How Politifact Got Jon Stewart’s Fox News Statement Wrong

Jun 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

An overview of 5 surveys, which Politifact never looked at by Chris Mooney shows that the fact checker got it wrong when they labeled Jon Stewart’s statement about Fox News viewers being misinformed false.

Chris Mooney of Desmogblog’s main critique of Politifact’s assessment is that they used faulty methodology to label Stewart’s statement about Fox News viewers being the most misinformed false.

He wrote,

To rebut Stewart’s claim, Politifact relied upon irrelevant and off-point studies. Thus, the site cited a number of Pew surveys that examine basic political literacy and relate it to what kind of media citizens consume. E.g., questions like whether people know “who the vice president is, who the president of Russia is, whether the Chief Justice is conservative, which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and whether the U.S. has a trade deficit.”

Too few citizens know the answers to such basic questions—which is lamentable, but also irrelevant in the current context. These are not contested issues, nor are they skewed by an active misinformation campaign. As a result, on such issues, many Americans may be ill-informed but liberals and conservatives are nevertheless able to agree.

Thus, the bulk of the studies cited by Politifact have nothing to do with whether Fox viewers believe the truth, or falsehoods, on politicized and contested issues. I cannot stress how fundamental a distinction this is. Indeed, it is quite literally a separate issue from the perspective of psychology and neuroscience.


Mooney did his own research
using 5 different studies, and his findings were that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed. He did raise a great point. There is a huge difference between a political literacy test and being misinformed. Fox News viewers know that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, but many of them also believe that he was born in Kenya.

Jon Stewart wasn’t discussing political literacy. He was talking about an intentional campaign by Fox News to misinform viewers on a daily basis. Politifact was victimized by a common intellectual trap when discussing Fox News. Many people make the mistake of confusing bias with intelligence. Fox News viewers are not stupid people, but they are misinformed by a campaign of ideological bias.

Jon Stewart sees his agenda as challenging the media bias that causes misinformation. The question is how does one measure misinformation? The Pew studies look at political literacy and attempt to draw connections based on media consumption, but they do not measure misinformation. Politifact corrected Jon Stewart based on their own definition of misinformation as illiteracy, not his point about Fox News bias causing their viewers to believe non-facts.

The problem isn’t political literacy. It is that viewers of Fox News are fed partisan subjective statements as fact. There is a difference between saying the world is round, and concluding that the only the way the world could have been formed was by the hand of God. The first statement is a fact. The second statement is a belief. Misinformation takes root when political beliefs, which may have no basis in fact, are themselves presented as facts.

Jon Stewart’s discussion with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday
was about media bias, not literacy. Simply put, Politifact used the wrong criteria to evaluate Jon Stewart’s statement.

Political fact checkers have the most thankless job in the media. They get criticized on all sides, but in this case they misinterpreted what Stewart meant by misinformation, which invalidated their conclusion. Politifact should have made sure that they understood what was meant by the term misinformation in the discussion before they self-defined the term and labeled Jon Stewart’s claim as false.

Last night on The Daily Show, Stewart said that Fox News viewers weren’t at the bottom of every survey, but at or near the bottom:

He fairly conceded the point, but on the topic of misinformation as a by product of media bias, Jon Stewart was correct.

For more information, head over to Desmogblog and read Chris’ posts for yourself. It will be well worth your time.

11 responses so far