One ‘‘Nation,’’ Under Stephen? The Effects of The Colbert Report

Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
One ‘‘Nation,’’ Under Stephen?
The Effects of The Colbert Report
on American Youth
Jody C Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris
This study examines the effect of The Colbert Report, Comedy Central’s mock
conservative talk show, on young adults. By fashioning his character as a
hyperbolic ideologue, Colbert is mocking personalities such as Bill O’Reilly.
However, this study finds that when young adults are exposed to The Colbert Report’s humor, they are not led to be more critical of the far right.
Instead, the opposite happens, and there is an increased affinity for President
Bush, Republicans in Congress, and Republican policies. Ironically, Colbert’s
attempts to poke fun at conservative commentators may be helping those
same commentators spread their message.
While humorists have always been quick to turn their ire at the world of politics,
the current popularity of political humor in America seems to be unprecedented.
Moreover, it seems as if the political comics and satirists of today are (perhaps ironically) being taken more seriously than those of yesteryear. For example Jon Stewart,
comedian and host of The Daily Show, has graced the covers of several national
publications and was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential
entertainers in the world in 2005 (Govani, 2005). In 2006, humorist Stephen Colbert
was the featured speaker at the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner.
Politicians seem to be taking political humorists more seriously as well. In 2004,
Senator John Edwards formally announced his candidacy for president of the United
States on The Daily Show (Storm, 2004), and John McCain announced his intention
to run in 2008 on The Late Show with David Letterman (Nagourney, 2007).
As political humor becomes more prevalent, researchers have started to investigate how it may influence various aspects of the political process in America.
While individual research efforts have produced varying results, there seems to be
a consensus that political humor does have an effect on attitudes and opinions. For
example, Matthew Baum (2005) found that presidential candidates can increase
their likeability by appearing on humor-based talk shows, and other researchers
have noted that exposure to the humor of late-night comedy can prime viewers to
Jody C Baumgartner (Ph.D., Miami University) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at East Carolina
University. His research interests include humor and politics, electoral politics, and the Presidency.
Jonathan S. Morris (Ph.D., Purdue University) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at East Carolina
University. His research interests include humor and politics, political communication, and public opinion.
© 2008 Broadcast Education Association
DOI: 10.1080/08838150802437487
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52(4), 2008, pp. 622–643
ISSN: 0883-8151 print/1550-6878 online
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 623
base their candidate evaluations on specific character traits (Brewer & Cao, 2006;
Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2006; Young 2004b, 2006). There is also some evidence that
suggests exposure to political humor can prime negative evaluations of presidential candidates and other political institutions (Baumgartner, 2007; Baumgartner &
Morris, 2006; Morris & Baumgartner, 2008).
One of the more influential sources of political comedy in the last decade has
been Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Started in 1996, The Daily
Show was hosted until 1999 by Craig Kilborn, when he was replaced by comedian/actor Jon Stewart. At this point the program was renamed The Daily Show with
Jon Stewart (hereafter TDS), and ratings consistently rose thereafter. By 2006, almost
1 in 5 (19%) of Americans reported watching TDS at least sometimes, a noticeable
increase from just 11% in 2002 (Pew Research Center, 2006). The popularity of
TDS in recent years has allowed some of Stewart’s supporting ensemble, satirically
referred to as ‘‘correspondents,’’ to pursue successful entertainment endeavors outside of the show. One of these is former TDS contributor Stephen Colbert, now
host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central (hereafter TCR). TCR is a spin-off
of TDS that parodies conservative-hosted political talk shows. Colbert acts as host
and focuses primarily on political issues and events. Unlike Stewart, who plays the
role of a common-sense observer who humorously points out the absurd in politics,
Colbert parodies the new breed of self-indulgent, conservative news personalities.
The program and his persona are modeled after Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor and
its host Bill O’Reilly, whom Colbert affectionately refers to as ‘‘Papa Bear.’’
A central part of Colbert’s character, and thus the show’s comedic appeal, is his
explicit rejection of the need for facts in engaging in political debate and assessing
political arguments. This approach parodies the hyper-partisan tone of many political talk programs. Consider, for example, how Colbert began his inaugural broadcast
of TCR, introducing the segment of the program titled, ‘‘The Word’’ (Karlin, 2005),
a parody of O’Reilly’s ‘‘Talking Points Memo’’:
I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight’s word:
‘‘truthiness.’’ Now I’m sure some of the ‘‘word police,’’ the ‘‘wordinistas’’ over at
Webster’s are gonna say, ‘‘hey, that’s not a word.’’ Well, anyone who knows me
knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. I don’t trust books. They’re
all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. ’Cause
face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or
conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those
who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.
