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When it Came to Election 2012, Fox News Pundits Failed the Network's Viewers

Network's Steady Stream of Right-wing Rhetoric Left Many Blindsided by Obama Win

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When it Came to Election 2012, Fox News Pundits Failed the Network's Viewers

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly

For years, conservatives have derided what Sarah Palin called the "lamestream media" for what they charged was a liberal bias that squelched opposing views. And they didn't just grouse; right-wing talk radio and Fox News were created, and in the process Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck became household names.

How ironic, then, that the conservative pundits were seemingly so blindsided by Barack Obama's thrashing of Mitt Romney, as symbolized by the bizarre moment, live on Fox News, when a flabbergasted Karl Rove could not bring himself to believe that Ohio and thus the election had gone the president's way, prompting anchor Megyn Kelly to double-check the results with the network's number-crunchers.

In the end, it wasn't the elite liberal media that left Rove and, more importantly, Fox News viewers so befuddled; rather, it was the echo chamber of the very media outlets conservatives themselves had erected. In short, they had grown accustomed to only listening to the opinions they agreed with, to only hearing what they wanted to hear.

It is, unfortunately, something millions of us are doing in the digital media age. Given the choice of a seemingly infinite number of sources for news and commentary, most of us choose to tune in the views we like, and tune out the rest.

I've written before about a study done at Ohio State University on this very phenomenon. Researchers found that people spent 36 percent more time reading articles that agreed with their views on hot-button topics like gun ownership and abortion than ones that questioned their opinions.

"We found that people generally chose media messages that reinforced their own preexisting views," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study. "In general, they don't want their views to be challenged by seriously considering other viewpoints."

The researchers said this could hinder the formation of informed opinion, and result in a more polarized and fragmented electorate, and reduced political tolerance. Sound familiar?

"People have more media choices these days, and they can choose to only be exposed to messages that agree with their current beliefs," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "If you only pay attention to messages you agree with, that can make you more extreme in your viewpoints, because you never consider the other side."

All of which brings me back to journalism. When I was a grad student in the Columbia University j-school several centuries ago, my professor, Melvin Mencher, included in our assigned reading an arcane text dating from the 1950s called "The Art of Scientific Investigation," written by one W.I.B. Beveridge. At the time I couldn't understand why Mencher had assigned this text in a reporting course (okay, so I'm not the brightest bulb in the box), but over the years I figured it out: Journalism, at its best, should resemble the scientific process, meaning a clear-eyed, unbiased search for truth, wherever it may lead.

Of course, in the wild and woolly digital age the media geeks have proclaimed that objective reporting is dead. People want opinions and plenty of them, they say, so let's give the people what they want.

Which is exactly what Fox News has been doing all along. And why not? Fox regularly clobbers its straight-news rival CNN in the ratings. It is, according to the parameters with which we measure such things now, a huge success.

Except that it isn't. Not where it counts. Oh sure, Fox News makes tons of money and is watched by millions. But Fox and the other right-wing media have, in a very basic way, largely failed to fulfill the primary mission of any news outlet, which is to inform the public.

Instead they have, with a few exceptions, actually misled their audience by churning out a steady stream of opinion based on what turned out to be little more than wishful thinking. O'Reilly is fond of attacking liberals by accusing them of "drinking the Kool-Aid," but in the end that's exactly what the Fox News pundits did. They built their own echo chamber, heard what they wanted to hear and, when it turned out they were dead wrong, they had no one to blame but themselves.

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