Jon Stewart 1, Politifact 0: Fox News Viewers Are The Most Misinformed

A WPO poll found a remarkable 60% of those who watched Fox News almost daily believe that “Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring,” whereas only 30% who never watch it believe that.  Only 25% of those who watch CNN almost daily hold that erroneous belief — and only 14% who listen to NPR or PBS almost daily.

Chris Mooney, in a DeSmogBlog re-post

I have a lot of respect for political fact checking sites. I think they play a critical role, especially in our misinformation-saturated political and media environment.

However, sometimes these sites fall for the allure of phony bipartisanship. In other words, in an environment in which conservatives are more inaccurate and more misinformed about science and basic policy facts, the “fact checkers” nevertheless feel unduly compelled to correct “liberal” errors too—which is fine, as long as they are really errors.

But sometimes they aren’t. A case in point is Politifact’s recent and deeply misguided attempt to correct Jon Stewart on the topic of … misinformation and Fox News. This is a subject on which we’ve developed some expertise here … my recent post on studies showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed, on an array of issues, is the most comprehensive such collection that I’m aware of, at least when it comes to public opinion surveys detecting statistical correlations between being misinformed about contested facts and Fox News viewership. I’ve repeatedly asked whether anyone knows of additional studies—including contradictory studies—but none have yet been cited.

Stewart, very much in the vein of my prior post, went on the air with Fox’s Chris Wallace and stated,

“Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.”

My research, and my recent post, most emphatically supports this statement.

Indeed, I cited five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) separate public opinion studies in support of it—although I carefully noted that these studies do not prove causation (e.g., that watching Fox News causes one to be more misinformed). The causal arrow could very well run the other way—believing wrong things could make one more likely to watch Fox News in the first place.

But the fundamental point is, when it comes to believing political misinformation and watching Fox News, I know of no other studies than these five–though I’d be glad to see additional studies produced. Until then, these five all point in one obvious direction.

“Every poll,” to quote Stewart.

Politifact wasn’t even aware of the studies I’ve cited. Instead, the site’s attempt to debunk Stewart largely relied on misunderstanding what he meant.

What Stewart obviously meant—and what I mean—is that when it comes to politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky due to political biases, it is Fox viewers who are the most likely to believe incorrect things—to fall prey to misinformation. A quintessential example of such an issue is global warming, or whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or was collaborating with Al Qaeda. There are many, many others.

To rebut Stewart’s claim, Politifact relied upon irrelevant and off-point studies. Thus, the site cited a number of Pew surveys that examine basic political literacy and relate it to what kind of media citizens consume. E.g., questions like whether people know “who the vice president is, who the president of Russia is, whether the Chief Justice is conservative, which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and whether the U.S. has a trade deficit.”

Too few citizens know the answers to such basic questions—which is lamentable, but also irrelevant in the current context. These are not contested issues, nor are they skewed by an active misinformation campaign. As a result, on such issues, many Americans may be ill-informed but liberals and conservatives are nevertheless able to agree.

Moreover, on such issues, I would expect cable news viewers of all types to be generally better informed than the general public, because such viewers are, by definition, politically engaged—they care about politics. So they are more likely to know the baseline stuff, whatever channel they watch. (Politifact partly acknowledges the criticism here, but still tries to save face.)

That’s precisely what was found in a study of a related type of media: Right wing talk radio. C. Richard Hofstetter of San Diego State and his colleagues found of right wing radio listeners that “despite the flamboyance of many hosts and messages, audiences nevertheless appear to hold higher levels of information in association with involvement with political talk.” And yet at the same time, the researchers also found that “exposure to conservative talk shows was related to increased misinformation, while exposure to moderate political talk shows was related to decreased levels of political misinformation, after controlling for other variables.” In other words, this study found something very similar to what has been repeatedly found about Fox.

Thus, the bulk of the studies cited by Politifact have nothing to do with whether Fox viewers believe the truth, or falsehoods, on politicized and contested issues. I cannot stress how fundamental a distinction this is. Indeed, it is quite literally a separate issue from the perspective of psychology and neuroscience.

From the point of view of the political brain, whether 2 + 2 = 4, or whether Joe Biden is the vice president, is one type of question. It’s the type of question where there’s no political stake and anyone can agree, because it doesn’t require any emotional sacrifice to do so. It therefore likely engages circuits of “cold reasoning.”

However, whether global warming is human caused is fundamentally different. The latter issue is politicized, and thus engages emotions, identity, and classic pathways of biased reasoning. It therefore likely triggers circuits of “hot reasoning.” (For a study showing why the two are so different with respect to the brain, see here.)