Consider (Supreme Court Nominee) Harriet Miers. If you ‘‘think’’ about Harriet
Miers, of course her nomination’s absurd. But the president didn’t say he ‘‘thought’’
about his selection. He said this:
(video clip of President Bush) ‘‘I know her heart.’’
Notice how he said nothing about her brain? He didn’t have to. He feels the truth
about Harriet Miers. And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a
few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like
the right thing?
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
Since TCR started in October 2005, it has been nominated for an Emmy Award,
and the Colbert-coined word, ‘‘truthiness,’’ was voted the Word of the Year by
The American Dialect Society. Also, at the behest of Colbert himself, thousands of
loyal viewers have formed ‘‘Colbert Nation,’’ a fan club of sorts similar to Rush
Limbaugh’s ‘‘ditto heads.’’
Given Colbert’s popularity and the increased reach of political humor in general,
there is a need to consider how exposure to his brand of humor may influence
viewers. As mentioned above, evidence suggests political humor on television can
influence political attitudes. But political humor—even late-night televised political
humor—is not monolithic (see Young & Tisinger, 2006). Jon Stewart’s approach
differs significantly from that of David Letterman and Jay Leno—and Colbert differs
from all three of them. The focus of this analysis is on Colbert’s increasingly popular
brand of political humor. The following section constructs a theory that explains
why exposure to TCR may be somewhat unique. Then, findings are presented from
a controlled experiment in which young adults were randomly assigned to watch
TCR while others watched news and commentary from the very person Colbert
parodies—Bill O’Reilly. The findings from the experiment are then discussed.
The Effects of Political Humor and The Colbert Report
Expectations about the effects of viewing TCR are guided by a body of knowledge
on the effects of humor on political attitudes. Early research, most of which was
based on experiments in marketing and psychology, seemed to suggest that humor
has some ability to change attitudes and persuade audiences (Berg & Lippman, 2001;
Gruner, 1996; Lyttle, 2001; Schmidt, 1994; Scott, Klein, & Bryant, 1990). One early
study found, for example, that a political cartoon accompanied by an editorial has
some power to affect opinion change in the reader (Brinkman, 1968). The process
or mechanisms by which it might do so is, however, a different question. Based
on early research, Sternthall and Craig (1973) suggested that humorous messages
may lead to a reduction in counterargument and increase in persuasion. In addition,
they speculated that humor may increase the likeability of the source (humorist),
creating a positive mood which may in turn increase the likelihood of persuasion.
In this sense, a humorous message may be more persuasive than messages that are
blatantly intended to persuade—such as marketing or political advertisements—
because the viewer is less likely to put up cognitive ‘‘guards’’ that sometimes go up
when he/she recognizes that they are the target of attempted persuasion.
Some later studies on the effects of humor on attitude change have followed this
speculative research and been explicitly grounded in a model of persuasion known
as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (hereafter ELM; Lyttle, 2001; Petty & Cacioppo,
1986). ELM theory posits that persuasive communications (e.g., a speech, an advertisement) are processed, or elaborated, on two different levels: a central and a
peripheral route.1 Processes in the central route involve high elaboration, or thought.
In everyday language, central route processing is critical reasoning. If a message is
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 625
processed in the central route, its ability to persuade is limited by the power of the
argument, the individual’s predisposition, and other factors. If, on the other hand, a
message is processed in the peripheral route, the potential for persuasion is greater.
In the peripheral route there is less cognitive work, and message processing is more
dependent on various contextual and affective considerations, including the mood
of the receiver. In other words, there is less focus on the substance of the message in
low elaboration message processing, which makes it more likely that other variables
can influence the receiver.
Research suggests that messages accompanied by humor may be processed along
the peripheral rather than the central route (Young, 2004a; Zhang, 1996). This being
the case, a reading of ELM theory suggests that humor may affect attitudes in one of
several ways, which make it more likely the receiver will agree with the message.
First, humor can create a positive mood in the receiver, which might preclude
high elaboration. This in turn would make it less likely that the individual would
disagree with the message or argument being presented. Second, the receiver might
be less likely to engage in counterargument out of an appreciation of the humorous
message. Here, it is not the receiver’s mood that makes it more likely the message
will be positively evaluated, but rather an appreciation of the humor itself. Finally,
according to ELM theory, humor might make it more likely that the receiver will
agree with the message out of an increased liking or trust of the source of the
humorous message (Lyttle, 2001).
