Analysis | Fox News twists data on economy and crime to attack Biden

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There is an enduring chicken-egg question in American politics and media: Do Republicans who watch Fox News hold more extreme views because they watch Fox News, or do they watch Fox News because they hold more extreme positions?

It’s hard to answer the question of causality here, certainly, but it’s not hard at all to demonstrate the correlation. In October 2020, for example, we looked at polling showing that Fox News-watching Republicans were the most likely to view then-President Donald Trump’s administration positively.

More recently, The Washington Post and our partners at the Schar School conducted a national poll to test, among other things, what false beliefs Americans held. We presented several issues, including ones centered on the 2020 election, Russian interference in the 2016 election and climate change, and asked respondents to pick the accurate view of each. Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) and those who said Fox News was one of their main sources for political news were much more likely than respondents overall to hold a false belief on the presented issues.

The overlap of those groups, Republicans who watched Fox News, were more likely still to hold false beliefs.

So which is it? Is Fox News reinforcing false beliefs or is it (as host Laura Ingraham once argued) simply not telling its audience what it didn’t want to hear?

Well, on Monday night, we got something of an answer as prime-time host Jesse Watters offered one a dishonest attack on President Biden and his administration.

Watters began by saying that the “entire Biden administration is a mirage.” Why? Because “we’re paying more for everything, but they tell us inflation’s down.”

The rate of inflation is, in fact, down relative to 2021 and 2022 though prices remain higher (given the lack of deflation).

“They tell us the economy’s great,” Watters continued, “but the jobs go to migrants.”

The greatness of the economy is certainly subjective, though unemployment is low and consumer confidence is up. The “jobs go to migrants” line is a good indication that the economy is doing well — it’s a way for Fox News and Republicans to diminish job growth by misleadingly presenting jobs data.

Watters continued: “Biden’s flying migrants straight into our airport so they can tell us border crossings are down.”

Again, no — this is just right-wing-bubble rhetoric.

But finally, Watters got to the point he wanted to make.

“Now they say there’s no crime wave,” he said. “But do you feel safe?”

What followed (after Watters warned viewers about the graphic footage they were about to see) was a montage of violent incidents caught on tape — three incidents, to be precise.

“So if crime is everywhere,” Watters concluded, “why do they say crime is down?”

This is so stupid I’m annoyed I even have to think about it. It is stupid to show three crimes and then say crime is “everywhere.” It is also stupid to say that because something is “everywhere” there can’t be less of it. When the moon was obscuring the sun a few hours before Watters’s show, sunlight was still everywhere. So why would anyone say the moon was blocking it?

The answer to the question, though, is that people say crime is down because the best measures of crime indicate that crime is down. Those measures are deeply imperfect, it is true — and as I have written. I wrote about it before the 2022 midterms, for example, when Fox News was insisting without evidence that crime was surging. Watters called me a liar. Then the FBI finally released its slowly and incompletely collected data on crime, and we saw that the Fox hype was, in fact, unfounded.

Part of my argument in 2022 was that there was no uniform evidence that crime was up anymore than there was evidence that crime was down. The Bureau publishes annual assessments of crime aggregated from local police departments, but that’s spotty, particularly since the Bureau changed what it was collecting. It’s also belated, making it hard to evaluate national crime patterns in real-time — and making it very easy to cherry-pick incidents or numbers to fearmonger.

That brings us back to Watters in 2024.

“Why should we believe the FBI? Well, turns out we shouldn’t,” he said Monday. “The Washington Examiner did some digging and discovered the FBI has been cooking the books.” He asserted that the Biden administration was doing “Enron-style accounting” on crime.

The Examiner article to which he points does note flaws in the FBI’s data — something that Watters should presumably have been aware of since this has been a point of discussion for nearly two years. But it also makes a point that has been made countless times in recent months, a point that Watters tried to use as a gotcha.

“Murders are actually up 23 percent across 70 cities since 2019,” Watters announced triumphantly.

Yeah, man. No kidding. The point is that since 2021, murders are down according to the best national metrics.

This is just a basic Dunning-Kruger situation. Watters, who’s cherry-picked crime data for years, learns a little bit about it and decides that the whole system is rotten. He doesn’t yet know enough to know how little he knows. Nor, of course, does he have countervailing evidence, save those videos of those three incidents that purport to show how crime is “everywhere.”

Watters then interviewed Paul Mauro, a former New York Police Department inspector. He agreed with Watters: The system is rotten. There you go, confirmation.

We will leave you, though, with a snippet of the Mauro-Watters conversation that loops us back to our original question: Is Fox News driving misinformation or do those who embrace misinformation gravitate to Fox News?

“Do you think that the media knows what they’re doing?” Watters asked Mauro, implying that the news media was trying to cover up some hidden reality.

“Yeah. Of course,” Mauro replied. “There’s enough counter-reporting going out there so that they know, well, look, if we actually look at what’s taken place since Joe Biden took office, we’re not going to have the great storyline that we want here. So let’s just take what we know works for us, and we’re going to go with that.”

“It’s all a storyline with them,” Watters chimed in.

With whom, Jesse? And to what end?

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