It is of course around contested political facts, and contested scientific facts, where we find active, politically impelled, and emotionally laden misinformation campaigns—and it is in the latter realm that Fox News viewers are clearly more misinformed. Once again, I’ve cited 5 studies to this effect—concerning the Iraq war, the 2010 election, global warming, health care reform, and the Ground Zero Mosque. By contrast, Politifact only cites two of these studies, and attempts to critique one of them (the 2010 election study)—misguidedly to my mind, but who really even cares. It is obvious where the weight of the evidence lies at this point, unless further, relevant studies are brought to bear.

As a result of all of this, Politifact should either produce relevant research to rebut Stewart, or run a far more forthcoming retraction than has been issued so far. Note, however, that the issue grew a tad more complicated last night when Stewart did an excellent segment on all of this, where he both dramatized how much Fox misinformed viewers and yet also kind of conceded Politifact’s point, when he didn’t actually have to. He wasn’t wrong. They were wrong.

When the fact checkers fail—and in this case, they not only failed, they generated a falsehood of their own–they have a special responsibility to self-correct.

UPDATE: I’ve run across (thanks to Steve Benen) a sixth survey that supports Stewart. It is a 2009 NBC News poll about health care misinformation, and guess what?

In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly. But it would be incorrect to suggest that this is ONLY coming from conservative viewers who tune in to FOX. In fact, 41% of CNN/MSNBC viewers believe the misinformation about illegal immigrants, 39% believe the government takeover stuff, 40% believe the abortion misperception, and 30% believe the stuff about pulling the plug on grandma. What’s more, a good chunk of folks who get their news from broadcast TV (NBC, ABC, CBS) believe these things, too.

Chris Mooney, in a DeSmogBlog re-post

[Joe Romm:   Two studies suggest that indeed watching Fox news does causes people to become misinformed, as I discuss here.]

Related Post


Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Rob Honeycutt

Ever since Stewart’s show PolitiFact has been tweeting all the points that he brought up. John did a nice job of politely handing them their hat. And they seem to be gracefully accepting it.

June 23 at 12:58pm

Long Strange Tripster

OK. Where is this stuff at? I need to know, Rob. I have to see that Politifact really wants the facts. Can you cite the articles for me so I can see it with my own cynical eyes? Thanks.

June 26 at 12:57pm

Adam Stallings

Politifact ought to redress this verdict if they want to save their integrity.

June 23 at 1:09pm

Adam Stallings

…or they can go the way of Fox by misinforming with apples to oranges comparisons, ignoring the context, and failing to make corrections.

June 23 at 1:13pm

Mike Manfrin

Except they graded the statement that ‘in every poll Fox viewers are misinformed’, keyword being ‘every’. Fox viewers are the most informed, but there are a select few polls where Fox viewers do okay — meaning that the notion of ‘every’ is untrue. Politifact has to remain it’s nonpartisan integrity, as most of their corrections are for GOP — to ignore the qualification of ‘every’ would be to provide for a target for those idiots at Fox to say ‘look, they weren’t completely truthful here, politifact is partisan’ as a means of discrediting those whose job it is to provide analysis of political statements.

Politifact saved their integrity here, even if it lessened Jon’s statement a little bit.

June 23 at 2:10pm

Rob Honeycutt

I follow PolitiFact on Twitter and they have retweeted every single point that John Stewart made… so as to make the point that he was very accurate. PolitiFact has a rap sheet on Fox News that’s nine miles long.

June 23 at 5:16pm

Adam Stallings

@Mike, what was the context in which Jon made that statement? Again I say, it was an apples to oranges comparison. Please read:

“By Politifact’s own measure, Jon Stewart was right when he claimed that “every study” has found Fox viewers to be consistently the most misinformed – because every study they cite which surveys “misinformation” draws that conclusion. Politifact is wrong to interject meaning that was outside of what Stewart claimed, and then use three polls that don’t apply to what he said to measure the veracity of that claim.” [Firedoglake, 6/21/11]

June 23 at 7:35pm

Paul Klemencic

Mike: Wrong. The problem is that misinformed is not the same as unknowledgeable. Politifact didn’t understand Jon Stewart’s statement. This particularly odd, because Stewart has repeatedly delivered this message: incorrect and trivial news content causes problems with democracy in America.