In short, ELM theory suggests that humor makes it less likely that the receiver
will critically question the message accompanying it, making it more likely that the
individual will agree with the message. However, in order to predict the effect of
humor, it is imperative to understand the type of humor that is being examined and
what the ‘‘message’’ is. For example, jokes told by late-night talk show hosts like
Jay Leno or David Letterman about presidents, presidential candidates, Congress,
and so on, are built around simplistic, preexisting negative stereotypes (Moy et al.,
2006; Niven, Lichter, & Amundson, 2003; Sarver 2004). The ‘‘message’’ is unflattering. ELM theory would lead one to expect that exposure to this type of political
humor would result in lowered perceptions of the targets (political leaders and/or
institutions) of these jokes.2
Research has lent support to these expectations. For example, Young (2004b,
2006) demonstrated that exposure to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Letterman during the 2000 presidential campaign had a small but negative effect on
how viewers evaluated the candidates. Baumgartner and Morris (2006) found that
exposure to TDS resulted in decreased trust in government and the media and
lowered evaluations of both presidential candidates during the 2004 campaign as
the result of exposure to the program. Baumgartner (2007) found similar effects on
trust in political institutions in experimental research on online humor viewership.
When leaders and institutions are the target of jokes, it seems to have a negative
effect on how audiences view these leaders or institutions.
However, TCR, by parodying The O’Reilly Factor, is political satire—a fundamentally different type of humor.3 Satire contains at least two messages: a direct
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
(explicit) and an indirect (implicit) message (Gruner, 1965). The direct message is
what the satirist is actually saying, but the true message is indirect, or implied. In
A Modest Proposal, for example, Jonathan Swift was explicitly deriding the societal
reforms he (implicitly) favored after famously proposing that impoverished children
be used to feed the rich (Swift, 1729/1969).
This leads to a different set of expectations about the effect that satiric humor,
as opposed to more conventional jokes, might have. The central question here
is, which message is being processed, the direct or the indirect?4 There is some
reason to believe that in the case of satiric humor the audience may be drawn to
the explicit or direct message rather than the implicit or indirect message. Gruner
noted that ‘‘the less direct the satire : : : the more likely it is to be entertaining; and
the more direct the satire, the less likely it is to be entertaining’’ (1965, p. 149). If the
satire (or parody) is funny, it is because the explicit message is so absurd. Attention,
therefore, is drawn away from the implicit message. This is not inconsistent with
ELM theory, which suggests that humor contained in a message will lead subjects
to process the message in the peripheral route and not devote their resources to
cognitive processing. In other words, the ‘‘true message’’ that the satiric humorist is
attempting to convey may not be the one that audiences are processing.
Some research suggests that this might be the case. In his experimental research
Gruner (1965) found no support for the proposition that the implicit satirical would
persuade listeners. Research on the television program All in the Family, a program
that parodied the racist and sexist attitudes of its main character Archie Bunker,
suggested that some viewers were actually moved to agree with Bunker’s views or
that the preexisting racial stereotypes of viewers were reinforced (Brigham, 1975;
Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974; but, see also Brigham & Giesbrecht, 1976; Surlin &
Tate, 1976). Similar fears that humor might have been feeding racial stereotypes
were reportedly one of the reasons comic Dave Chappelle walked away from his
successful Comedy Central program (Farley, 2005).
In the case of TCR, the explicit target of almost all of Colbert’s ‘‘criticisms’’ are
liberal Democratic leaders and institutions. For example, in one segment Colbert
explained his view of former president Clinton: ‘‘Like Dick Cheney, I have a 1%
doctrine, if it could be Clinton’s fault, it is Clinton’s fault’’ (Karlin, 2006b). In fact,
the only times Republicans are directly attacked by Colbert are when they stray from
the party line or President Bush’s corner. Colbert does, however, implicitly criticize
Republicans and conservatives, simply because his statements are so absurdly proRepublican. His commentary attempts to draw attention to the idea that strict
adherence to the party line might be foolish. For example, in another segment
Colbert suggests that the United States make torture legal, and that former POW
John McCain is not an authority on torture because he had been tortured before, and
thus is not objective on the topic. Almost anyone would agree that strictly speaking
these positions are somewhat tenuous. Colbert’s fervent advocacy highlights this,
but again, in an indirect manner. The explicit message is decidedly pro-Republican,
and since it is delivered with humor, ELM theory suggests the possibility that it is
this message that may have persuasive power.
