A new report warns just how much this country stands to lose when Stephen Colbert shutters his Comedy Central late-night show to take over for David Letterman at CBS. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, viewers of The Colbert Report who watched Colbert set up a super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization during the last presidential election cycle were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of actual news channels and other, actual-news shows.
“It’s the first study actually showing that Colbert is doing a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing,” crowed Bruce W. Hardy, lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. “Consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model.”
The published study tested The Colbert Report against CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and broadcast nightly news — as well as talk radio and newspapers — as sources of political information. The study, appropriately called Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson, was based on phone survey data from 1,232 adults 18 years or older who were interviewed between December 13-23, 2012.
Watching The Colbert Report not only increased people’s perceptions that they knew more about political financing, but significantly increased their actual knowledge, and did so at a greater rate than other news sources, the study found. Reading daily newspapers, listening to talk radio, and watching Fox News Channel increased knowledge about super PACs and 501(c)(4)s — but “to a lesser degree,” the study concluded.
Colbert’s show is being shuttered at the end of this calendar year, so he can take over for David Letterman at CBS when Letterman retires; Dave has said he will leave some time in 2015. Colbert, and CBS, have assured critics he will not take his Comedy Central character with him to CBS.
Colbert did better than any actual news source at teaching, Hardy said, because he walked viewers through the process of creating a super PAC, with every episode a continuation of that story, and because he used humor and satire, which other news sources seldom use — or seldom use intentionally, at any rate.
The continuing narrative in which Colbert became an “active participant” engaged viewers more than the traditional approach used by the news media. In fact, traditional news media got it wrong when it comes to trying to teach readers/viewers something. That’s because that “inverted pyramid” you learn about in J-school — you know: the most important news comes first — is the same as “being told the punchline before the joke’,” the study concluded.
Starting in 2011, The Colbert Report took a look at campaign financing as authorized under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. On the March 30, 2011 show, former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter advised Colbert on how to set up a political action committee or PAC. Colbert created a super PAC, unaffiliated with any candidate, called “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” which was allowed to accept unlimited corporate donations. With Potts’ guidance, Colbert also created a 501(c)(4) “shell corporation,” to which donations could be given anonymously. That group was allowed to funnel the anonymously given money to the super PAC.
As Colbert put it: “Clearly, (c)(4)s have created an unprecedented, unaccountable, untraceable cash tsunami that will infect every corner of the next election. And I feel like an idiot for not having one.”
The APPC said its study is consistent with earlier research on the positive effects of “soft news” and political satire on viewers’ knowledge, and on political comedy as a “gateway” to additional news use. But its 2008 study of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show found that Comedy Central late-night show to be less effective than traditional news media at informing viewers about the Supreme Court nominating process. The center insisted the two shows are “very different” — because Colbert created a narrative in which he played an “activist role.”
The Annenberg Public Policy Center was established in 1994 to educate the public and policy makers about the media’s role in advancing public understanding of political and health issues at the local, state and federal levels.