The Best Evidence Yet That Stephen Colbert Is Better Than Fox, MSNBC and CNN


The news: Jon Stewart would be the first person to tell you that The Daily Show is just a show that followed "puppets making crank phone calls." But a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center titled found that fellow funnyman Stephen Colbert might be doing a better job of educating the country on serious issues like campaign finance than coverage from actual cable news shows on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and broadcast networks.

"It's the first study actually showing that Colbert is doing a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing," lead author Bruce W. Hardy, a senior researcher at the APPC, is quoted as saying. "Consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model."

For their study titled "Stephen Colbert's Civics Lesson: How Colbert Super PAC Taught Viewers About Campaign Finance" published this May in Mass Communication and Society, the authors surveyed 1,232 viewers aged 18 years and older between Dec. 13-23 in 2012 following the disbanding of Colbert's super PAC after the 2012 elections. People who viewed The Colbert Report were consistently more likely to express a greater self-perception of knowledgeability about super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups. But — and this is the important — their smug liberal confidence also translated directly into greater actual, factual knowledge.

In 2011, The Colbert Report examined campaign finance under Citizens United by creating a super PAC called "Americans For a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow." With the on-air help of former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, Colbert was able to set up a 501(c)(4) "shell corporation" to funnel anonymous donations to the PAC. As he 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." 

How did Colbert become America's smartest teacher? Hardy is quoted as saying that "Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching. There were two reasons. 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 Colbert Report

The Colbert Report

There's a silver lining for conservatives: Talk radio, newspapers and Fox News correlated with slightly increased knowledge about campaign finance. But CNN and broadcast channels correlated with decreased knowledge. (I blame Wolf Blitzer.) MSNBC did nothing at all.

Image Credit: Mass Communication and Society

In the study, Hardy argues Colbert was successful because he was able to build a continuing narrative in which he was an "active participant," engaging his viewership much more than the traditional media approach. This actually contrasts sharply with The Daily Show, which the APPC found to be less effective than traditional media in 2008. According to the APPC, the shows' main difference lies in Colbert's activist role.

Unfortunately, Colbert is leaving in 2015 to join up with CBS as the new host of The Late Show, so Comedy Central will have to hope Larry Wilmore and The Minority Report can fill the void.

This is the new era of broadcast: Comedy Central's satirical news shows have been drawing huge audiences of young people for years, unlike the major networks.In 2007, just 10% of 18-24 year olds watching TV were tuning into ABC, NBC and CBS evening news combined. Big 3 viewers were mostly around 60, about twice the age of Comedy Central's demographic. Broadcast TV is failing to attract a younger viewership (even top-ranked Fox News is hitting record lows among a younger audience). Maybe Colbert isn't a newsman, but young people aren't buying what the networks are selling either.