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 627
Looking beyond ELM theory, it is important to remember that, although Colbert
is mocking conservative political talk shows, he does use rhetoric very similar to
the hosts he is satirizing. David Barker’s research (1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2002),
examined the persuasive effects of rhetoric used on conservative-based political
talk shows and found it has great persuasive power, even on nonconservatives in
the audience. He concludes that conservative political talk shows go beyond simply
‘‘preaching to the choir’’ and into the realm of persuading the noncommitted by
priming ‘‘conservative-friendly’’ positions. The persuasive effectiveness of conservative political talk shows, according to Barker, is that the hosts focus on issues
and events where the conservative point of view is considered strongest, and where
the liberal perspective is less popular (e.g., socialized health care, gay marriage,
immigration). Conservative hosts often engage in what Barker calls ‘‘propagandist
techniques,’’ which are intended to vilify the opposition. For example, Barker shows
that talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is quick to use the propagandist technique of
repetitive name-calling (e.g., the Clintons are ‘‘socialist’’; or liberals are ‘‘soft’’ on
crime and ‘‘weak’’ on terror). The repetitive use of name-calling not only influences
regular listeners, but also primes more passive listeners to become cognizant of how
the opposition has been linked to these negative terms in the past.
Colbert’s character frequently satirizes these propagandist techniques that Limbaugh and company frequently employ. For example, Colbert is quick to refer to
liberals and/or Democrats as ‘‘commies,’’ or ‘‘pinkos,’’ or ‘‘bleeding hearts.’’ In
satirizing these propagandist techniques, however, Colbert is making explicit links
between the political left and the negative stereotypes attached to them. Barker’s
research suggests that political discussion framed in this context has the ability to
‘‘stack the deck’’ in favor of conservative ideas, values, and policies. This view fits
with the aforementioned research on the unintended effects of satire in All in the
Family. The intended satire is lost because negative stereotypes are primed among
Of course, it could be the case that viewers’ attitudes will not be affected at
all by Colbert’s message (the null hypothesis), or, that they will be persuaded by
the indirect (or implicit) message. Based on the research discussed above, however,
there is good reason to expect that individuals exposed to TCR may be persuaded by
his explicit rather than his implicit message. This leads to the following hypothesis:
H1 : Colbert’s explicit criticism of liberals and Democrats will generate more proRepublican perspectives among viewers.
Based on previous research on humor effects, another hypothesis about the effects
of TCR presents itself as well. Research on TDS found that Jon Stewart’s rational
criticism of political absurdities actually clarified politics for viewers, increasing
subjects’ reported levels of internal efficacy (Baumgartner & Morris, 2006). The
reasoning was that subjects felt more confident in their own political sophistication
as the result of understanding Stewart’s simplified presentation of political reality
(i.e., ‘‘getting’’ the joke). But the mixed messages contained in Colbert’s presentation
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
create the possibility that young viewers may actually become more confused about
politics. Such an effect may create a decrease in an individual’s internal efficacy,
which is an individual’s assessment of their own political competence (see Niemi,
Craig, & Mattei, 1991). This possibility drives the second hypothesis.
H2 : Colbert’s mixed messages will cause a decrease in internal political efficacy.
Research Design
An experimental design was employed in order to test the hypotheses. Subjects
were recruited from introductory level political science courses and randomly assigned to be one of three experimental groups. The first group was exposed to a
series of clips taken from TCR. The second experimental group was exposed to
video clips taken from the program that Colbert parodies: Fox News’ The O’Reilly
Factor. This condition was included in order to compare the effects of Colbert to
his non-humorous counterpart. A final group was assigned to the control condition.
This group was exposed to no video clips, but was given a survey that matched the
survey given to the first two conditions (save a few questions that were specific to
the clips).
In total, there were 855 participants in this experiment: 196 in the Colbert condition; 188 in the O’Reilly condition, and 471 in the control group. The average
age of the subjects was 19.8 years old (those over 24 were excluded from the
analysis); 81% of the sample was White (19% minority); and 61% was male.5 Party
identification in the sample resembles a normal distribution, with 5% identifying as
strong Democrat; 25% as Democrat; 33% as Independent/no preference; 28% as
Republican; and 9% as strong Republican.6
Although the subjects were all undergraduate students, the authors are able to
avoid the often-referred-to ‘‘college sophomore’’ problem that can plague generalizability from experimental research on young adults to the population as a whole
(Sears, 1986). A significant portion of the audience for shows like TCR and TDS
are young adults and college students. This article examines how Colbert’s target
audience (young adults) reacts to his humor, so the pool of potential subjects was
actually advantageous, rather than a hindrance. Indeed, these subjects share the
viewing habits of youth in a recent (2007) national survey by Pew. According to
their report, 26% of 18–29-year-olds watch either TCR and/or TDS regularly (16%
for the entire sample). This statistic compares quite favorably to the study sample,
in which 27% said they watch TCR and/or TDS regularly (47% said they watched
the shows at least sometimes, and only 30% said they never watched the shows).
