Propaganda’s Willing Audience

Talking Points Memo recently shared the findings of a paper by Bruce Bartlett, former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, documenting the so-called “Fox Effect.” Bartlett’s conclusions are similar to those of others who’ve studied the political impact of what is widely recognized as the propaganda arm of the GOP.

A 2007 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the arrival of Fox had a “significant effect” on the presidential elections from 1996 to 2000: Republican candidates gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in towns that broadcast the channel. (The research also credited Fox with GOP gains in the Senate.)

Meanwhile, a 2014 study by The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the likelihood of voting Republican increased by 0.9 points among viewers who watched “four additional minutes per week.”

Bartlett also found research that shows the Fox Effect caused congressmen in both parties to “increase their support for Republican policies.”

Last year, researchers out of Princeton and Vanderbilt found that during the Clinton years, members of Congress became “less supportive of President Clinton in districts where Fox News begins broadcasting than similar representatives in similar districts where Fox News was not broadcast.”

No serious observer doubts that Fox is a wildly inaccurate propaganda mill. (Several studies have found that people who watch Fox regularly know less than those who don’t watch any news at all.) The more important question, of course, concerns what researchers call “self-selection,” and what more down-to-earth folks call the “chicken and egg” conundrum. Why do certain people choose to watch Fox? Why does its propaganda work? More to the point, upon whom does any particular propaganda work? What makes person A receptive to misinformation that is crude and obvious to person B? 

At least one writer suggests that “white fragility” is the fertile ground being tilled by Fox and conservative talk radio.

White fragility is a termed coined by Robin DiAngelo, an associate professor of education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. In her 2011 academic pedagogical analysis titled “White Fragility,” DiAngelo goes into a detailed explanation of how white people in North America live in insulated social and media spaces that protect them from any race-based stress. This privileged fragility leaves them unable to tolerate any schism or challenge to a universally accepted belief system. Any shift away from that (like a biracial African-American president) triggers a deep and sustaining panic. Racial segregation, disproportionate representation in the media, and many other factors serve as the columns that support white fragility.

At the end of the day, there are two very different reasons people follow the news: to understand what is happening in the world (even if those events or outcomes aren’t consistent with their worldviews, and may require adjusting those worldviews), or to confirm pre-existing fears and beliefs.

Propaganda outlets let partisans select reinforcement over reality.

As Bartlett points out, however, when reality bites and self-delusion is no longer possible (when, for example, the polls predicting Mitt Romney’s defeat turned out not to be “skewed”), the shock and disbelief can be overwhelming.


  1. It’s puzzling to me why anyone watches television at all and especially Fox News. The question is now that they have millions of satisfied viewers and the network is making billions, how does any alternative view alter the viewers preference for propaganda?

  2. I do not have television at home. A half dozen years ago I went to a destination wedding in California and stayed at a Hampton Inn where Fox News was the default channel in the breakfast/common room. I watched CNN news in my motel room and Fox whenever I ate breakfast or passed through that common area. Fox was more appealing. I never cound pin point the reason I felt that way … not media aware enough. Somehow the sound, the pacing, the images, the production on Fox were more appealing. Sigh.

  3. As a white woman who had “colored” friends in the mid-1950’s, married a black man in the early 1970’s and have had lesbian and gay friends for many years; I can tell you that it is uncomfortable at times and painful many other times and in many ways. It is much easier to follow and/or hang onto 18th and 19th century beliefs than to take a stand for what is right…FOR OTHERS. Change means adjustment to thinking and acting; many of us have lost faith in religious beliefs we grew up with as we began to recognize the isolation and abuses of undeserving citizens for no rational or logical reason, and for no true religious reason. The world is changing around us in many areas at an ever increasing speed due to the electronic age; changing thinking habits is lagging behind the physical changes we are forced to adjust to. The Republicans theme song should be, “Give Me That Old Time Religion” at every public speaking engagement. A blantant example of change is Pope Francis trying to maintain his Catholic tenets while modernizing many of the past beliefs that have been passed down through centuries. They balked at hearing mass in English rather than Latin but they survived. Republicans are preaching from high cost, paid for pulpits and the message they repeat – often via Fox News – is no longer valid in this 21st Century. Their followers are taking the easy route to salvation of their life style, not their souls. It is always easier to do nothing but it is costly to all of us. What has it cost President Obama and his family as he tries, against great odds, to keep this country on it’s feet and moving forward?

  4. True, Fox is bad, but EVERY OTHER NETWORK, including NPR, are far more biased and far more propagandist in favor of the Democrats.


    Republicans – 1 Democrats – Everyone Else

  5. I never watch Fox news, but do wonder if they have ever featured stories about Rupert Murdoch’s illegal business woes. Or have they reported anything about this, even in a passing sort of way?

  6. Looking at the 40 plus blue eyed, blond haired propaganda reporting women on Fox News has resolved the question for me as to what became of Hitlers eugenics program. Rupert recruited them.

  7. “No serious observer doubts that Fox is a wildly inaccurate propaganda mill. ”

    Actually many people have that doubt. Fox is no different from MSNBC and CNN when it comes to reporting facts. It just comes at issues from a conservative editorial stance which upsets liberals who have long dominated the major networks.

