Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson: Or, how a TV humorist taught America about campaign finance

stephen-colbert-super-pac-screenshot    This is not a joke: A recent study of The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center says that watching “The Colbert Report” may leave you better informed about politics and elections than reading a newspaper or watching CNN and Fox News.

TV humorist Stephen Colbert audience was more informed about basic campaign-financing matters during the 2012 presidential election than those who consumed actual news! How crazy is that? And what does it tell us about storytelling taking the lead on classical news reports?

The study reports that Colbert’s elaborate gag of setting up a Super PAC served as “an extended civics lesson” and helped viewers’ better understanding the tortuous role of money in politics.

Colbert’s Super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” accepted unlimited donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. He also established a “shell corporation,” which funneled anonymously donated money to his Super PAC. Former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter walked him through the entire process on the show and even seemed to hint that there wasn’t much difference between money laundering and the shell corporation’s gifts to the Super PAC.—campaign-finance

“It’s the first study actually showing that Colbert is doing a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing,” said Bruce Hardy, senior researcher at the APPC.

“There were two reasons,” Hardy said. “First was the narrative structure. He walked us through creating a Super PAC and every episode was a continuation of that story. And second was the use of humor and satire.”

The study, published online in Mass Communication and Society, 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, “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson,” was based on phone survey data from 1,232 adults 18 years or older who were interviewed between Dec. 13, 2012 and Dec. 23, 2012.

A similar university poll conducted a few years ago found that people who watched “The Daily Show” were better informed about the news than those who watched MSNBC or Fox News.


2 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson: Or, how a TV humorist taught America about campaign finance

  1. I just love that Stephen Colbert and John Stewart (and not John Oliver) are better at educating the public than real newscasters. This does a great job of breaking down why. I think he ultimately won a Peabody for this little gem…


  2. The times I have watches Stephen Colbert I was reeled in by his wit and knowledge of situations. This would not seem any different. I used to watch Conan and felt as though I learned more in an hour than I could reading news articles or watching a new station. Going through politics is a nightmare and I’d rather learn from Colbert in a funny and intellectual way than bias and semi informative.


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