Only 24% of the sample reported watching O’Reilly at least sometimes, but this
percentage also compares favorably with the national sample from an earlier Pew
Survey from 2006, where 22% of 18–24-year-olds said they watched O’Reilly at
the same rate.7
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 629
Overall, the sample was slightly more politically knowledgeable than a recent
national sample of 18–24-year-olds taken from the Pew Research Center (2006). For
example, 73% of our sample was able to accurately name the majority party in the
U.S. House of Representatives, and 63% could name the current Secretary of State.
In the national sample, 49% could name the majority party in the U.S. House, and
23% could name the Secretary of State. A more knowledgeable sample, however,
is not necessarily problematic since research has found that regular Colbert and
Stewart watchers are significantly more knowledgeable about politics than most
other audiences in the same age group (Pew Research Center, 2007).
Both clips addressed issues that were topical at the time of the experiment, the
fall of 2006 (prior to the election). In order to maintain control and help ensure that
differences between the groups were the result of exposure to Colbert’s parody, the
subject matter of the stimuli was similar. Both Colbert and O’Reilly talked about (1)
President Clinton’s altercation with Fox News’ Chris Wallace over his failed efforts
to capture Osama bin Laden, (2) U.S. torture policy on detained terror suspects, and
(3) the Mark Foley scandal and how it might affect the elections (see Appendix for
excerpts from the transcripts of the clips). Both address these issues from a decidedly
pro-Republican position, the main difference being that Colbert did so in a manner
that generated laughs. In total, each of the clips was approximately 12 minutes
in length. Immediately following the administration of the stimulus, subjects were
given a posttest survey of their political attitudes and behavior.
A posttest-only control group design was employed in order to guard against the
threat to internal validity that pretests pose (Campbell & Stanley, 1963).8 In the
standard pretest–posttest control group design, the answers that subjects provide
on the posttest may be the product of biases generated by answering questions on
the pretest and not the experimental stimulus. This threat to validity is addressed
by eliminating a pretest and comparing posttest answers across groups. Provided
the subjects were randomly assigned to experimental groups, the differences across
groups can be attributed to the stimuli.
Two survey items were included to measure the impact of the stimuli on subjects
in the Colbert and O’Reilly conditions. Specifically, subjects were asked to agree
or disagree with the two statements. The first statement read ‘‘I enjoyed watching
the video clips today,’’ and the second read, ‘‘I learned something from watching
the video clips today,’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (somewhat disagree), 3 (neither
agree nor disagree), 4 (somewhat agree), 5 (strongly agree). Of those subjects in
the Colbert condition, 83% agreed (somewhat or strongly) that they enjoyed the
clips, and 51% agreed that they learned something from Colbert. Of the subjects in
the O’Reilly condition, 75% agreed that they enjoyed the clips, and 65% agreed that
they learned something. Taken as a whole, these responses serve as a manipulation
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
check and suggest a good probability that subjects were affected by the stimuli and
that examining how subjects were impacted is warranted.
Table 1 shows the results from a logit analysis where policy support was regressed
against several predictors. The dependent variable in Table 1 was created from
survey items that asked subjects to list which party they believed would do a
better job (1) managing the economy, and (2) managing the War on Terror. To
construct these two dependent variables, respondents that answered ‘‘Republicans’’
were coded as 3, and those who answered neither were coded as 2, and those
who answered ‘‘Democrats’’ were coded as 1. Thus, the responses comprise a 1–3
ordinal scale.
The predictors of interest are exposure to the Colbert condition of the experiment
(1 if yes, 0 if no), or exposure to the O’Reilly condition (1 if yes, 0 if no). The
control group was the omitted category. Additional controls included in the model
are gender (1 if male, 0 if female); race (1 if White, 0 if Non-White); and party
identification (1 if strong Democrat, 2 if Democrat, 3 if Independent/no preference,
4 if Republican, 5 if strong Republican). The analysis also controlled for political
interest, knowledge, and engagement. The political interest variable was derived
from the survey item that asked, ‘‘How often do you talk about politics with family,
friends, or fellow students?’’ 1 (never), 2 (hardly ever), 3 (sometimes), 4 (regularly).
