Are Fox News Viewers Least Informed?

Jon Stewart told Chris Wallace that Fox News viewers are consistently the least informed. It’s actually not true.

PolitFact looks at a number of surveys on the subject and finds that Fox viewers do relatively well–indeed, Fox outperforms CNN and MSNBC–although not nearly as well as viewers of the Daily Show or listeners to Rush Limbaugh.  But this is an artifact of selection bias, not the information quality of the programs.

We asked Michael Dimock, Pew’s associate director for research, what he thought Pew’s data meant for Stewart’s claim. He said it’s crucial to understand that different news sources appeal to different types of people — and that highly political programming of any type attracts regular readers and viewers “who are, most likely, already highly knowledgeable prior to their exposure to those particular sources. Separating what knowledge they bring with them from what they learn while reading or watching is virtually impossible.”

By contrast, Dimock said, for media outlets with a much broader reach — including Fox — “the average regular consumer of these sources is less informed than the more niche audiences, because these sources, by design, reach and appeal to a broader cross-section of the public. In most of our studies, the regular readers and viewers of these broad-based news sources are not significantly more or less informed than the average American, and there is no systematic pattern showing one broad-based source has a more knowledgeable audience than any other.”

Presumably, Stewart was basing his survey on a December study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. But David Zurawik correctly points out that the questions were absurdly biased and, indeed, sometimes treated liberal opinion as fact.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. David K. says:

    Without knowing what Stewart was referring to its hard to draw any conclusions from Politifacts analysis. In particular the polls gauged a few common knowledge questions (part in control of congress, etc.) but didn’t address meatier topics. Further they tell you whether someone was knowledgeable about something but not whether that person had been misinformed by a given source.

  2. Raoul says:

    Let’s ask Fox viewers whether they believe in global warming, evolution, that there were WMDs in Iraq, charter schools outperform public schools, tax cuts decrease the deficit , TARP started under Obama, etc., etc., etc I rest my case.

  3. john personna says:

    +1 Raoul

  4. mattb says:

    On the flip side, somewhere the heads of some “PolitiFact is a shill of the leftwing/liberal agenda” folks must be exploding at the idea they would dare question Stewart.

  5. Hey Norm says:

    Is that the same Politifact that think Ryans Budget plan preserves Medicare because he calls his fundamentally different program Medicare? Sorry…Politifact has zero credibility at this point.
    And it’s interesting you link to a Zerawick post because that’s the guy that Wallace put the quote up from and Stewart immediately jumped on for misquoting him. In any case his post just rambles and never presents real instances.
    You can pick apart any study or poll but patterns are patterns. The Maryland study pretty much echoed another study they did in 2003. Pew in 2007 found the same thing.
    But we can go round and round…one question…which news outlet do you think most birthers watch? Exactly.

  6. James says:

    Boy, the Stewart thing has the entire right wing in a tizzy!

    First, Stewart said “misinformed” not “least informed.” Big difference. So perhaps you should change your headline, @James.

    So we have three Pew studies that superficially rank Fox viewers low on the well-informed list, but in several of the surveys, Fox isn’t the lowest, and other general-interest media outlets — such as network news shows, network morning shows and even the other cable news networks — often score similarly low. Meanwhile, particular Fox shows — such as The O’Reilly Factor and Sean Hannity’s show — actually score consistently well, occasionally even outpacing Stewart’s own audience.

    As is the norm for Politifact, the rating often doesn’t support the research. The classic study, of course, was the 2007 Pew survey. Pew’s research is always solid, and the questions in the 2007 study were fact-based — who is the current Vice President, can you identify the Secretary of Defense. There’s no bias associated with fact-based questions that an 8th grader should know.

    Politifact covers for Fox by noting that Fox isn’t “the lowest” (they rank above network morning shows) and are in line with the knowledge of the general public — a low bar, but Politifact has to find some way of calling Stewart a liar.

    But that’s not what Stewart said. He said that Fox viewers “are consistently the most misinformed.” So OTB along with Politifact and the entire rightwing blogosphere are building some big straw men to knock down. Probably because what Jon *actually* said cannot be refuted.

    I’m not sure why Politifact went into their petulant anti-Kos and anti-MSNBC red herrings. Stewart is not associated with them at all — certainly not with Daily Kos. Just a way to say “Leave Fox alooooooooone! The liberals are WORSE!!! nyah nyah nyah!”

  7. James in LA says:

    John Stewart is a comedian. We elevate him beyond that because our elected leaders suck the big fat hairy moose wang. He responds by mocking those who elevate him, as a comedian would. A politician would make other choices. To insist he is a politician, as Wallace did, despite the obvious conclusion he is no such thing, this qualifies as insane.

