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.
In 1954, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike said. The president acknowledged…