Earlier this month, Fairleigh Dickinson University released a PublicMind survey finding that “NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people's current events knowledge. ... the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News.”
Fox News' public relations department reacted characteristically to the findings. Instead of critiquing the survey on its merits, Fox lashed out at the “weak academic program” at FDU's undergraduate school, reportedly telling the Hollywood Reporter:
This month, FDU released another of its PublicMind polls touting that “this nationwide survey confirms initial findings” of ill-informed FNC viewers, and an FNC spokesperson blasted the findings and turned the tables on the university, pointing out that its own students don't exactly measure up academically. (FDU was No. 585 on a Forbes ranking of 650 U.S. colleges.)
“Considering FDU's undergraduate school is ranked as one of the worst in the country,” said the FNC spokesperson, “we suggest the school invest in improving its weak academic program instead of spending money on frivolous polling - their student body does not deserve to be so ill-informed.”
Fairleigh Dickinson issued a statement to Media Matters calling Fox News' attack “unfortunate” and “unfounded”:
It is unfortunate that the recent PublicMind poll findings and its valid scientific methodology have resulted in an unfounded attack on the reputation of Fairleigh Dickinson University and its students. PublicMind operates as an independent research center affiliated with the University and stands behind the findings of the poll. The University is proud to be ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 650 four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States, out of more than 2,700 universities.
Peter Woolley, PublicMind's executive director, told Media Matters in an email: “Any veteran pollster is used to being attacked when readers don't like the findings of the research. ... It's all in the course of a day.”
Despite its attack on FDU, Fox News actually has a strong tie to the university in its own press shop through alumnus and Fox News executive vice president of corporate communications Brian Lewis. Lewis, who earned his masters from FDU, is an adjunct professor in the school's Media & Professional Communications program. He is also on the M.A. Board of Corporate Advisors.
FDU profiled Lewis in its alumni e-newsletter in May 2006 and wrote that he brings his students to Fox News studios. Lewis was quoted as stating, “It was incredible what I learned at FDU”:
Thinking back to his own days as a graduate student at the University, Brian says, “It was incredible what I learned at FDU. I had a teacher who made you think differently. I modeled my teaching style after him. He knew what it was like to be a student.” “He also presented an image to students,” he added. “He always wore a suit and tie to class.”
Lewis did not respond to a request for comment.
This isn't the first time that Fox News has responded to a study by attacking a school's reputation instead of the actual study. Fox News called the University of Maryland a party school in December 2010 after the public university's Program On International Policy Attitudes released a report ranking Fox News as a leading source of misinformation. Michael Clemente, Fox senior vice president of news editorial, told the New York Times in a statement:
“The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having 'Students Who Study The Least' and being the 'Best Party School' - given these fine academic distinctions, we'll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was 'researched' with.”
A University of Maryland official called Fox's response “bizarre” and noted that the “spokesman chose not to challenge the study on its merits.” At the time, Fox employed Rebecca Diamond, who graduated from the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, and Fox regularly hosts professors from the University of Maryland's school of business and medical school.