Fox News viewers were the most misinformed. Two-
thirds of them perceived a “clear link” between Saddam Hussein and al
-Qaeda, a research finding that journalists at rival news outlets found amusing. A more sober look at the evidence would have tempered their response. Fox viewers were not the only ones with a false sense of reality. Roughly half of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC viewers wrongly thought that Iraq and al-Qaeda were collaborators, as did two in five newspaper readers.
Warped understandings are hardly new. When fluoride was added to the nation’s water
supply a half century ago, some Americans claimed it was a communist plot to poison
the nation’s youth. In a seminal 1964 Harper’s Magazine articl
e, the historian Richard
Hofstadter described such thinking as “the paranoid style.” “No other word,” Hofstadter wrote, “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
The crazed anticommunists of postwar America have their counterparts today. Can
anything except the “paranoid style” explain the conspiracy theorists who claim Barack
Obama funneled money to extremist Muslim groups in an effort to sabotage American interests9 or who say George W. Bush knew in advance of the September 11 terrorist
plot and chose not to stop it? Yet paranoia cannot explain today’s astonishing misinformation level. As Hofstadter defined it, the “paranoid style” describes the thinking
of the delusional few, whereas it is easy today to find issues on which tens of millions of Americans have far-fetched ideas. At one point in the 2009
2010 health care reform debate, for instance, half of the American public falsely believed the legislation included
government-appointed committees with the power to deny medical treatment to old folks.