The Fox News Effect

by Henry Farrell on September 14, 2006

Michael Bérubé tosses out an aside in a “post”: on Raymond Williams and culture.

bq. Left media critics make much of the fact (to take a random example) that millions of Americans believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and I have heard any number of my colleagues adduce this as evidence of the Foxification of national discourse. But the curious thing is that on September 12, 2001, millions of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and Iraq’s refusal to denounce the attacks didn’t exactly reassure those people. The question remains, then, of whether Fox News actively recruits people to the “Iraq was involved” agenda, or whether it simply confirms the Cheney-Rice conspiracy theorists in what they already believe.

As it happens there _is_ evidence that Fox News has a real and quite substantial effect on people’s politics (albeit on voting behavior rather than the propensity to believe in conspiracy theories). Stefano Della Vigna and Ethan Kaplan have a paper (“pdf”: ) which compares voting in the 1996 and 2000 presidential and senate elections in towns where Fox News was introduced on cable and in towns where it wasn’t. They argue that there isn’t any substantial difference between the two different groups of towns besides the introduction or lack of same of Fox News, providing a sort of natural experiment. However, there are significant _ex post_ differences in the degree to which people in these towns then vote for Republicans. Between 1996 and 2000, Republicans gain between 0.4 and 0.7 percentage points more of the vote in towns with Fox News than in towns without it. DellaVigna and Kaplan reckon that Fox News persuaded between 3% and 8% of its audience to vote Republican.



fred lapides 09.14.06 at 8:29 am

I can not speak for the nation but in my neck of the woods, Fox,with its rightwing agenda, is on cable and not that many people get cable. In fact, the belief about Iraq and 9/11 when it has been continued all these years later reveals a massive failure of the education system in America rather than the influence of one news channel.


Hogan 09.14.06 at 9:01 am

If millions of people believed on Sept. 12 that Iraq was behind the attacks, it may have had something to do with the fact that former DCI James Woolsey was on CNN on Sept. 11 telling them that Iraq was behind the attacks. I don’t remember seeing anyone else point to another suspect with anything like his level of certainty.


dearieme 09.14.06 at 9:03 am

But surely everone with democratic values at heart should welcome Fox News for the diversity it brings to the US MSM?


Seth Finkelstein 09.14.06 at 9:14 am

“… whether Fox News actively recruits people to the “Iraq was involved” agenda, or whether it simply confirms the Cheney-Rice conspiracy theorists in what they already believe …”

Umm, both?

They reassure the converted and convert (some of) the unsure.


jhupp 09.14.06 at 9:43 am

A coworker of mine was saying at 2pm on the eleventh that it was Saddam. Then, in a bit of prescience, she expressed relief that it was W in the White House, since he’d go take him out.

So I guess she was only half right.

Or, if you include the part about being relieved, maybe she was only about a quarter right.


abb1 09.14.06 at 9:59 am

But surely everone with democratic values at heart should welcome Fox News for the diversity it brings to the US MSM?

Sure, but for diversity’s sake where’s an equally well-financed fair and balanced anarcho-syndicalist channel?


veblen 09.14.06 at 10:18 am

Recall that the immediate reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing was that it was the work of Muslim extremists. Unlike the view that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, this view did not persist beyond certain fringe groups. The difference between the two is that the Clinton administration simply wanted to find the perpetrators of Oklahoma City bombing and bring them to justice, whereas the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 to gin up a war with Iraq. Had the Bush administration, with the assistance of Fox, not muddied the waters with regard to who was responsible for 9/11, the misconception that Iraq had a role in the attack would not have gained the hold that it now has.


Dylan 09.14.06 at 10:38 am

Ok, Fox is responsible for “it was Iraq wot done it.” Now which media conspiracy convinced so many people the the U.S. government blew up the WTC? Surely it has nothing to do with inherent stupidity.


Hogan 09.14.06 at 10:54 am

But surely everone with democratic values at heart should welcome Fox News for the diversity it brings to the US MSM?

We have both kinds of music here–country AND western!


Uncle Kvetch 09.14.06 at 11:44 am

But surely everone with democratic values at heart should welcome Fox News for the diversity it brings to the US MSM?

Yes. In my perfect democracy, for every news source that strives to report and analyze factual information, there would be one source tasked with making shit up.


soru 09.14.06 at 12:39 pm

´Now which media conspiracy convinced so many people the the U.S. government blew up the WTC´

That could be Fox too. The root cause of conspiracy theories seems to be a conviction you are being lied to. That tends to taint all information from a particular source, including the true stuff.

Start disbelieving enough true facts and you can soon become convinced of any story someone _else_ wants to sell. Even if it involves holographic missiles.


Eh Nonymous 09.14.06 at 12:57 pm

This is a bizarre post.

Fox doesn’t make you Republican. Being a Republican, implicitly or explicitly, makes you one.

Fox, in contrast, makes you WRONG and MISLED – and that’s more in line with the more relevant study, which investigated what media sources people watch or read or listen to, and what they believe.

What does it matter how they vote? Even if they voted for Kerry, if someone believes, contrary to all the accurate evidence but in line with the lies, omissions, evasions, and misstatements from Condi, Dick, and the President, as funnelled by right-wing radio, t.v., blogs and Fox News, then there’s the connection.

Watching Fox News – and depending on it as your main source of information about 9/11 – makes people much more likely to believe Saddam was behind it. Look it up. Listening to NPR, reading any newspaper with credibility, or getting your news from anywhere else produces accurate information: Saddam had literally nothing to do with 9/11.

