Ever wonder why conservatives don’t believe humans are causing global warming, despite widespread agreement among scientists? Or that President Obama was born in America, even though he has produced his birth certificate? One reason could be the right-wing echo chamber—the tendency of conservatives to get the vast majority of their news coverage from Fox News or conservative radio stations, distrust all other news sources, and have mostly like-minded friends.
Today we have new evidence that the tendency is real—and is much stronger on the right than left. It comes from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed 2,901 people and divided them into five categories—“consistently liberal,” “mostly Liberal,” “mixed,” “mostly conservative,” and “consistently conservative”—based on 10 questions about their political values. Among consistently conservative respondents, 47 percent chose Fox News as their main source “for news about government and politics.” The next largest group, 11 percent, chose local radio. Responses among liberals, by contrast, were much more fragmented. Fifteen percent of consistently liberal respondents chose CNN, 13 percent chose NPR, 12 percent chose MSNBC and 10 percent chose the New York Times.
Pew also asked whether the respondents trusted a given news source (or hadn’t heard of it). Eighty eight percent of consistently conservative respondents said they trust Fox News, compared with 52 percent of consistent liberals who say they trust MSNBC. In fact, among consistently conservative respondents, only four news sources are trusted by at least half the respondents: Fox News, Hannity, Rush Limbaugh’s radio and Glenn Beck’s radio show. For consistently liberal respondents, there are nine: NPR, PBS, BBC, New York Times, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, MSNBC and CBS News.
This echo chamber doesn’t just exist among conservative media choices. It also is a feature of their daily lives. Sixty-six percent of consistently conservative respondents say that most of their friends share their views on government and politics. Only 29 percent have close friends with different views. When asked to name three people with whom they most often talk about politics, only 16 percent of consistently conservative respondents name a liberal as at least one of the three. This dynamic exists on the left, too, but it’s not quite as pronounced. Fifty-two percent of consistently liberal respondents say their close friends share their political views. When asked to name three friends with whom they talk politics most frequently, only 30 percent chose at least one conservative.
These findings mirror those from a survey released in June by the Brookings Institute and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In that poll, too, conservatives said they largely rely on Fox News for their coverage.
In the Brookings/PRRI report, respondents were also asked a selection of questions on immigration, such as whether illegal immigration has increased during the past few years. Conservatives who relied upon Fox News were most likely to answer wrongly. When I reported on that survey in June, I explained how this Fox News echo chamber dooms Republicans in presidential elections:
[Fox News viewers]—and Republican congressmen—may not consider Fox News an extreme news source. They may think it represents the center of the GOP. Under that mindset, presidential candidates should adopt a policy platform that appeals to the average Fox News viewer. But that’s a mistake when the average Fox News member is an extreme conservative. Instead of adopting a position that can garner support from the entire political spectrum of the Republican Party, they have chosen one that turns off moderate Republicans and appeals directly to extreme conservatives. Those moderate Republicans may ultimately vote for the GOP, but this strategy almost certainly alienates independent voters.
This makes the Fox News echo chamber a hazard for the party. It creates extreme candidates under the guise that they are electable, builds up a false narrative that they are in fact electable and then acts surprised when that narrative doesn’t play itself out.
In retrospect, I overemphasized the influence of Fox and underemphasized the influence of other conservative media. In fact, this new Pew survey shows that viewers on Fox News aren’t actually the most extreme. That distinction belongs to the people who watch and listen to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In other words, Fox News is only one part, albeit a major part, of this echo chamber. Again, the left has its own, smaller version—on MSNBC, for example. But it’s less influential, because it competes with news outlets like the New York Times and, yes, the Wall Street Journal. If you want to know why liberals seem to have a better grasp on many issues, that’s why.
I updated the second paragraph to say that the liberal echo chamber does exist. It's just much smaller than the one on the right.