Fox News star host Bill O’Reilly last night went after his fellow Americans. They’re too uninformed, he said.
To establish the point, O’Reilly relied on data, citing a 2011 Newsweek study showing that U.S. citizens who take the citizenship test given to foreigners perform miserably. How many couldn’t name the sitting vice president of the United States? Twenty-nine percent. A good 44 percent couldn’t define the Bill of Rights. After running through the numbers, O’Reilly said, “That’s a disaster.”
To explain the point, O’Reilly didn’t rely on data. He merely argued that the main culprit for American’s poor level of informedness was the public schools. Then: “Number two, the Internet has created a generation of self-absorbed, addicted, distracted and ignorant people. The powerful machines, hand-held many of them, are diverting a lot of Americans away from real life. You can now create your own world on the net devoid of reality, and millions of Americans are doing that. The result is that a very few shrewd people are now wielding enormous power.”
Surely there’s a study or two out there on this topic. Ah, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did an enterprising look at the question back in 2007. It’s subtitled “What Americans Know: 1989-2007,” and thus encompasses the impact of the Internet on public awareness of civic matters. The resounding, anti-O’Reilly conclusion is this: “On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago.”
That is to say that the crisis that O’Reilly presents is not quite there, according to the data.
A 2006 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania also throws some static in O’Reilly’s direction. It polled 1,501 young people and concluded that the “Internet is the best information source for promoting political awareness and civic engagement among youths aged 14-22. . . . Conversely, a heavy diet of television viewing lowered political awareness.”
The Annenberg Center’s Daniel Romer this morning told the Erik Wemple Blog that “getting lost in TV” is quite easy for Americans. “So it’s really not the Internet, it’s TV” that’s the problem, Romer said. “It has been for years, ironically, and that’s where [O'Reilly] is. It’s kind of weird to have him blame the other medium.” In fairness to O’Reilly and his ilk, the Annenberg study found that watching “national nightly TV news or cable news . . . was positively associated with awareness.” The trouble comes with watching movies and following shows on television.
Perhaps O’Reilly’s gut is better with numbers and demographics than a team of prominent researchers. Certainly he believes so. But if you’re going to whack the Internet on the top-rated cable-news program, perhaps a bit more data would help things along. Whatever the minutiae, O’Reilly clearly has a selective set of views on the Internet. A few weeks back, Tom Brokaw was quoted as dismissing the relative smallness of the cable news audience vis-a-vis the network broadcasts. O’Reilly ripped back, in part, “Here on ‘The Factor,’ we are the center of discussion on the Internet nearly every night.” That ignorant Internet!