A New York Times/CBS News poll, released Dec. 7, showed Fox News Channel viewers in Iowa nearly twice as likely to oppose Mitt Romney as people who don't get their news from the Murdoch/Ailes network. There are logical explanations for this in addition to biased, brainwashing coverage by Fox. It is likely for example, that some Fox viewers are more extreme in their views than other Republicans to begin with and don't need encouragement.
What's especially neat to me is that the Times and CBS News decided to examine Fox viewers in the first place. They are to be congratulated for that, and I hope they keep on doing it. It took all of one question in the survey to sort out Fox viewers from everyone else - and that question can, if it continues to appear in Times/CBS News polls, lead to volumes of news. Other pollsters and news organizations should be asking the same question, or ones like it. It leads to worthwhile, non-horse-race findings as well as a more nuanced report on how the candidates are doing.
One of my main interests in this way of slicing the data - Fox viewers v. everyone else - is to see how President Obama would come out. I often feel Obama is being cheated on his approval ratings, compared to past presidents. I think his ratings are dragged down by Fox News. Like Republicans in the Senate and House, a main game at Fox, as Media Matters for America so neatly shows, is to let no day pass without ripping into the President, and I think that polls can quantify, to an extent, just how successful Murdoch/Ailes are in their efforts. I think it can be measured in polls, and I'd like to see it tried regularly.
It used to be that there were two sure-fire lifters of presidential approval ratings. One was a national crisis, of almost any sort, regardless of what it was. Hence the expression, "the country rallies around the president in a time of crisis." The second was activity - just about any activity - that drew public attention and made it seem a president was doing something.
Obama has had plenty of crises and he certainly gets a lot of attention for his activities. But his ratings seldom get to 50 percent approval. (May was the last time, according to Gallup), and most often there's plurality disapproval. You don't hear the 'rallying around the president' phrase much.
Approval ratings are important in that low ratings embolden political opponents, especially those on Capitol Hill, to attack a president, while high ratings tend to make opponents more careful and respectful in their criticism and even to hold back on it.
My theory is that if there were no Fox News, Obama's approval rating might be five or ten points higher. I would test it by adding two questions to opinion polls. They wouldn't take much time to ask but they could provide insight one way or the other. I'd ask these questions or variations of them:
Q. How much of your news do you get from Fox: all of it, most of it, about half, less than half, hardly any, or none? (That question is similar to the one in the Times/CBS News poll; which was Q102 here.)
The second question would enable comparison of Fox viewers with others for their political awareness. There are endless possibilities; here's an example:
Q. Recently Arab leaders Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi were overthrown and Gaddafi was killed. Can you please tell me, which Arab country was Mubarak from? And which was Gaddafi from?
The advantage of a question like this is that it roughly divides people into those who get 100%, 50%, or zero. (Note, I said roughly.) Questions 1 and 2 together divide the people interviewed into groups such as Fox v. non-Fox viewers according to whether they do or do not keep up with events. An assumption might be that those who don't keep up are more impressionable - and the Fox bias effect, if there is one, would be most telling on them.
These questions or ones like them are rich in potential. They would reveal, again roughly, for how much of the electorate there is a Fox effect, and what that effect might be when it comes to voting and other issues.
This report also appeared on NiemanWatchdog.org.