Pew Research set out to find what’s behind what it considers the increasing political polarization of the United States; why the country is moving away from political moderation and becoming more and more divided between liberals and conservatives. Its first report on the phenomenon, which examines where people are hearing news and opinion in both regular and social media, shows that this is happening for very different reasons among people moving to the right than for people moving to the left.
Or that’s the charitable way to put it. The less charitable way is to say Pew discovered that conservatives are consuming a right-wing media full of lies and misinformation, whereas liberals are more interested in media that puts facts before ideology. It’s very much not a “both sides do it” situation. Conservatives are becoming more conservative because of propaganda, whereas liberals are becoming more liberal while staying very much checked into reality.
That this polarization is going on isn’t a myth. Previous Pew research shows the percentage of Americans who are “mostly” or “consistently” conservative has grown from 18% in 2004 to 27% in 2014. During that same period, the percentage of Americans who are “mostly” or “consistently” liberal stayed a little more consistent, growing from 33% to 34% in 10 years. (These statistics don’t measure what you call yourself, but what you rate as on a scale of beliefs about various issues.) While liberals became more liberal, conservatives both became more numerous and more rigidly conservative over time. What gives?
Enter right-wing media, which has a nifty trick of convincing audiences it’s the other guys who are the liars, all while actually being much less trustworthy in reality. From conservative screaming about the “media elite” to Fox News’s old slogan “Fair and Balanced,” conservative media is rife with the message that everyone is out to get you, conservative viewer, and only in the warm blanket of right-wing propaganda will you be safe.
The message, the Pew research suggests, has really taken hold. Pew researchers gave respondents a list of 36 popular media sources and asked how much they trusted each one. Some were liberal, like The Daily Show or ThinkProgress. Some were conservative, like Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. Most of them are fairly straightforward news organizations with no overt political agenda, like NPR, various network news, CNN, and the New York Times.
The findings were astounding. Out of the 36 news sources, consistent liberals trusted 28, a mix of liberal and mainstream news sources. Mostly, liberal respondents generally agreed, holding out a little more skepticism for overtly ideological sources like Daily Kos or ThinkProgress, but not actually distrustingthem, either. The only news sources liberals didn’t trust, generally, are overtly right-wing ones, such as Fox News, the Blaze, Breitbart, or Rush Limbaugh’s show.
Conservatives, on the other hand, saw betrayers and liars around every corner. Consistent conservatives distrusted a whopping 24 out of 36 outlets and mostly conservative respondents distrusted 15 and were skeptical of quite a few more. The hostility wasn’t just to well-known liberal sources like MSNBC. Strong conservatives hated all the network news, CNN, NPR, and the major national outlets, except the Wall Street Journal. Respondents who are mostly conservative fared better, but were still hostile to the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as skeptical of mainstream organizations like CBS and NBC News.
The fact that conservatives are this paranoid should be alarming enough, but it becomes even more frightening when you consider who conservatives do trust in the media. Consistent conservatives only trusted 8 media sources--compared to the 28 liberals trusted--and of the eight, only one has anything approaching respectable reporting or reliable information. And that one, the Wall Street Journal, has good straight reporting but has an op-ed page that is a train wreck of right-wing distortions and misinformation. Most conservative people were a little more open-minded, trusting USA Today and ABC News, but still were supportive of openly distorting sources like Fox News or the Drudge Report.
The trust conservatives put in conservative media is utterly misplaced. For instance, both consistent and mostly conservative people love Glenn Beck, though he’s a well-known purveyor of outrageous conspiracy theories that percolate up to him from fringe characters. Breitbart and Sean Hannity also rated high, despite their shared history of championing right-wing fringe characters like Cliven Bundy.
But what is really frightening is the reach of Fox News. Fox News rated as the only real news source for consistent conservatives, with 47% of them citing it as their main source of news. Nothing even came close to touching it, as the second most common answer, “local radio” was cited by only 11% of consistent conservatives. Eighty-eight percent of consistent conservatives trusted Fox News. Mostly conservative and even “mixed” people also liked Fox News.
The problem with this is watching Fox News actually makes you less informed than if you don't watch any news at all. In a 2012 study, Fox News viewers rated the absolute lowest in ability to correctly answer questions on a quiz about recent news events. People who didn’t take in any news programs at all did better on the quizzes. NPR listeners rated the best. Consistent liberals in the Pew research were big fans of NPR, by the way. It was the second most common outlet cited as a favorite by consistent liberals, topped only by CNN.
Fox News is one of the main factors, possibly the main factor, driving political polarization in this country. Huge chunks of this country listen mostly or solely to a relentless stream of misinformation coming from Fox News, coupled with warnings, implied or even baldly stated, to avoid listening to other, more factually accurate news sources. Unsurprisingly, then, more people are becoming conservatives and people who were already conservative are becoming more hardline about it. If you have any Fox viewers in your family, you probably already suspected this, but now Pew has given us the cold, hard facts to confirm your suspicions.