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Media Matters?

Why Fox News won’t help—and might hurt—Republicans during the shutdown.

With a government shutdown likely looming, many Republicans are concerned about the precedent set in 1995 and 1996, when Bill Clinton, then in power, bested the GOP in the politics of two shutdowns. But some conservatives believe that there’s a big difference in their favor this time: the media context, namely the existence of Fox News. “Quite honestly, the major newspapers had a stranglehold on political news in 1995. Now you have cable on both sides,” freshman Congressman Todd Rokita told The New York Times. “People can much more easily choose the news they watch, and I am able to get my messaging out, or I can at least make a case.” Dick Armey, House Majority Leader during the last two shutdowns, recently said, “In ’95, there was no Internet, no bloggers, no Facebook, no Fox News.” Or, as Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips put it, “Those were the days when the left still had a media monopoly. That no longer exists. There is Fox News, and Internet sites such as Tea Party Nation and World Net Daily.”

But Republicans banking on using Fox to win the budget p.r. battle are in for trouble. Fox, and Republican-oriented media in general, are unlikely to make much of a difference in a prolonged stalemate. Theories of media effects and a decade’s worth of evidence about the impact Fox News has on public opinion indicate that the GOP shouldn’t rely on partisan news sources to emerge from the potential shutdown, which they have instigated, with the American people on their side.

First, the theory side of things. Studies have consistently shown that media effects, contrary to what alarmists believe, are quite limited. Opinions are swayed easily or often by what they read or see. Why? For one thing, people hear what they want to hear. No one tunes in to Rush Limbaugh because they’re not sure whether to trust Barack Obama or John Boehner; they tune in because they are already Limbaugh acolytes and want to hear him confirm their own views. Conversely, liberals tune in to Rachel Maddow to find out why they should be mad at Republicans this week. Indeed, as John Zaller explained in his 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, people don’t encounter partisan media and change their minds; they seek out like-minded people to tell them what they already think, or to clarify what they should think about new issues.

Moreover, studies show that those who do hear new information that conflicts with their political biases strongly tend to keep their biases and reject the new information. (Media and public opinion scholar Brendan Nyhan has a good roundup of research on this topic.) That’s why Republicans who watch Fox News continue to believe against all evidence, which is presented on the network (see, for example, here and here), that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, or that American troops found “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. They pick up on and agree with the misleading hints and implications left by various commentators, and reject new, accurate information.

On top of media research, evidence about Fox News’s impact on public opinion also doesn’t bode well for the Republicans. Since Fox debuted in 1996, public opinion has repeatedly turned against the GOP, despite Fox’s best efforts to convince the American people to think otherwise. The Iraq War became terribly unpopular; George W. Bush’s approval rating for his handling of Hurricane Katrina was awful; Bush himself wound up a very unpopular president; Democrats won landslide victories in 2006 and 2008. More recently, Fox News favorites Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement have had a rough time in national polls. The network, it seems, does little to change opinions—further proof that the people who watch Fox already believe the Republican line, while those who don’t get their information elsewhere. (Of course, Republicans have scored plenty of wins since 1996, but they do not appear to be Fox-driven. For example, the GOP’s electoral successes in the early part of the last decade didn’t deviate significantly from political science models of election fundamentals, which suggest that media effects had little influence on voting outcomes.)

In short, changes in the media landscape since the Clinton years probably won’t make any real difference in how things play out during and after this shutdown. That’s not to say the Democrats will necessarily win the spin war and, ultimately, the budget debate. After all, negotiations can be difficult to predict. But the factors that will matter far more than the reach of Fox News and other conservative media are the White House’s structural advantages, including the American people’s tendency to dislike Congress; how the public views the Democrats’ position on spending versus the Republicans’; and, to some extent, the legacy of the last shutdowns (because people generally view them as victories for Clinton, they might be more prone to come down on Obama’s side this time).

So how will Fox matter if there's a shutdown? In reality, it could be bad for the Republicans. The network’s cheerleading efforts might mean that intensely conservative partisans will be even more likely to believe that their side is winning, whether that’s true or not, which could mean trouble for Speaker of the House John Boehner. It could make any budget deal he signs off on seem, in the eyes of Fox viewers, an unnecessary defeat. Then again, if Fox News commentators decide to claim that a budget deal is a great triumph for the GOP, viewers may just hear what they want to hear—and accept that interpretation as gospel.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.