Didn’t Pew, or Annenberg, or somebody do this study? Am I making this up? I don’t think so. Somebody go google it.


Michael Bérubé 09.14.06 at 1:17 pm

I stand corrected on the merits! Cool. Thanks for the info, Henry. I will hereafter adopt the Seth Finkelstein Solution: both. Fox confirms as it converts. I don’t want to have an either-or attitude about this kind of thing, anyway. Fox News: Threat or Menace? Surely this kind of question invites open-minded both/and thinking!

But as for why people on 9/12/01 would think “Iraq done it,” well, surely part of that has to do with the first Gulf War and its aftermath? I mean, Woolsey could have appeared on CNN saying that Chile had orchestrated the attack as blowback for the overthrow of Allende, and most Americans wouldn’t have believed it. But the “Iraq done it” seed fell on very fertile ground.


Henry 09.14.06 at 1:25 pm

Michael (and Seth) – Yep, it’s not either/or, it’s both (the authors talk about this a bit in the paper). But the interesting thing about the paper is exactly that it seems to show that there is a persuasion effect – i.e. that it isn’t just Republicans being predisposed to watch Fox News, but that Fox News changes people’s minds to make them more likely to vote Republican.

There is a reference in the paper to another article, which argues that people in the Arab world who watch CNN are much more likely than people who watch al Jazeera to believe that Arabs were responsible for 9/11, but it isn’t possible to disentangle the selection and persuasion effects as it is in this piece (there aren’t the nice natural-experiment type qualities).

And of course none of this can get at ideologies or framings properly (which was the subject of your original post – I just glommed onto your aside).


John Emerson 09.15.06 at 5:38 am

Before 9/11 Woolsey, if I remember correctly, was part of the broad group promoting war with Iraq.

Focussing too much on Fox tacitly implies that CNN or the networks are in strong contrast, but they’ve been sliding in a Fox-ish direction. None of the free media gave much space to Iraq skeptics or anyone classifiable as a dove, just as they seldom give much space to liberal Democrats. The range of acceptable opinion in the US ranges from center-left to hard right, and even the center-left doesn’t get a lot of space except when they’re bashing those to the left of them.


Jeremiah J. 09.15.06 at 10:40 am

I don’t like Fox and I agree they have parroted government lies. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the lies are the source of the effect. In addition to the more reprehensible propping up of falsehoods, they also consistently give a more responsible pro-administration line. In an average day of viewing, you probably aren’t going to hear about a Saddam-9/11 link, but you are going to hear about a half dozen reasons ‘why Bush isn’t as bad as everyone makes him out to be’. Given the content of the shows, I can’t believe that the basis of the Fox effect is plain and simple the spreading of lies. If listening to Brit Hume, Fred Barnes and Mort Kondrache everyday–lies or no lies–had no effect on anyone’s voting behaviors, I may be happy as a partisan but depressed about the capacity of human beings to be persuaded. Few contemporary journalists would be openly proud of the fact that they changed people’s votes. But journalism should change peoples votes–relevant knowledge can hardly be without effect. Thus the normative question is not whether Fox has an effect but whether its effect is a result of good journalism or bad. We here may all agree that Fox is bad, but haven’t established that their badness is the cause of their ‘effect’.

There people who are against the war, oppose Bush and vote Democrat who think Saddam was behind 9-11. They don’t buy Fox’s right wing perspective, so it’s unlikely that the got their incorrect info about 9-11 from Fox. The Iraq-9/11 story is–surprise–believed by more people for whom the story and their political views fit together. But a whole lot of other people do believe it or have believed it, for whom there is no fit.


Gary Imhoff 09.15.06 at 3:33 pm

Fox News obviously has too much power, since the only national broadcast news outlets that lean as far (or farther) to the left as FOX leans right are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, PBS, NPR, Air America, and Pacifica. FOX outnumbers them. After the Democratic Senators who want the FCC to lift ABC’s broadcast license for showing “The Path to 9/11” succeed in that effort, they should get it to close down FOX.

By the way, are there any actual examples of FOX news reporters or anchors ever saying that Saddam or Iraq was responsible for the attacks on 9/11?


Roy Belmont 09.16.06 at 3:31 am

Imhoff asks: “are there any actual examples of FOX news reporters or anchors ever saying that Saddam or Iraq was responsible for the attacks on 9/11?”
But aside from Woolsey there probably aren’t any specific champions of this convenient absurdity on record. That’s the beauty of coercive propaganda when it’s invisible and virtually untraceable – it seems to arise spontaneously from the people.
FOXNews isn’t a stand-alone actor with an agenda behind its proprietary coverage of events and opinion, it’s an animated bulletin board. It’s a mouthpiece, not a mind.
Americans in substantial percentages believe Saddam was behind 9/11 because having them believe that meant they would be less resistant to funding, and sacrificing their sons and daughters for, the removal of Saddam and the consequent devastation of Iraq – both goals of whoever and whatever is behind the fraudulent idea of Saddam’s responsibility for 9/11, and FOXNews’ rightwing partisanship.
Talking about FOX, and Bush for that matter, as if they were independent and autonomous and therefore responsible for anything just reinforces a pernicious illusion.
That same invisible hand put Bush in the White House and left the voters thinking it was them. So now it’s their fault and their failure he’s incompetent, or whatever it is he’s been being. No one to blame but themselves.

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