June 24 at 11:23am

Mike Manfrin

I’ve written two replies to you both, Paul and Adam; but they have been deleted. I’m not sure if it’s a bug on the part of facebook or if they were deleted. I sincerely hope it was the former.

So, for the third time (and lets hope this comment doesnt disappear): I agree with Jon, but he said “every poll”, which Politifact, by the nature of what they do, had to label as false, as there were a *very select few polls* where Fox viewers weren’t the worst.

June 24 at 4:56pm

Pat Magic Powers

But the point is that he said misinformed, not uninformed, which is quite the distinction. Thus, citing a study showing them to not be the most uninformed viewers is irrelevant to the point (though it is interesting as studies have shown conservatives to know inarguable facts more so then liberals, but believe lies more often as well, which may be the cause here (read the book the authoritarians for more on that)) . He never said they were the most uninformed, just the most misinformed. And, alas, all of the studies I have seen showing misinformation, point to fox viewers being the most uninformed.

June 25 at 11:03pm

Mike Manfrin

I could be wrong — dont have the video in front of me to confirm — but didn’t he say they were the ‘least informed’? Would seem, if that were the terminology, to indicate that politifact was not wrong (as you say, there are studies that show conservatives know inarguable facts).

Whatever the case, however, it is devolving in to semantics. I suppose I am playing the role of devils advocate here pointing out that Politifact needs to keep its crystal-clear credibility. Did they stretch to correct Jon? Yeah. But I’d argue it was done in an effort to strengthen the side of truth against the wildly capricious atmosphere of lies and mistruths that the GOP quabbles out.

June 25 at 11:36pm

Adam Stallings

It is a bit confusing to differentiate ‘misinformed’ from ‘uninformed’, but in Jon’s statement he was clearly discussing misinformation. For instance, uninformed would be NOT knowing who the Secretary of State is. Misinformed is believing that the Secretary of State is a Nazi because you saw it on the “news”.

June 26 at 12:44pm

Jonathan Annett

Or one could intelligently assume that Jon was speaking of “every” creditable poll relevant to debatable ideas.

June 27 at 11:50am


Dear Chris Mooney,

Thanks for this post. I hope you are well and having fun.

Hey, I think a deeply important (and timely) topic, that should be addressed head-on, is the fact that CNN and John King did not ask a single question about climate change to the Republican presidential primary candidates in the recent debate, hosted by CNN.

I’m hoping that Joe and CP will take up that issue in a post, and perhaps you’d take it up too, or in a guest post for CP? (Please.)

Curtis Brainard (at CJR’s ‘The Observatory’) did a recent post on the issue, but he seems to have missed the central point — which is “scary” to me, in itself. Check out his post, and then (please) check out my response (comment) to his post, in which I explain what he seems to be missing. Hopefully he will respond or do a clarifying post — so we aren’t left with the impression that he, too, doesn’t get it.

In any case, we can’t afford — REALLY, SERIOUSLY — for media organizations such as CNN, and reporters/hosts such as John King, to NOT ask clear pointed questions about climate change to the various presidential primary candidates in both parties, in key debates and interviews. We simply can’t afford that. CNN has hosted the first big debate, and they committed that Big Sin Of Omission. If we want to head that problem off, at the pass, before it becomes a repetitive problem, we ought to use this opportunity to “hit the problem hard”, using CNN and King as the example here. If we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

The problem — and I hope you’ll appreciate this — is a HUGE one. It ought to be a focus of CP and Joe’s, yours (Chris M.), Curtis’s, and Jon Stewart’s. It should become a common expectation — Requirement One — among key media outlets that they should ask clear and pointed questions about climate change in the upcoming debates! Period. They should (be made to) feel deeply embarrassed and negligent if/when they overlook doing so.

So Chris, will you get into that issue, please? Joe/CP, will you? Curtis, will you correct/clarify your recent post on The Observatory? CNN and John King, will you be responsible enough to ask the (damn) question next time?

Thank you.


June 23 at 1:09pm



Minot, North Dakota Residents Flee and Nuclear Silos Protected as Historic Flood Waters Rise.​inot-north-dakota-resident​s-flee-nuclear-silos-prote​cted/story?id=13913535

Just watch the video stream, one onslaught after another throughout the states.

How long till someone acts and SHUTS DOWN the deniers?
How long till we see real progress with reducing our emission footprints?

June 23 at 1:50pm

Scott Aaron

Great article, and hopefully forwarded to Politifact for a response and hopefully an update on their site.