    Elect leaders who do not make up facts, and the role of John Stewart in our politics will be diminished, but no less hilarious.

  8. narciso says:

    No, he’s not a comedian, he’s a propagandist, he taught the young to disdain and hate President Bush’s efforts on the economy, back when we had 5% unemployment, and our campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, And exalt the nearly nonexistent efforts of a charlatan
    and rabblerousing community organizer, now that the latter’s efforts have proven total failures
    by any objective standards, he refuses to truly call him to account.

  9. sam says:

    Heh. Narciso’s been at the supercaffinated stuff again.

  10. hey norm says:

    “…now that the latter’s efforts have proven total failures
    by any objective standards…”
    i don’t think that word…objective…means what you think it means.

  11. James in LA says:

    Narciso’s breathless claim, “No, he’s not a comedian, he’s a propagandist” proves my point. His show is on COMEDY central. When he speaks, people LAUGH. He has his own show dedicated to a single issue: MAKING PEOPLE LAUGH.

    My conservative friends have the annoying habit of discrediting those with whom they do not agree, unwilling to separate message from messenger. It becomes inflamed when people who are political insist that everyone around them are also political, much as Wallace did.

  12. narciso says:

    The point is everything is political, in their view, Cramsci knew it, Brecht practiced it. So a campaign to fight AQ in Iraq, can be characterized as ‘Messopotamia,’ get it, that’s so funny.

  13. KMan says:

    Let’s ask Fox viewers whether they believe in global warming, evolution, that there were WMDs in Iraq, charter schools outperform public schools, tax cuts decrease the deficit , TARP started under Obama, etc., etc., etc I rest my case.

    Global Warming – I believe that the earth warms and cools over various centuries, as has been shown throughout history. I do NOT believe that data proves conclusively the earth is currently warming (maybe it is, but those saying it does do not seem to want to share that ‘conclusive data’); nor do I believe that human activity has anything more than an immaterial impact on the overall ‘warming’ or ‘cooling’ of the earth (whatever that means). Regardless, legislation to ‘solve’ global warming (though isn’t it ‘climate change’ now, since the earth might actually be getting colder) is overblown, harmful to the world economy, and mired in huge self interest. As Glen Reynolds says – I’ll start believing it is a crises when those telling me it is start acting like it (i.e., by no longer flying private jets or running up a $10k monthly energy bill).

    Evolution – yes.

    WMD in Iraq – Yes. Though not nearly to the extent every intelligence agency in the world believed at the time the US invaded Iraq. BUt I’m sure a smart informed guy like you knew that, right? You’ve been reading your wikileaks, correct?

    Charter Schools Outperform Public Schools – no clue, don’t have a dog in the fight nor am I well versed on the topic. I did just google “charter schools outperform” and did get about a thousand hits to studies showing they do. An educated (public school educated?) guy like you might want to read these studies and see if you have any thoughts.

    Tax Cuts Decrease the Deficit – tax cuts spur increased investment activity including capital investment which over time results in increased economic activity and a higer GDP, leading to increased tax receipts. A far greater impact on the deficit would be through spending cuts. Increasing taxes chokes off economic activity and has a negative impact on tax receipts.

    TARP under Obama – nope. Under Bush, passed to strengthen the balance sheets of banks and other institutions that owned ‘troubled assets’ in order to keep those instiutions lending – the TA in TARP. (and if i recall, Bush consulted with Obama on this, as he was the president-elect). Obama is responsible for the Stimulus bills – also known as the handouts to unions and other Dem cronies that resulted in a deficit 3x greater than it was with little measurable benefit to the economy,

  14. hey norm says:

    Your views on global warming and climate change are in direct opposition to science and in perfect alignment with the republicans and their propaganda machine. Why do you think that is? I won’t try to change your mind, but I do suggest you research activity by insurers in relation to climate change and it’s impacts.
    “Every intelligence agency in the world” including ours wondered what the hell Bush, Cheney, et al were smoking. You wouldn’t know that if you watch Fox news.
    Tax cuts…your views are in direct opposition to the facts and in perfect alignment with the republicans and their propaganda machine. Why do you think that is? Read this – written by one of the last intellectually honest republicans:
    “…Obama is responsible for the Stimulus bills – also known as the handouts to unions and other Dem cronies that resulted in a deficit 3x greater than it was with little measurable benefit to the economy…” Your views…well you get the picture…

  15. KMan says:

    Great revisionist history there, re the WMDs in Iraq. Not sure why you don’t remember (amybe too much John Stewart), but every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam had WMDs. And so did all of your Dems.

