Does watching Fox News rot your brain? According to a report released last month by WorldPublicOpinion.org at the University of Maryland, "Misinformation and the 2010 Election," the more people watch Fox News, the more they are "misinformed."
The allegation rapidly became a favorite topic for leading mainstream news outlets including The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, CBS News, Slate, The Atlantic. Even major newspapers in Canada and the U.K.covered the report. Of course, left-wing websites -- the Talking Point Memo, Media Matters, and the Daily Kos -- reveled in the findings.
The report asserted that Fox News viewers getting political survey questions wrong was not just the result of already wrongheaded Republicans watching Fox News: "The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it--though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican."
But the researchers themselves were clearly misinformed and frequently picked incorrect or left-wing biased answers as the "correct" ones, something the uncritical mainstream media apparently never examined. Take the first four questions of the eleven the report focused on.
Question # 1: "Is it your impression that most ECONOMISTS who have studied it estimate that the stimulus legislation caused job losses, saved or created a few jobs, or saved or created several million jobs?" (emphasis is in the original). The WorldPublicOpinion.org claims that the stimulus "saved or created several million jobs," citing a report from the Democratically controlled Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that said the increase in jobs was at least 2 million. Any other answer give put the viewer as being "misinformed."
To back up their claim that "most economists" agreed with this statement, they referenced a March 2010 Wall Street Journal survey: 38 of 54 forecasting economists thought that the stimulus helped. Nonetheless, the University of Maryland researchers -- intentionally or unintentionally -- exaggerated the claim: the average economist in the survey estimated that the stimulus reduced the unemployment rate in February from 10.4 to 9.7 percent, about one million jobs, not "several million jobs."
In addition, they avoided acknowledging that there were other surveys where the majority of economists dramatically disagree. One such survey was by the National Association of Business Economics, with 50 of 68 economists concluding that the stimulus had no beneficial impact on the recovery.
Question # 2: "What effect do you think the health reform law will have on the federal budget deficit over the next ten years?" The "correct" answer was that Obamacare would reduce the deficit, and the report cites a March estimate by the CBO that the health care savings would be $124 billion. But this is an old, vastly optimistic left-wing prediction touted by the CBO to get Obamacare passed. Even the Obama administration now admits that their plan will add to the deficit. The CBO itself now acknowledges that they double-counted projected Medicare spending cuts. Correcting that error adds $89 billion to the health care costs over the decade. Another CBO error also underestimated discretionary spending in the new health care law by $60 billion. These errors by themselves, not even counting other problems, flips the math around and shows that Obamacare will increase the deficit.
Question #3: "Do you think that now the American economy is still getting worse or starting to recover?" This question, like the others in the survey, were asked from November 6th to 15th.
The "right" answer was supposed to be that the economy was "starting to recover." But whether things were getting "worse" depends a lot on what numbers were considered, and the question failed to make it clear precisely what numbers were being refereed to.
In terms of GDP growth, the recession did end in June 2009. Yet, since June 2009, unemployment kept on rising from 9.5 to 9.8 percent. Four million more Americans became unemployed or simply gave up looking for work and left the labor force. Furthermore, with uncertainty over the future rising, temporary jobs have started replacing permanent jobs, with 561,000 permanent jobs disappearing since the recovery started.
Question #4: "Do you think that MOST SCIENTISTS believe that climate change is occurring, not occurring, or views are evenly divided?" (emphasis in the original). Of course, the answer WorldPublicOpinion.org wants was that most scientists believe that climate change is occurring. Again, the question is poorly worded. In particular, it fails to specify what time period is relevant. Have temperatures risen since the end of The Little Ice Age in 1850? Surely, no one disagrees with that. Have temperatures changed much since 1998? Few scientists would claim so. Judging from the WorldPublicOpinion.org's report, the authors are clearly pushing the man-made global warming viewpoint. But on that score, there is little unanimity. For example, a 2010 survey of American weather forecasters found only 17 percent to believe in man-made global warming. And, as for scientists in general, 9,029 Ph.D.s signed a petition this year disputing man-made global warming claims.
Still other questions were fraught with problems. For instance, "Since January 2009 have your Federal income taxes gone down, stayed the same, or gone up?" That was not a smart formulation when the researchers intended an answer for overall tax rates rather than for each individual's taxes. And then there are problems with their question about the TARP financial bailout, where the researchers ask about whether most Congressional Republicans supported it. But they can't even add up the total votes in the House or Senate on the bill which shows that Republicans were literally split 50-50, while 75 percent of Democrats supported it. On their own, House Republicans would never have supported the bill.
The WorldPublicOpinion.org survey is a mess. At best, the survey shows that liberals who conducted the survey simply were not smart or careful enough. If any conclusion can be drawn, it is that those who watched Fox News almost every day had not fallen for left-wing myths to the same extent as other Americans.
John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for FoxNews.com. He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench" Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.