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.