There’s a lot of fuss right now about Fox News, and “misperceptions.” This study cites (gulp!) statistics which purport to demonstrate that Americans who get their news from Fox suffer from a higher number of “misperceptions” about the war in Iraq than those who get their news from other networks. NPR’s fans (according to the study) have the fewest misperceptions.
What is a misperception?
Isn’t that term really a judgment on the quality of an opinion? I have a lot of atheist friends who, if they said belief in God was a misperception, well, they’d be being kind. “Delusion” is more likely the word they’d use.
A lot of moral conservatives think that homosexuals suffer from a misperception of nature.
And men are more likely than women to misperceive friendly behavior as amorous in nature. So what? Do more men than women read Playboy?
Who gets to decide what is a misperception and what caused it?
Whether people are misperceiving things depends, of course, on a detailed analysis of what is true.
The “facts.”
Facts are rarely agreed upon, and often hotly disputed. While it is true that many people believe things which are questionable, and which often turn out to be untrue, there is something I don’t like about not giving people fair credit for thinking the thoughts they think — rightly or wrongly. Thus, I refuse to blame Fox News for people’s opinions, any more than I would blame Instapundit, Eschaton, or Rush Limbaugh for the views of people who read or listen to them. Might as well blame churches for the fact that many of their parishioners believe in God. Or science fiction writers for the fact that many of their readers believe in space travel.
Just as they like some people more than others (and call them friends), people enjoy favorite sources for news and commentary. No one is selecting their friends for them — or making them listen to or read anything.
Blaming (or, in the case of NPR, crediting) a source for the beliefs of its audience presupposes that the audience is largely devoid of originality, and waiting to be, literally, “programmed.”
But even if we allow for the possibility that this is true, where does it lead? To further control? Counter control? Who gets to decide? Once you reduce people to the status of mindless sheep being led, it begs the question of whether this should be “allowed.” There are only two ways to prevent people from being led: persuasion or force. One approach is to offer them new “leaders.” But this applies only to government, not media, because media choices can be freely selected by flipping the dial (or entering a different URL). The only way to stop people from selecting “misleading” media (in the case of Fox News, many millions of people) is to offer an alternative in the hope that they will switch to it. NPR is already an alternative for millions of people, but there are millions who will never choose it.
Are the statistics attacking the “misperceptions” of Fox listeners being offered in the hope of persuading them to switch to NPR? This study strikes me as a rather odd way of persuading people of anything.
And, if the purpose of the study is not persuasion, then what is the purpose? Just to “scientifically” inform the world that Fox listeners are misperceiving things and end it there? Or are there other purposes?
Isn’t there an implied argument that Fox viewers are not so much misperceiving as they are deliberately misinformed? If so, where is the proof of that? Statistical correlations showing that particular beliefs are shared by similarly situated groups do not show causation. Without getting into whether God exists, if more Fox listeners than NPR listeners believe in God, that does not show that Fox is responsible. Suppose a study were done of viewers who watch religious programs. Doubtless, a very high percentage of them believe in God. Does that mean the programming is responsible? Or does it mean that people like to hear what they already believe?
Where is this intended to lead?
Surely, government regulation cannot be on anyone’s mind. (There is legislation pending which would do just that.) Might this study be related in any way? Or is that just another misperception?
Do I have a right to my misperceptions? I think I do, and I also have a right to disagree with the view of them as misperceptions.
I think there is an absolute right to believe in anything, and as I said before, an absolute right to be wrong. No matter how benevolent the intentions of the regulators, regulation of media content is inherently censorship. If they can muzzle Fox, they can muzzle Rush Limbaugh, or the blogosphere (where everyone is a journalist) — or anyone else.
I’ll take misperceptions over censorship any day.
UPDATE: To what extent are the opinions of Fox viewers “misperceptions,” anyway? Is this just another “misperception?” CIA arms inspector David Kay told Fox News that his own conclusions are being misperceived:

In fact, I’m sort of amazed at what was powerful information about both their intent and their actual activities that were not known and were hidden from U.N. inspectors seems not to have made it to the press. This is information that, had it been available last year, would have been headline news.

Who is misperceiving what here?
Clearly, there are two sides to this argument — and the word “misperception” is being used to characterize one side of it. Such arrogance is one thing, but any attempt to regulate media content to stop differing views must be seen as what it is.