The political engagement variable was a composite measure of each subject’s
overall political activity. Subjects were asked to check whether or not they had
participated in a series of eight different political activities in the last 12 months.
Thus the measure was bound between 0 (no activities) and 8 (the highest number of
political activities).9 Like the political engagement variable, the political knowledge
variable was also an additive composite measure derived from adding together
responses from four different questions about government. A subject received 1
point for each question correctly answered, and 0 for an incorrect answer. Thus,
the scale was bound between 0 (lowest political knowledge) and 4 (highest political
As the ordered logit results in Table 1 demonstrate, exposure to both TCR and
O’Reilly led subjects to display more affinity for the Republicans over the Democrats
on economic policy. Table 1 also shows that exposure to the clips led both experimental groups to display significantly more support for the Republican Party’s ability
to manage the War on Terror. This finding holds even when controlling for party
identification, which illustrates the robustness of the relationship. Thus, it appears
that the evidence lends some support to the first hypothesis. Colbert’s overt criticism
of the Democrats appears to have had a persuasive effect in favor on support for
Republicans. The more implicit criticism of Republicans and President Bush via
parody appears to not generate support for the Democrats on the economy or the
War on Terror.
The effects of exposure to Colbert go well beyond generating broad support for
Republican policies. To test whether or not exposure to TCR significantly influenced
perceptions of President Bush, a thermometer score for Bush (0 to 10) was regressed
on the same set of predictors in Table 1. As the results in Table 2 show, there
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 631
Table 1
Support for Republicans on Policy Issues
Believe Republicans Would
do a Better Job Than
Democrats Managing
the Economy
Colbert Report condition
O’Reilly Factor condition
Party identification
Political interest
Political engagement
Political knowledge
Constant 1
Constant 2
Log Likelihood
LR Chi-Squared
Believe Republicans Would
do a Better Job Than
Democrats Managing
the War on Terror
Note. Cell entries are ordered logit coefficients with standard errors in parentheses.
*p < .10, **p < .05, ***p < .01 (two-tailed).
Table 2
Warmth Toward President Bush
Colbert Report condition
O’Reilly Factor condition
Party identification
Political interest
Political engagement
Political knowledge
Adjusted R-Squared
Warmth Toward President Bush
.34 (.16)**
.45 (.17)***
.04 (.14)
.79 (.18)***
1.93 (.07)***
.12 (.09)
.04 (.05)
.09 (.06)
1.11 (.35)***
Note. Cell entries are ordinary least squares coefficients with standard
errors in parentheses.
**p < .05, ***p < .01 (two-tailed).
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
is a positive significant relationship between exposure to Colbert and increased
warmth toward President Bush. Colbert’s positive effect on support for Bush rivals
that of O’Reilly, showing again that Colbert’s explicit criticism appears to be more
persuasive than the implicit criticism.
This trend is further illustrated when measures of trust in the U.S. Congress are
regressed against the predictors. In order to measure support for each party in
Congress subjects were asked to agree or disagree with the statements, ‘‘I trust the
[Democrats/Republicans] in Congress to do the right thing’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2
(somewhat disagree), 3 (neither agree nor disagree), 4 (somewhat agree), 5 (strongly
agree). As Table 3 demonstrates, exposure to TCR is positively associated with
one’s tendency to agree that they trust the Republicans in Congress to do the right
thing (p < .08). Not surprisingly, exposure to O’Reilly is also significant in the same
direction. Trust in the Democrats in Congress, however, was not significantly related
to either of the experimental stimuli.
Hypothesis 2 speculates that the multilayered criticism of Colbert may negatively influence internal efficacy. Although Jon Stewart’s rational observations of the
sometimes irrational political world may serve to simplify politics for the viewer,
Colbert’s parody may do the opposite. To test this notion, subjects were asked
Table 3
Trust in Congressional Parties to Do the Right Thing
Colbert Report condition
O’Reilly Factor condition
Party identification
Political interest
Political engagement
Political knowledge
Constant 1
Constant 2
Constant 3
Constant 4
Log Likelihood
LR Chi-Squared
Trust Republicans
in Congress to Do
the Right Thing
.29 (.16)*
.36 (.17)**
.16 (.14)
.52 (.18)
1.56 (.09)***
.16 (.09)***
.00 (.05)
.05 (.06)
Trust Democrats
in Congress to Do
the Right Thing
Note. Cell entries are ordered logit coefficients with standard errors in parentheses.
