This week, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly criticized Facebook, Twitter and other platforms where Americans hang out. “In this age of social media, Americans [are] becoming more apathetic, concerned primarily with their wallets and personal lives,” he said. The Erik Wemple Blog checked out that (very weak) linkage.
In a column posted on billoreilly.com, the opinionator has expanded on this anti-Internetism. In seeking to account for the inability of many Americans to answer the most basic questions about civics, O’Reilly finds fault first with the public schools (strong point there) and then turns toward the most efficient information machine in human history:
[T]he Internet and popular culture have created a generation of self-absorbed, distracted and ignorant people. The allure of texting, watching cat videos, and keeping up with the Kardashians has diverted a lot of Americans away from real life. Simply put, millions of us are wasting a huge amount of time pursuing trivial things, and if a citizen is not interested in the outside world, he or she will simply not be equipped to make intelligent decisions.
The Internet also has created a way to debunk this claim about the Internet. In 2007, more than a decade after the Internet emerged, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press issued a study titled “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions.”
On average, claimed the report, the citizens of the United States “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 [long before the Internet].” So, don’t go blaming the web for people being clueless.
That alone is sufficient evidence for a correction to O’Reilly’s column, though it gets worse for the king of cable news. The Pew study found no “clear connection” between news platforms and people’s awareness. Here’s a passage from the study that’s steeped with ironies vis-a-vis O’Reilly’s characterization:
Well-informed audiences come from cable (Daily Show/Colbert Report, O’Reilly Factor), the internet (especially major newspaper websites), broadcast TV (NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) and radio (NPR, Rush Limbaugh’s program). The less informed audiences also frequent a mix of formats: broadcast television (network morning news shows, local news), cable (Fox News Channel), and the internet (online blogs where people discuss news events).
Indeed, check out where major newspaper Web sites rank on this chart:
In February 2012, Pew freshened some of its findings on American public knowledge, researching Americans’ campaign knowledge amid the presidential primary season. A key conclusion: “Overall, people who cite the internet as their main source of campaign news do slightly better than average in terms of campaign knowledge.” Could it be possible that the same medium that peddles frivolous stories on the Kardashians also helps folks keep up with their civics?