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Race and Beyond: Dumbing It Down on Fox News

SOURCE: AP/Richard Drew

Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith, background right, conducts an interview during his "Studio B" program in New York, Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

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Can watching Fox News actually make you dumber than if you didn’t watch any news at all? Sure, some of us believe this, but until now there’s been nothing other than anecdotal evidence and Sarah Palin to support our arguments. Now we’ve got facts that make the case with an empirical flourish.

Researchers with Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll asked 612 New Jersey residents a variety of questions to test their awareness and knowledge of current events that dominated the news between October 17 and October 23. The poll’s shocking conclusion was that people who described themselves as heavy Fox News viewers tended to be “even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.”

Overall, 53 percent of those polled correctly knew that Egyptian street protests led to the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak’s government, 21 percent mistakenly said the uprisings were unsuccessful, and 26 percent admitted they had no idea what happened. Similarly, 48 percent knew the Syrian protests have been unsuccessful thus far, 36 percent said they didn’t know, and 16 percent erroneously said the Syrians have brought down their government.

But when the researchers drilled down into the numbers to cross tab the results with those who expressed a strong preference for Fox News’s cable broadcasts, they discovered those news consumers were 18 points less likely to know the Egyptian Spring resulted in the overthrow of the government than the people who said they don’t watch any news on television. Fox News viewers were also 6 points less likely to know the Syrians haven’t dislodged their government than the people who watch no news.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, these findings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Many Americans distrust smart people, as Eastern Washington University philosophy professor Terrance MacMullan points out in a chapter of The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News. MacMullan explains this using a very old tool of his trade, the illogical syllogism:

1. All tricky people are smart.

2. No tricky people should be trusted.

3. Therefore, no smart people should be trusted.

Yes, this is silly. But it goes miles to help explain why so many over at Fox News are working overtime to lower the bar of their viewers’ intellectual acumen by passing off right-wing dogma as “fair and balanced” news. Garbage in produces garbage out.

The result: Our nation, which once valued education as the great social equalizer, finds itself with a slate of conservative presidential candidates forced to the far-right fringe to pander to a dumbed-down public.

It’s neither an accident nor an odd coincidence that Fox News viewers did poorly on the PublicMind Poll. In fact it stands to reason that the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks can find, target, and maintain an audience of the ill-informed viewers. It’s a great business model. To paraphrase another great philosopher, P.T. Barnum, nobody grows poorer by selling down to the American public.

That intellectual downscale market is out there, living and voting among us. Newsweek magazine recently posted a slideshow called “America the Ignorant” that was a gallery of oddball opinions held by too large a swath of Americans. The reporters and editors collected a scary set of beliefs that far too many Americans carry around in their heads. Among them:

There’s no way the president of the United States can govern effectively by following the will of the ignorant. Yet with a huge push from Fox News, some conservatives believe it’s wise for the leader of the free world to act like the smartest idiot in the land. Help us all if they succeed.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here