Let’s start with Pew’s findings.
Pew periodically studies media usage and public knowledge. They ask whether a respondent is a “regular” reader, viewer or listener of major print, television, radio and Internet news sources, and they ask a series of basic factual questions about news and public affairs to gauge how well-informed the respondent is.
After conferring with Pew researchers, we found three surveys since 2007 that shed some light on how informed Fox viewers are compared to consumers of other media. Here they are:
• February 2007 Political Knowledge Survey. Pew asked respondents 23 questions, such as 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. The ability to answer 15 of these questions correctly earned the respondent a place in the “high knowledge” category.
Pew then categorized various media sources by the percentage of their followers who earned a high knowledge rating. The media outlets fell into three categories — those that had 50 to 54 percent in the high knowledge group, those that had 40 to 49 percent in the high knowledge group, and those that had 34 to 39 percent in the high knowledge group.
In descending order, the 50-to-54 percent group included The Daily Show and its Comedy Central cousin, The Colbert Report; major newspaper websites; the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer; Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor; National Public Radio; and Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio talk show.
The 40-to-49 percent category included national newsmagazines; television news websites; local daily newspapers; Internet news sources like Yahoo and Google; and CNN.
Finally, the 34-to-39 percent group included the network evening news shows; online news discussion blogs; Fox News Channel; local television news; and the network morning shows.
Now, let’s analyze the data.
Fox isn’t last on the list, although it’s close — 35 percent of Fox viewers earned a high knowledge rating, which was tied with local television news and was one point ahead of the network morning shows.
However, Fox’s 35 percent score places it exactly at the national average. This seems paradoxical — Fox ranks near the bottom of a long list of media outlets, yet it sits right at the national average. But there’s an explanation. Lots of respondents reported following none of the media outlets they were asked about, and those respondents did quite poorly on the knowledge quiz — not surprisingly. That meant that the non-media-using respondents brought down the national average, but they didn’t constitute a separate category that ranked lower than Fox on Pew’s chart.
Since Stewart was referring to “media viewers,” this doesn’t undercut his point. However, the data includes an important counterpoint to Stewart’s claim: Viewers of at least one show on Fox scored quite well — The O’Reilly Factor, of whom 51 percent made it into the high knowledge group. That made it equal to National Public Radio — a longtime target of conservative complaints about liberal media bias — and only three percentage points behind Stewart’s own show, at 54 percent.
• April 2008 Media Survey. Compared to the 2007 survey, the 2008 survey looked at a wider variety of media outlets but used a narrower selection of questions designed to test the respondent’s current-affairs knowledge. The pollsters asked three questions: “Do you happen to know which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?” “Can you tell me the name of the current U.S. Secretary of State?” And “who is the current prime minister of Great Britain?” Anyone who went three-for-three earned the high knowledge designation.