June 23 at 1:56pm

Doug Burke

Is anyone noticing how terrible the numbers are for newspapers and network news? 40% and 35%. They should be ashamed of themselves. People who shun Fox but turn to these sources are still miserably misinformed. When do they start saying some people are reasonable and some –the deniers — are just liars and fools, not part of a legitimate discussion?

June 23 at 3:01pm

Patricia J Menzies

But, Doug, you KNOW there are always and only two sides to every story. Somebody has to present the “Fox Facts”! LOL! Stewart did a really good job ripping up THAT argument, didn’t he? (P.S. Hope you are well.)

June 23 at 3:49pm

Richard Brenne ·

Another word for misinforming is lying. Yet another is Fox. Another word for being misinformed is ignorant. Yet another is stupid. Never use a bigger word when a more diminutive one will do.

June 23 at 11:18pm

Bob Bingham

One of the problems for a publisher of news is that when they take a position for political, idealogical or editorial reasons which are against the truth then they expose themselves to loss of credibility. If their readers realise that what they are printing is not true then the reader starts to doubt the rest of the reporters.
In my own case I have read the Daily Telegraph for about fourty years and they have taken a position on climate change that is clearly ill-informed and blatantly untrue. I now question what other reporters in their paper are spinning a party line that is not true..

June 24 at 12:08am

Rick Bacon

section 246 of the healthcare bill doesn’t plainly state that illegals get healthcare, but it doesn’t prevent it, either. It states that you don’t have to prove citizenship to recieve care. In other words, taxpayers WILL be paying for illegals. They were just smart enough not to spell it out.

June 24 at 12:28pm

Steve Duerksen

I appreciate the point, that politicized and contested issues are different from verifiable clear-cut issues like who is the vice president. HOWEVER, the boundary between these categories move, at the will of the distorters. Harp on it long enough, and you can move ANYTHING into that politicized arena, DESPITE it’s being uniformly uncontested by knowledgeable individuals. Examples are the stated reasons for starting the war in Iraq, or the location of the President’s birth, or the contents of the Affordable Care Act.

June 24 at 3:32pm

J.p. Cordray

More on the echo chamber that is Fox News…

June 25 at 7:37pm

Corlis Weller Adkins

I know that I am more informed and observant than most but it is hard for me to believe anyone cannot see and feel the effects of global warming. The arctic winds make a hugh dip all winter and the growing season is much longer in summer. Not to mention the weather in New England in summer feels more like KY.

June 26 at 8:38am

Tara Thralls

Maybe they are not old enough to remember what it used to be like to play outside in the sun all day, every day, for the entire summer, without getting a severe sunburn. Now the sun hurts me after 10 minutes.

June 28 at 2:43pm

Christina Norman

Great article Joe.

June 25 at 9:52pm

Jivan Leela

well now doesn’t that speak volumes Christina!

June 25 at 10:56pm

Scott Kupersmit

This article is pure nonsense.

June 26 at 7:38pm


Care to elaborate Scott?

June 27 at 12:53am

Scott Kupersmit

Sure. The writer admits that when it comes to verifiable facts, Fox viewers may indeed be more informed. Yet when it comes to issues that are “contested,” he claims that Fox viewers are far more misinformed however this is obviously based on his particular viewpoint on the contested issues.

June 27 at 1:15am

Robin Myers

Knew that years ago..please yell it in the streets!

June 26 at 12:54am

Pat Magic Powers

And that is a good point, but I think it might be better said as a half truth, depending upon the interpretation of either misinformed or uninformed.

June 26 at 2:39am

Long Strange Tripster

Polls, schmolls. Just go out and talk to a FauxNews fan and you get the results first hand. Not only misinformed, but just outright stupid. Sorry. But the truth is the truth no matter how harsh it may sound. Again…the average FauxNews viewer is just plain D-U-M-B. Or Conservative Christian. I know, I know. They live in willful ignorance, so their dumb too.

June 26 at 12:55pm

Tom Durkin

Thank you. Polifact has blown a few big ones recently, and like Faux, their errors are always in one direction. If I started an Asian Carp eradication program funded it with $1 this year and $2 next year, and called it Medicare, I have not doubled the spending for Medicare. If you take a program that provides health care for Seniors, throws them on the open market in a country where health care is twice the cost of anywhere else, somewhere between 37-47th best in the world, and insurers & HMOs are the middlemen between doctors and patients, it is no longer Medicare.

June 28 at 6:47am

Travis Parker

I wish more Fox viewers were aware of this.

June 28 at 4:12pm

Buddy D’Angelo


June 29 at 1:30am

Comments are closed.