  8. I doubt that the Fox Effect is solely responsible for the gains made by the GOP in areas covered by Fox and talk radio. From my point of view the mainstream media (newspapers, CBS, NBC, ABC and news magazines) ceded the responsibilities of journalism to the board room’s bottom line at the same time. What used to be news is now entertainment, conjecture, and uninformed opinion. Thinking that they were in competition with Fox mainstream media adopted some of their “competitor’s” tactics, like using “fair and balanced” in what mostly turns out to be comical. The news story that really has just one side sees the reporter go out and beat the bushes for an opposing view by rounding up some lone nut case for his/her 15 minutes of fame. There are few reporters left, instead we see and hear commentators, retired “experts”, and celebrity professionals tell us what to think. No, it ain’t just Fox.

  9. Ray R. Irvin, that’s ridiculous. There are plenty of brunettes and darker skinned women on Fox. The network features a lot of minorities, probably more than CNN and MSNBC combined. If you want sort through the headshot of all the CNN hosts and regular contributors, you could make a similar photo montage of all the blue eyed blondes.

  10. Gee fellas, I don’t care what color they are. I would just like to get my news from a journalist!!

  11. Theresa; Sarah Palin has a BA in Journalism from the University of Alaska – look where it led her:) She still takes to the airwaves believing she is a journalist…or someone people still want to hear in-depth reports from. We need people the caliber of Edward R. Murrow reporting our news; locally we need a real newspaper to receive the written word containing facts. Ah, the good old days are long gone…so are real journalists and journalism.

  12. You have to follow the money, right JoAnn? Who owns the network news stations? Republicans and Corporations do. Air America is gone because of the lack of funding right? Not sure why? I’m sure there are plenty of rich liberals but they don’t support news stations. I’m just thankful that our cable provider here in Europe does not have Fox or MSNBC. They have Euronews, BBC, RT, Bloomburg, CNBC, and CNN Int’l. Journalists still work for some of these networks but again, who owns them?

    I get my news from the internet mostly. I watch Euronews most often because they have news from all over Europe and in English. No commentary and they have a ‘no comment’ segment every hour that shows videos from all over the world (today’s news) with no commentary. It allows the viewer to see it and use their own mind to discuss it amongst ourselves.

    Fox has poisoned our political process with lies and damn lies. They are a pox on the country and I have a few family members who will not change the station. A couple of them still listen to Rush every day, sigh. We don’t communicate at all because they bring up politics constantly as if to start a fight. I miss my brother and sister but Fox swallowed them up and they are too mean to discuss anything with now because I’m a “damn” liberal. Too bad for my Mother too. She’s heartbroken and still can’t discuss my brother without fits of tears.

  13. Yes, it would be good to see the likes of Edward R. Murrow again. Currently, I think the reporting by Richard Engel is excellent and very professional. As for Sarah Palin, she received her degree from the University of Idaho. Says more about that university than her.

  14. I have long been a fan of religion for others. While spirituality and religion are separate in my brain I fully accept that they are conflated in others. And what’s not to like about people basking in good thoughts weekly about living principled lives, secure in the notion that the reward will be meeting up again with their friends and loved ones in the great beyond.

    Is Fox News any different? I don’t think so. It’s like minded people hearing stories of the heroes and the mythology of their tribe and reports of the enemies outside their village and hunting grounds.

    If you want to experience the same cultural meme with slightly dufferent spin watch any of the TV evangelist shows.

    Of course we all have our own favorite cultural banquets to attend. Dancing With the Stars is one of my wife’s. Pick any sport for others including the huge tent revival annually in Indianapolis called the 500. It’s so satisfying to be shoulder to shoulder with others who get the same thrill from 230 mph crashes and the skill that it takes to exist that close to the edge.

    If we didn’t live is a democracy these tribe fests would be harmless. In fact perhaps beneficial in some cases.

    But we do. So our future is dependant on an educated, informed and involved electorate. Those that think critically and with open minds. The opposite of tribal thinkers.

    BTW, they really do believe that everybody does it. That all network news is biased tribal immersion. Their proof? Look how consistently other networks emphasize differently than Fox. Proof positive that either they are as biased as Fox or reporting the truth, whole and nothing but. Of course you can’t tell which.

  15. Disagreeing with Gopper. The other networks may be differently biased than Fox, but are definitely not propoagandist to the extent that Fox is.

  16. I think that the most accurate way to look at Fox News is as a 24/7 Republican campaign ad. So like with all campaign ads any facts reported are probably accurate but certainly not the whole truth. Plus facts are not the essence. Innuendo is.

    My wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men last night. I know, I know, how out of date are we? It was interesting to see at least one historical perspective of the birth of commercial brainwashing. Think how far that industry has come since. Essentially our adult lifetime.

  17. Earl. I’m an old man that likes to look at young women and hardly ever watches Fox.

  18. First, I would like to point out that the “liberal media” meme was based upon the fact that television displayed very unsettling images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Even in those pre-Rupert Murdoch days, the “liberal media” was more of a “socially liberal-economically conservative” media.

    Getting to now – sorry but I can’t remember the name of the book I read (thank you public libraries), a some-time Hollywood writer/some-time environmental activist explained that differential appeal very clearly. He suggested that arguments/entertainment/sales could appeal to the head, to the gut, or to the gonads, increasing in effectiveness as you go lower in the anatomy. The “Political Left” tries to appeal to reason — to the head. The “Political Right” (Fox News) appeals to the gut. I don’t think I need to mention where the commercial advertisers try to appeal.

    I tend to believe that he may be correct.

  19. The difference being, Pete, that you probably are honest enough to look at actual women rather than painted, staged, poor representatives of women. My wife subscribes to Playboy. ‘Probably for the articles.’ I don’t.

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