In case you missed it in the pre-holiday bustle last week, the University of Maryland has released results of a study that found the Republican Party’s Fox propaganda channel deliberately deceives its viewers by presenting disinformation as “news.”
Even if you heard about the survey, what you may have missed is that, given an opportunity to debunk the findings, to provide a point by point refutation of the results, Fox’s point person chose instead to attack the University of Maryland as a “party school.”
First, here are the findings from the survey showing for each assertion both the anti-factual information Fox viewers believe to be true (with the share of Fox viewers versus non-viewers shown in parentheses) along with the reality-based fact:
- GOP-Fox Propaganda: Most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely).
Reality: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created between 2 million and 5.2 million jobs, and yet only 8 percent of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Most (68 percent) believed that economists estimate that it only created or saved a few jobs and 20 percent even believed that it resulted in job losses.
- Propaganda: Most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points).
Reality: Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53 percent of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.
- Propaganda: The economy is getting worse (26 points).
Reality: Though the Department of Commerce says that the US economy began to recover from recession in the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since then, only 44 percent of voters thought the economy is starting to recover, while 55 percent thought the economy is still getting worse.
- Propaganda: Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points).
Reality: Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45 percent of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12 percent) or that scientists are evenly divided (33 percent).
- Propaganda: The stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points).
Reality: Politifact’s Truth-o-Meter rates the president’s claim that 95 percent of working Americans got a tax cut from the Stimulus as “true.” “Under the stimulus bill,” says the Truth-o-Meter, “single workers got $400, and working couples got $800. The Internal Revenue Service issued new guidelines to reduce withholdings for income tax, so many workers saw a small increase in their checks in April 2009.”
- Propaganda: Their own income taxes have gone up (14 points).
Reality: Eight-six percent assumed their taxes had gone up (38%) or stayed the same (48%), while only 10% were aware that their taxes had gone down since 2009.
- Propaganda: The auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
Reality: Fifty-three percent thought that the bailout of GM and Chrysler occurred only under Obama, though it was initiated under Bush.
- Propaganda: When TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
Reality: Via Media Matters, “In fact, many Republicans in both the House and Senate voted in favor of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which authorized the secretary of the Treasury to create the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] to provide financial aid to banks and other financial institutions. Indeed, on September 29, 2008, 65 House Republicans voted in favor of H.R. 3997, the original House vehicle for the act. After that legislation failed, on October 1, 2008, 34 Senate Republicans voted for H.R. 1424, the new vehicle for the act, and on October 3, 2008, 91 House Republicans voted for that bill. President Bush, a Republican, subsequently signed it into law. ”
- Propaganda: It is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).
Here is the Fox executive’s reaction to the charge that his network deliberately deceives its viewers:
Asked for comment on the study, Fox News seemingly dismissed the findings. In a statement, Michael Clemente, who is the senior vice president of news editorial for the network, said: “The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ — given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.’”
Mr. Clemente oversees every hour of objective news programming on Fox News, which is by far the nation’s most popular cable news channel.
But even the Fox executive’s response is based on a lie:
For the record, the Princeton Review says the University of Maryland ranks among the “Best Northeastern Colleges.” It was No. 19 on the Review’s list of “Best Party Schools.”
This response smacks of what Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert might call “truthiness” today. But during the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration, a non sequitor response like this was dubbed a “non-denial denial” — defined as “a statement that seems direct, clearcut and unambiguous at first hearing, but when carefully parsed is revealed not to be a denial at all, and is thus not untruthful. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression; analysis of whether or when such behavior constitutes lying is a long-standing issue in ethics.”
Not coincidentally, Fox Pres. Roger Ailes cut his teeth in politics as a top media strategist in the Nixon political operation.
The results from the University of Maryland survey confirm findings of at least two polls earlier this year — a Harris poll in May that found, among other things that 57 percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe that Obama is a Muslim and that 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) agree with the Birthers in their belief that Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president;” and an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll from August 2009 that found that roughly 75 percent of Fox viewers held beliefs about health care reform that were, simply put, lies, including the lie that undocumented people would be covered, that the law would establish death panels, that abortions would be covered and that the law would lead to a government takeover of the health-care industry.
The Maryland results also come on the heels of two leaked memos from the GOP channel’s top brass instructing Fox newsreaders on how to shape disinformation the network was promulgating. Here’s how a Los Angeles Times editorial described them:
The first time Media Matters unveiled a leaked e-mail from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ Washington managing editor, it was hardly worthy of mention. On Dec. 9 the group’s website revealed that Sammon had instructed reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” when referring to a proposed government-sponsored health-care plan. The memo, sent out on Oct. 27, 2009, when debate over the Democratic health-care bill was raging in Congress, came two months after Republican pollster Frank Luntz had appeared on Hannity’s show and encouraged him to use the phrase “government option” instead, because such terminology decreased public support for the proposal. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option’ whenever possible,” Sammon told reporters.
Liberal bloggers were furious, but few mainstream journalists could muster much outrage. Arguments over semantics and perceived bias are commonplace and seldom fruitful. “Government option” is no less valid a descriptor for the proposal than the more commonly used “public option,” and if Fox News was demonstrating bias by using the former, one could accuse mainstream outlets of the same for using the latter.
But a second intercepted missive from Sammon is quite a bit more troubling.
“We 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,” read an e-mail sent by Sammon to news reporters on Dec. 8, 2009, and revealed this week by Media Matters. The memo went out 15 minutes after a Fox News reporter accurately explained to viewers that United Nations scientists had issued a report saying 2000 to 2009 was shaping up to be the warmest decade on record — even warmer than the 1990s, which were warmer than the 1980s.
Such data aren’t in serious dispute among climate scientists … The only reason [to deny the science] is to further a partisan agenda, in this case an attempt to cast doubt on climate science in order to fend off government efforts to limit greenhouse gases.
Fox should either come clean about this and crack down on such partisanship in its news ranks, or it should stop pretending to be an objective news source.
The emphasis on that last line was added because it is folly to suggest that Fox would ever voluntarily “stop pretending to be an objective news source.” That ship sailed the minute Republican operatives like Roger Ailes launched the network in October 1996.
It is heartening that the Times called foul on a journalistic infraction by Fox and that the writer at least recognizes that Fox has a political agenda, but it is not encouraging that the Times editorialists continue to view Fox as a club member in good standing, albeit one that plays by its own rules more often than not.
Journalists should be the last cohort to be fooled by a political operation that disguises itself as a news outlet, and the journalism establishment ought to be leading the charge for rousting the impostors.
Who can stop Fox? Not “liberal bloggers,” though we will do our best. And certainly not the government, which is rightly prevented from censoring Fox — even a propaganda outlet has the right to free speech.
It’s up to the journalism establishment to put its own house in order. But, as the Times editorial shows, journalists at the loftiest perches of the profession have yet to recognize the peril Fox presents. Unless and until mainstream journalists “muster the outrage” to unmask Fox for what it is, once and for all, Fox will continue to pose an existential threat, both to the Fourth Estate, as Fox’s financial success accelerates the death knell for objective journalism — and to the body politic, which is beginning to weaken under the barrage of Fox’s right-wing propaganda, which is now entering its 15th year.
Think about it. If instead of Fox, these polls had found that the Times, Time Magazine, ABC News or any other mainstream outlet was tricking out its reporting to further a political agenda, not only would heads roll inside the organization, the journalism establishment would be up in arms.
And yet, faced with evidence that Fox is undermining the entire profession by promulgating propaganda, the establishment’s collective reaction is a shrug. Whaddayagonnado.