to have their beliefs reinforced only look to those who will reinforce it. This is referred to as selective exposure and it is the clearest way to look at how people create their own realities, based upon their views of the world.
People overall are nearly twice as likely to consume ideologically congenial information as to consume ideologically inconvenient information.
Add to this a certain predisposition to close mindedness. Political conservatives tend to have a higher need for closure. Conservatives who are authoritarian/absolute in style maintain their beliefs against challenges by limiting their experiences, and surrounding themselves with sources of information that will tell them they are right.
The author then goes on to explain how Fox takes advantage of this mindset to program stories that feed into it. References are made to the “nine separate political misperceptions” identified by the PIPA study which Fox viewers widely embrace.
I am going to close by offering this concluding segment from the article:
In summary, then, the “science” of Fox News clearly shows that its viewers are more misinformed than the viewers of other stations, and are indeed this way for ideological reasons. But these are not necessarily the reasons that liberals may assume. Instead, the Fox “effect” probably occurs both because the station churns out falsehoods that conservatives readily accept—falsehoods that may even seem convincing to some liberals on occasion—but also because conservatives are overwhelmingly inclined to choose to watch Fox to begin with. At the same time, it’s important to note that they’re also disinclined to watch anything else. Fox keeps constantly in their minds the idea that the rest of the media are “biased” against them, and conservatives duly respond by saying other media aren’t worth watching—it’s just a pack of lies. According to Public Policy Polling’s annual TV News Trust Poll (the 2011 run), 72 percent of conservatives say they trust Fox News, but they also say they strongly distrust NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN. Liberals and moderates, in contrast, trust all of these outlets more than they distrust them (though they distrust Fox). This, too, suggests conservative selective exposure.
And there is an even more telling study of “Fox-only” behavior among conservatives, from Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar and Kyu Hahn of Yonsei University, in Seoul, South Korea. They conducted a classic left-right selective exposure study, giving members of different ideological groups the chance to choose stories from a news stream that provided them 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 was 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. “The probability that a Republican would select a CNN or NPR report was around 10%,” wrote the authors.
In other words Fox News is both deceiver and enabler simultaneously. First, its existence creates the opportunity for conservatives to exercise their biases, by selecting into the Fox information stream, and also by imbibing Fox-style arguments and claims that can then fuel biased reasoning about politics, science, and whatever else comes up.
But at the same time, it’s also likely that conservatives, tending to be more closed-minded and more authoritarian, have a stronger emotional need for an outlet like Fox, where they can find affirmation and escape from the belief challenges constantly presented by the “liberal media.” Their psychological need for something affirmative is probably stronger than what’s encountered on the opposite side of the aisle—as is their revulsion towards allegedly liberal (but really centrist) media outlets.
And thus we find, at the root of our political dysfunction, a classic nurture-nature mélange. The penchant for selective exposure is rooted in our psychology and our brains. Closed-mindedness and authoritarianism—running stronger in some of us than in others—likely are as well.
But nevertheless, it took the emergence of a station like Fox News before these tendencies could be fully activated—polarizing America not only over politics, but over reality itself.