A Quinnipiac poll released this week asked which of a number of mainstream outlets was the respondent's most trusted news source. The largest percentage (29%) answered Fox News. Another 57% identified another source (NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, or CNN) as the most trusted, while 15% either didn't respond or didn't know.
This story has been reported in a number of ways, most of which seem highly misleading. To say, as the Washington Post did, that Fox News is America's most trusted cable or broadcast news source just seems completely wrong, since that source is only most trusted by a minority of 29% of Americans, according to this poll. Even to report that Fox was named the most trusted by the largest number of respondents seems misleading, since the largest number of respondents (about 50%) actually named the more middle of the road sources (the three broadcast networks and CNN), while 7% named MSNBC, which might be thought of as the liberal counterweight to Fox.
Because these poll results have been reported in such a misleading way, lots of hand-wringing is going on about how Americans can possibly think that Fox is trustworthy, when objective measures have found that Fox is highly biased and offers a greater proportion of inaccurate information than other news networks.
Had these poll results been reported correctly, we might have less hand-wringing. The right way to report this news would be to recognize that there is still a sizable minority of of the public (approximately 29%) who trust Fox more than the other networks. Who are these 29%? It's about the same percentage as those who still supported George W. Bush when he was at the lowest point of his popularity. It's about the same percentage as those who say they sympathize with the Tea Party. It's about the same percentage as those who oppose immigration reform or gun control. In other words, we are talking about a consistent, sizable minority who hold onto a contrarian viewpoint. Based on the way we know people's minds work, it should be no surprise that this sizable minority find most trustworthy the source that generally confirms their worldview.
Remember Mitt Romney's 47%? That was the percentage he said were going to support Barack Obama for president in 2012 no matter what. Those people were not persuadable. But since there were a large number of independent voters who might go either way, the hope of Romney's candidacy was to persuade enough of the undecideds to obtain a majority. (I think Romney was correct, by the way, in assessing that Obama was guaranteed to get at least 47% of the vote. Where he got in trouble was in equating the 47% who supported Obama with the people who don't pay income taxes, or are dependent on the government.)
At the risk of making the same mistake Romney did, I'm going to suggest that it might make sense to think of the 29% with strong conservative viewpoints in a similar way to Romney's 47%. There is probably substantial overlap between regular viewers of Fox News and the sizable number of Americans who are simply not going to accept mainstream thinking, whether it's on climate change, or civil rights for gay Americans, or immigration or health care or any number of issues. It's only natural to expect that those people are also going to continue to turn to sources that confirm their thinking, the same way that the rest of us tend to do. Instead of berating the 29%, who are never going to be persuaded to accept mainstream thinking on a whole range of issues, the majority should recognize that they represent a substantial part of the electorate and that their views are entitled to be represented in our political system. Since they are a minority, however, they should understand that are not entitled to have their views prevail. It might be helpful to that understanding to stop treating the 29% as if they represent the largest slice of public opinion.