    “Some are suggesting, certainly, that (Saddam) destroyed the weapons after 1998 or maybe even sooner. It’s just counterintuitive that he would have done that. His would have been the greatest intelligence hoax of all time, fooling every intelligence agency, three presidents, five secretaries of defense and the entire world into thinking he still had the weapons.” – Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House intelligence Committee.

    “In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001. It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.” — Hillary Clinton, October 10, 2002

    “”[W]e urge you, after consulting with Congress, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.” — From a letter signed by Joe Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara A. Milulski, Tom Daschle, & John Kerry among others on October 9, 1998

    “The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.” — Bill Clinton in 1998

    “I am absolutely convinced that there are weapons…I saw evidence back in 1998 when we would see the inspectors being barred from gaining entry into a warehouse for three hours with trucks rolling up and then moving those trucks out.” — Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Cohen in April of 2003

    “The debate over Iraq is not about politics. It is about national security. It should be clear that our national security requires Congress to send a clear message to Iraq and the world: America is united in its determination to eliminate forever the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” — John Edwards, Oct 10, 2002

    “I share the administration’s goals in dealing with Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction.” — Dick Gephardt in September of 2002

    “Iraq does pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf and we should organize an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power.” — Al Gore, 2002

    You get the point – there are literally thousands more. So if Bush and Cheney were smoking something, at least they were considerate enough to share it.

  16. hey norm says:

    “…but every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam had WMDs…”
    No. You posit it as fact. Intelligence always has caveats. The caveats completely disappeared in the Bush run up to Iraq. You keep saying “…every intelligence agency in the world…” and then copy and paste a bunch of quotes by politicians. You are aware there is a difference…right?
    I’m not interested in re-litigating the Iraq mis-adventure. I think your posts have reinforced the larger point regarding the republican/Fox propaganda machine.

  17. KMan says:

    I understand your desire not to ‘relitigate the Iraqi midadventure’ – I would be too if I wanted to ignore what actually happened, what everyone said, and didn’t have the facts to back me up. The point is, yes all intelligence comes with caveats – that is the nature of the beast. A leader’s job – whether it is Clinton, Bush, Obama, Kerry, Pelosi, etc – is to make the best decision they can as a leader with the often vague intelligence they have in hand. And the lesson of the post-Iraq misadventure (your words) to those that paid attention during the run up to war is how the Dems all shamefully ran for cover and lied about what they had said (complicit with the media), while certain other folks (Bush) stood up and took responsibility for decisions, victories, and mistakes.

    And if you want intelligence views, take a look at the following links – again, I do recognize that you don’t want to review facts that conflict with your beliefs (funny that the FOX VIEWER is supposed to be the one who is brain washed…LOL).

    Britian –
    Israeli –
    Germany –

  18. Raoul says:

    Kman -you sound like a reasonable person so let me address some points in no particular order. WMDs- I thought the Powell presentation was a joke at the time-to this day I do note see the “proof” he suggested- but the question is today-and you still seem to think they were found! Apart from some discarded armaments from the past (Saddam undoubtedly used chemical weapons on the Kurds-apparently provided by us)-no WMDs nor an active WMDs program were not found in Iraq. Global warming- you have to go with the evidence and where the scientists take you-the North Pole melts for the fist time in six million years-pretty persuasive-politically, there may little that can be done but that does not mean we should not try. Charter schools-do more research- (perhaps your own) -compare SAT scores- I for one would have thought they would have worked better- but as evidence continues to pour that’s not the case. Now the biggest canard of all- the relationship between taxes and investment- empirically the prior thirty years are proof enough. Even today, I find it risible that one wants to cuts taxes to spur investment while corporate America sits awash on the largest pile of cash in its history.

  19. hey norm says:

    “…while certain other folks (Bush) stood up and took responsibility for decisions, victories, and mistakes…” C’mon…Bush blamed it on faulty intelligence. How is that taking responsibility?
    Here’s the key qoute from one of your links: “…Dr David Kelly believed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and might have used them, it was revealed today.
    But government weapons expert Dr Kelly said it could take “days or weeks” to deploy them and suggested the Iraqi leader would only do it if attacked…”
    Key words: believed – might – only if attacked. These are extremely important caveats. Caveats missing from the Bush administrations propaganda leading up to the attack and occupation. Rumsfeld: “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” Bush: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
    I’m not interested in re-litigating this because the world knows what Fox viewers don’t – it was an un-necessary war based on stove-piped and cherry-picked intelligence. Enough.

  20. KMan says:

    Raoul – companies are sitting on cash for one or both of two reasons – 1) because they continue to have a negative outlook on the economy and want to conserve cash to deal with any rough period, and/or 2) they do not have investment opportunities with an NPV greater than their hurdle rates Hurdle rates are driven by many things, but one of the major ones is taxes. And higher taxes = higher hurdle rates = less capital investment = less economic activity. Pretty simple.