*p < .10, **p < .05, ***p < .01 (two-tailed).
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 633
to agree or disagree with the statement that, ‘‘Sometimes politics and government
seems so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going
on’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (somewhat disagree), 3 (neither agree nor disagree), 4
(somewhat agree), 5 (strongly agree). Thus, a higher level of agreement indicates
lower levels of internal efficacy.
As the findings in Table 4 show, Hypothesis 2 cannot be rejected. Compared to
the control group, exposure to the TCR stimuli led to a significant increase in the
tendency to agree that politics and government seem complicated. Thus, the effect
of TCR on internal efficacy appears to be exactly the opposite of TDS. Instead TCR’s
effect appears to mirror that of O’Reilly, which is considered more of a ‘‘hard news’’
program. This effect remains significant even when political interest, knowledge, and
engagement are controlled.
Before concluding this section on findings, a possible caveat should be considered. Not all of the subjects in this study were frequent viewers of TCR. Like any
television program, TCR has some loyal and passive viewers, but there are many
who have never seen it (or hardly ever see it). It is possible, of course, that the
degree of previous exposure an individual has had to TCR will influence how that
person reacts to the program. A previous study on TDS, for example, found that
Table 4
Internal Efficacy
Colbert Report condition
O’Reilly Factor condition
Party identification
Political interest
Political engagement
Political knowledge
Constant 1
Constant 2
Constant 3
Constant 4
Log Likelihood
LR Chi-Squared
Agree That Politics and Government
Seems too Complicated
.33 (.16)**
.32 (.16)*
.65 (.14)***
.06 (.18)
.03 (.06)
.70 (.09)***
.12 (.05)**
.20 (.06)*
Note. Cell entries are ordered logit coefficients with standard errors in
*p < .10, **p < .05, ***p < .01 (two-tailed).
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
regular viewers of the program were not likely to be significantly influenced by
short exposure to a program with which they are very familiar (Baumgartner &
Morris, 2006).
In order to test for possible multiplicative effects between exposure to the stimuli
and the level of previous exposure to TCR and The O’Reilly Factor, interaction
variables were created where exposure to the stimuli, 1 (exposure), 0 (no exposure),
was multiplied by the degree to which the subjects watch the program on television,
1 (never), 2 (hardly ever), 3 (sometimes), 4 (regularly). When these interaction terms
were included in models presented in Tables 1–4, no significant effect was found
(results not shown), thus demonstrating that previous exposure to the program was
not a significant intervening factor.11 The possibility was also considered that exposure to Colbert or O’Reilly could interact with an individual’s partisan identification
to generate differential effects. These interaction effects were also insignificant.
The late-night comedy audience is not monolithic (see Young & Tisinger, 2006),
nor is the comedy itself. Stephen Colbert’s character is one of a self-obsessed, hyperideological disciple of President Bush. His unique brand of satire differs significantly
from the jokes told by the hosts of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Late Show
with David Letterman, or The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The parody is intended
to be a humorous critique of conservative media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly,
Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It appears that the effect of Colbert on potential
viewers is unique as well.
This study has shown that Colbert’s message is persuasive, but perhaps not in
the way he or his writers intend. Instead of giving viewers pause to ponder the
legitimacy of Colbert’s implicit criticisms of the far right, this experiment found that
exposure to Colbert increases support for President Bush, Republicans in Congress,
and Republican policies on the economy and the War on Terror. Furthermore,
Colbert’s dual messages (explicit and implicit) appear to increase the chance that
young viewers will become less confident in their own ability to understand politics.
In other words, Colbert’s satire seems to confuse some young viewers. This is
different from the comedy of Jon Stewart, which seems to clarify the political world
for young adults (Baumgartner & Morris, 2006).
This is not to say that the regular Colbert viewing audience is politically unsophisticated. In fact, the opposite is more likely true (Pew Research Center, 2007).
Individuals who most regularly tune into TCR are most likely those who recognize
and appreciate Colbert’s implicit criticisms of the far right. However, in the age
of ‘‘channel surfing,’’ the chance that young adults will stumble across Colbert on
Comedy Central is not a long shot—especially when one considers that young adults
channel surf more than any other age group (Morris & Forgette, 2007; Pew Research
Center, 2006). Young channel surfers are typically less politically knowledgeable
than non-surfers (Morris & Forgette, 2007), and young adults are more susceptible
to persuasion overall than other age groups (Sears, 1986). This suggests that the
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 635
effects of exposure to Colbert’s parody may have unintended consequences for
even occasional young viewers. By attempting to mock conservative commentators,
Colbert may unintentionally be helping these commentators sway potential voters
to the right.
