Politics & Prose July 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Two new studies of cable news throw light on the sources of Bush's failure-proof support
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Twenty-eight percent of Americans, in the most recent polls, approve of President Bush’s performance in office, suggesting that failure has a surprising large constituency. Who are these people and how can they still believe in Bush?

The answers matter. Competence is—or should be—ideologically neutral. Conservatives who strongly supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, for example, had a right to expect that the administration would prosecute the war successfully. If a third of us either cannot recognize incompetence or don’t judge presidents by performance, then the rational voter theory no longer describes a significant minority of the voters.

That theory posits a rough fit between the world and the picture of it in the voter’s head. The challenges to this theory proceed from an old source—the human condition—and a relatively new one—misinformation about the world. Francis Bacon would find nothing surprising in the disinclination of core Bush voters to judge the president harshly. "The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it," he wrote in Novum Organum (1620). "And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises…in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate." To maintain our former conclusions inviolate we will ignore, deny, even despise numerous and weighty instances that chafe up against them. Most of us would rather be ourselves than right.

Propaganda reinforces the inertia of opinion. It doctors the picture of the world in our heads, assuaging the pain of cognitive dissonance. Two new studies of cable news throw light on the sources of Bush’s failure-proof support. According to one, an astonishing 87 percent of Fox News viewers voted for Bush in 2004. This near-unanimity is no accident, for, according to the other, conducted for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Fox edits the news with a view to mitigating the cognitive dissonance created by the bad fit between the world inside many Republican heads and the Bush-indicting testimony of events.

Over the first 90 days of 2007, Fox devoted 15% of its daytime "newshole" to Iraq and 10% to Anna Nicole Smith compared to CNN’s 25 and 4% and MSNBC’s 31 and 6%. To the firing of the U.S. Attorneys, a hot story in March, Fox gave 2% of its air time, CNN 4%, and MSNBC 8%, four times the Fox total. On talk radio the PEJ report found that while "conservative hosts" gave 3% of their air-time to the firings, "liberal hosts" gave 7% of theirs to "Gonzogate." (To be sure, as a study by the Center for American Progress recently documented, 9 out of 10 talk shows are conservative.) Thus, whether on Fox or on Rush & Co., the quantity of bad news about Bush is restricted and, when acknowledged, spun in a pro-Bush way.

The Fox glow is something new in the American media world, comparable to a party-run medium like Pravda. Right to the end, Pravda and its ilk kept faith alive in the Communist party regime, feeding lies to the hungry believers, readers may recall a massive survey out of the University of Maryland revealing that viewers fed mainly on Fox News were far likelier than CNN or CBS viewers to believe myths about the Iraq War—for example, that the still-missing weapons of mass destruction had been found and that Saddam was behind 9/11. That myth has persevered: 40 percent of Americans still believe it, which testifies to the pernicious power of the "news" carried by Fox and other party organs. Like Pravda for Communists, Fox News performs cognitive therapy for conservatives, sustaining a presidency that, now more than ever, is "faith-based."

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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