    Re Global Warming, do you not concede that the earth has warmed and cooled for millions of years? That Vikings settled in Greenland (green land) and grew crops there? And that scientists and the media have been predicting things for decades that has turned out to be completely without merit? Wasn’t the summer of 2008 when the North Pole ice was going to disappear (it didn’t – ice cover grew 10% and 2008 was the coldest year since 2000, leading you guys to change the nomenclature to ‘climate change’)? Didn’t the earth generally cool from 1935 through 1975, while CO2 emissions sky rocketed? Didn’t Time Magazine predict another Ice Age in the mid-1970s in a famous cover story, right before things started getting warmer? Didn’t Al Gore predict a huge amount of hurricanes, right before 2007 and 2008 were the least active in 30 years? And my final question – doesnt the fact that all of these alarmist predictions are constantly wrong lead you to question that maybe these people don’t know what they are talking about?

  21. KMan says:

    hey Norm – guess I’m just not following your point.

    If you are saying Bush cherrypicked data, and I showed you quotes from hundreds of Dems and foreign intgelligence agencies who felt the EXACT SAME WAY AND SAID THE EXACT SAME THINGS, then how did everyone think ‘Bush was smoking something’ (your original point)?

    Haven’t I just shown you that it was the prevailing view of intelligence agencies and everyone in the government?

    Sorry if you don’t like how Bush delivered the message to you, without the caveats, etc – but that’s the same message you got from every Dem in the government. Until they backed off of it a few years later. Cowards.

  22. Raoul says:

    Investment is low because aggregate demand is low due to unemployment- taxes do not fit in this equation. Global Warming – I think you are conflating popular science with real scientists- btw Gore is not a scientist and predicting a particular adverse weather year as correlated with long term trends is virtually impossible- now- I appreciate your skepticism of prior views- it would be worthwhile if you look inside your opinions and apply the same healthy dose as some of the stuff you wrote is evidently misguided- I mean who gives a flying squirrel what poorly sourced TIME magazine cover said- that is, unless you are a Fox News viewer.

  23. KMan says:

    You are poorly informed if you do not think taxes have an impact on investment decisions. What a shocking display of ignorance. That comment would be both sad and laughable if it wasn’t so prevalent in people who watch MSNBC or CNN, or who organize communities and have no understanding and experience of economics or corporate finance.

  24. Raoul says:

    You call me ignorant and democrats cowards- nice way to advance your arguments- to be sure investments are affected by government actions- but the current level of disengagement has little to do with current tax policy which is essentially the same as the Clinton boom years. As to you, you do embody a Fox viewer or a a teen or young twenty year old guy who likes to insult and do not know the recent past- and if you are 40 plus- I feel sorry for you. Out.

  25. KMan says:

    Sorry Raoul, but to have a position that current and expectation of future taxes have no impact on investment decisions IS shockingly ignorant, by any measure.

    You yourself may not be ignorant, but that comment is. You are not entitled to your own facts.

    No need to feel sorry for me, guarantee you I am smarter, better informed, and more successful than you. It’s just time for you to get your facts right, and not display any additional ignorance.

    “Out”? I like it. How about “Peace, bro!”? That sounds just as dumb…

  26. hey norm says:

    K-man…you seem to have an inability to discern between intelligence and politicians. you have not shown one intelligence source who made unequivical statements like bush did. not ine. and none – not one – of those people you run quotes from chose to invade and occupy another nation…un-necessarily…at the cost of 4000 troops, 2 trillion dollars, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilain casualties. only george bush made that decision. bush had the best, most complete, most recent view of the available intelligence, had to know that it was iffy, and chose to go to war anyway. the fact that you are still supporting this mis-adventure says everything anyone needs to know about Fox viewers. but forget all that…it is far more impressive that you can “…guarantee you I am smarter, better informed, and more successful than you…” wow. all that and humble too.

  27. narciso says:

    The DGSE, SVR, BND (they are the ones who had ‘Curveball’, Egyptian and Jordanian Mukharabats all though they had them.

  28. Kylopod says:

    Stewart acknowledges error (and has fun with Politifact):

  29. Hey Norm says:

    That bit was hilarious. I can’t imagine working for Fox News and watching that. Ouch.

  30. Hey Norm says:

    As I wrote above…Politifact has no credibility left.

  31. Michael says:

    Sorry, posted this in the wrong “Jon Stewart on Fox” thread,

  32. Tim says:

    Remember Pravda and its relation to the one party system in the old Soviet Union?

    Are there parallels here? I’m just sayin’….

  33. Tim says:

    So explain again why it was necessary for Fox to perform surgical editing on the Stewart interview?