How can right-wing media fans be so wrong when they feel so right?

Six Weeks of Rush follower Nola Gurl tweeted a link yesterday to a 2009 article about a study by the Pew Research Center, which suggests that people who listen to Rush Limbaugh are better informed than the viewers and listeners of most other media outlets.

“The poll tested the audiences of a host of news magazines, radio and television shows, and newspapers on three basic political questions: the majority party in the House of Representatives; the name of the Secretary of State; and the identity of the Prime Minister of Great Britain.”

Limbaugh’s listeners “easily outperformed” the viewers of the major nightly news broadcasts, as well as cable news stations and other media outlets. But these figures hardly speak to the value or accuracy of conservative talk radio. Limbaugh’s audience was outpaced by the readers, listeners and viewers of the New Yorker, the Atlantic, NPR and Hardball with Chris Matthews, as well as two rather general “political magazines” and “business magazines” categories. Limbaugh was also outpaced by Hannity and Colmes, a show which at least featured a token liberal.

“Glad you sent this,” I nonetheless told Nola Gurl. “I was going to cite some polls from later in the week saying the opposite; good to have two views.”

Like many of you, I’ve heard about a number of studies in which the right-wing media and their audience didn’t do so well – or very well at all, for that matter. The most troubling of these, in my experience, is a recent study which showed that people who watch only Fox News are less informed than people who watch no news whatsoever.

But the study I had in mind was conducted in the mid-1990s by the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and cited by Al Franken in his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson explains:

“We just concluded a study of 360 people, whom we watched watch the health care reform debate for nine months. And at the end of that period, we took the people who said they relied on talk radio, and by this, we mean primarily Rush Limbaugh… And we asked them how well informed they felt… Of all the people we watched, they said they were the best informed. And of all the people we watched, they were the least informed.”

“How is such a thing even measured?” Franken asks. In this case, the methodology was similar to, but more relevant and extensive than, the three-question Pew Research Center study.

As Franken explains, “like all the other people studied, talk radio listeners were asked questions of ‘objective fact’ such as: ‘Which groups (the elderly, poor, middle class, etc.) are most likely to be uninsured?’ The Limbaugh listeners were ‘highly likely’ to give an incorrect answer such as ‘the elderly’ who, of course, are all covered by Medicare.

“But why would people so woefully lacking in the basic facts of an issue think they were the best informed?” Franken asks. “Social scientists call the phenomenon ‘pseudo-certainty.’ I call it ‘being a fucking moron.’”

Is there any hope for the die-hard Fox News viewers and Limbaugh listeners who are so certain of their ill-informed positions? Yes, but not unless they’re willing to engage with a broader range of people and perspectives. But I’ll get to that in my next post.

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One Response to “How can right-wing media fans be so wrong when they feel so right?”

  1. Jason says:

    My impression is that the whole crux of the appeal of right-wing media is the whole certainty thing itself. We all know the stereotype of a bunch of lefties put in a room together to solve a problem — it decomposes into endless debates that go nowhere (or to form committees to raise awareness about something obscure), and it saddens me a little to report there’s a grain of truth in that.

    (I mean, in Canada we seem to have the Communist Party, and then the Communist (Marxist-Leninist) Party. Bit of an extreme, but you’d think they’d be at least a little able to see eye-to-eye enough to join forces and maybe have an impact on electoral politics in this country.)

    Besides, as right-wing caricature Stephen Colbert has long shown/satirized, if you speak from the gut with a simple (if misinformed) message that everyone can get behind, it doesn’t matter if it’s the truth. All that matters is its truthiness.