Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me

Published: September 24, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. – Paul Simon, “The Boxer”      

When it comes to the political talking heads crowding the media platform, who, if any, do we trust the most and the least? Are the facts important or is it all just entertainment?

These are a few of the questions I asked when I posted an informal, online survey regarding conservative and liberal commentators. Separating the polls by political affiliation, I offered a list of the more popular commentators: Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly on the conservative side; Alan Colmes, Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann on the liberal side.

Working with Jamie O’Boyle, senior analyst for The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, I asked respondents the following:

Have you ever listened to… (any of the listed commentators)?

I listen to these commentators primarily for: news, analysis, opinion, entertainment, other.

Who are you most and least likely to trust?

Do you feel that statements of facts from these commentators are: Predominately well-checked and supportable; I trust them in general; I have no way of knowing; Would be nice if facts were supportable, but doesn’t matter; It’s just entertainment.    

If factual errors occur, do you believe that these commentators should make a correction?

Only three demographic questions were asked regarding age, gender and political identification.

From the raw numbers, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow received the highest individual “trust” marks at 63% overall; Alan Colmes received the lowest at 30%.  Conservative Bill O’Reilly received the highest individual “trust” score at 16%; Rush Limbaugh, the lowest at 19%.

Most striking was the fact that whether respondents believed that the statements made by these commentators were “well-checked and supportable,” or considered “just entertainment,” an overwhelming number (96% from the conservative survey and 98% from the liberal survey) believe that “if factual errors occur, [all] should make a correction.”

According to the Center’s analysis, “once you strip out the self-identified liberals from the conservative survey, the answers to both surveys are almost identical.  The audience sees these politically-focused cable shows primarily as analysis and commentary, followed by news.”

But the Centers Jamie O’Boyle makes a compelling case for “confirmation bias – the tendency,” he writes “of our brain to easily accept information compatible with what we already know and – more importantly – minimize information that contradicts what we already know, even if what we ‘know’ isn’t true.

“The unconscious weighing of information is one of the reasons it is so difficult to change people’s minds using logic. The information goes in but the importance the brain allots to each bit minimizes the effect of negative data while weighting more heavily the bits that already fit their preconceptions and worldview.

“Today,” O’Boyle writes, “cable TV and the internet have opened up new venues for the return of a very old American dynamic of competing voices battling for mind share.

“The value of these programs to society,” O’Boyle concludes “is that they raise issues – often uncomfortable issues – and they force the rest of us to deal with them.  You might not like what the other guys say, the way he say it, or the fact that you can’t believe anyone would be dumb enough to believe it, but that’s your bias speaking, not his.”

To read the full report> Discordant Voices.


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