Everyone Knows

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, June 17, 2008 0:24 EDT
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Hee, Matt made a funny. Addressing yet another article that peddles in the idea that Keith Olbermann’s success is a miracle, because liberals traditionally fail on TV, he says:

How many failed attempts were there, exactly? My recollection of the relevant history is that first O’Reilly was successful. Then, because you’re not allowed to put liberals on television, networks responded to his success by putting more conservatives on. Then someone at MSNBC had the crazy idea of giving Phil Donohue a show. Then Donohue’s show became MSNBC’s most popular program. At which point MSNBC canceled it because you’re not allowed to put liberals on television. Some time after that, MSNBC put Keith Olbermann on intending, as Boyer reports, for his show to be a “newscast of record.” Then, by accident, Olbermann started doing some liberal stuff. And it was successful, which based on the track record (one effort to put a liberal on cable and his show became the network’s highest-rated program) is exactly what you would expect.

The myth that liberals don’t do well on TV is a classic example of an Everyone Knows myth in action. Common but erroneous wisdom is more powerful than any conspiracy, because a conspiracy can be exposed, but information contrary to what Everyone Knows, no matter how devastatingly true, just gets buried under a pile of cognitive dissonance. Why something might become that untrue thing that Everyone Knows often is indeed political, but more out of convenience. It’s convenient and appealing for network executives to believe that the general public doesn’t want to listen to those liberals who’d raise marginal tax rates if they had their way, so they persist in believing it, despite evidence to the contrary. The other thing that feeds the myth is that the unwashed right wingers here in the flyover states stick out a little bit more to the coastal elite making these decisions, and so it’s easy to decide that they’re representative of Middle America, as opposed to the more mundane apolitical people who will listen to a liberal or the mundane liberals in our mundane but fuel-efficient vehicles. And of course, the idea that people living in blue states are Middle America, too, is also discarded, with a lot of assistance from the right wing noise machine.

It doesn’t have to be malicious. Evidence that liberals do well on TV doesn’t fit the preconceived notions about what the TV viewing audience is like, but evidence that conservatives do well fits the existing paradigm, and is remembered. Cognitive dissonance is probably the #1 reason incorrect beliefs are so hard to root out, even from people who would benefit from knowing the truth, like network executives looking for ratings. I can think of a number of things Everyone Knows that aren’t true.

*Everyone Knows there’s a link between autism and vaccines, even though it’s come out that there’s no evidence for it, and the supposed culprit (mercury) isn’t even in vaccines anymore.
*Everyone Knows that the anti-choice movement is motivated by love of fetuses more than sex-phobia, even though there’s ample evidence that given the choice between reducing the abortion rate or reducing sexual freedom, they’ll choose the latter every time. (Increased access to contraception, for instance, would significantly reduce the abortion rate but make it easier to have sex without worry. Naturally, the anti-choice movement opposes contraception.)
*Everyone Knows that socializing large parts of the economy is the enemy of freedom, even though we’ve already done it without becoming a dictatorship, as have various other nations with the same results.
*Everyone Knows that some women are just sluts, even though pinning people on the exact number of sex partners that you have to have in order to cross the line is an impossible task.
*Everyone Knows that men and women have completely different brains, even though what few differences have been detailed after mountains of study are pretty slight and wouldn’t even be considered relevant if there wasn’t an anti-feminist agenda to exploit that fact.
*Everyone Knows that “under god” is a mandatory, irreplaceable part of the Pledge of Allegiance even though it was actually added decades after the Pledge was initially written.
*Everyone Knows that the Founding Fathers were Christians, though many of them were actually hostile to organized religion.

I could continue, but let’s make this an interactive game. What does Everyone Know that isn’t so? Help me out, Pandagonians.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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