The effects of TCR on the subjects in this research seem to provide at least partial
validation for the ELM theory of persuasion, as well as Barker’s (1998a, 1998b, 1999,
2002) model of political persuasion and right-wing political rhetoric. ELM theory
posits that individuals process messages in one of two ways, corresponding roughly
to affective (the peripheral route) or cognitive (the central route) considerations. In
the case of TCR young adults appear to react more to the explicit message. ELM
theory suggests that the humor may block, disrupt, or distract further processing
or elaboration of the message in the central route in viewers by causing positive
affect in the viewer, or, by increasing the likeability or trustworthiness of the source
(Colbert). The implicit, or in this case the actual, message is less likely to be
Although Colbert is implicitly mocking these strategies with his character, the
findings from this study suggest that his explicit framing has the same persuasive
effect as true right-wing commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly. Thus, it appears
that Colbert’s brand of humor has some unintended consequences. While this
research was grounded in the theories of humor and persuasion, it also fits with
other communications research that examines the unintended consequences of nonhumorous messages. Research on ad watches, for example, has found nonintuitive
results as well. Surprisingly, viewers of ad watches often end up supporting the
same candidates whose ads are being criticized (Iyengar & Ansolabehere, 1996;
McKinnon & Kaid, 1999; O’Sullivan & Geiger, 1995; Pfau & Louden, 1994; but,
see Jamieson & Cappella, 1997).
One limitation of this study is the fact that long-term effects of the message were
not measured. ELM theory suggests the persuasive power of messages processed in
the peripheral route is temporally limited. Effects, in other words, are more likely to
be short term (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). While this might suggest that the findings in
this paper are less than significant, it should be remembered that short-term effects
can often have a powerful influence in politics, for example, in election campaigns.
A second shortcoming of the research is that the findings are based on experimental data. While experimental analysis is the only empirical method of establishing causal relationships, the limitations are in the ‘‘artificiality’’ of the laboratory
environment (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). Just because the experimental stimulus
generated an effect in the laboratory does not guarantee that this response will
materialize exactly the same way in the ‘‘real world’’ (Kinder & Palfrey, 1993).
Future studies can address this shortcoming by employing nationally representative
cross-sectional and panel survey data that includes questions about exposure to
TCR. Also, future research using focus groups and/or stimulated depth interviews
could provide valuable insight into how young adults make sense of political satire
and political humor in general.
This research is, however, a first step in understanding the effects of Stephen Colbert’s brand of political humor on youth. As the 2008 presidential race approaches,
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
Colbert’s humor, as well as that of other late-night television humorists, will undoubtedly focus increasingly on the campaign. If the 2004 race was any indication of
the future of presidential elections, the electronic media in America will be suffused
with political rhetoric, and consequently, high emotions. Undoubtedly, satirists on
television, the Internet, and beyond will attempt to capitalize on this fervor to make
humorous observations on the state of the American political system, and America as
a whole. Exactly how this satire is received by its audience is becoming an important
piece of the puzzle in understanding political communication in America today.
Selected Transcript Excerpts From the
Experimental Stimuli
Topic One: Bill Clinton Interview With Fox’s Chris Wallace
The O’Reilly Factor.
Bill O’Reilly: Chris Wallace simply did his job. He was tough but respectful and
asked legitimate questions about al-Qaeda in his interview with Bill Clinton. Anyone
attacking Mr. Wallace is dishonest and knows nothing about journalism. [Clip of
interview shown] The President should not have been angry with Chris Wallace or
Fox News. I could understand why he’s furious about that ABC movie that suggested
he was distracted from bin Laden by the Lewinsky episode, but Chris Wallace asking
legitimate questions? Come on! (Tabacoff, 2006b)
The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert: Did you see this Clinton thing on Fox? Oh : : : he really stuck his
nose out and Fox News’ Chris Wallace impartially chopped it off. Jimmy. [Clip of
interview shown] Wow. Talk about an overreaction. Chris Wallace just asked him a
perfectly legitimate question. He just basically asked, ‘‘Why did you let those 3,000
people in the World Trade Center die?’’ And Clinton freaks out. Clinton even had
the nerve to question why Wallace never asked the Bush administration the same
thing. Well, there’s an excellent reason. To suggest that Bush didn’t do enough to
prevent 9/11 is patently offensive. (Karlin, 2006b)
Topic Two: Torture and Tough Interrogation Methods
The O’Reilly Factor.
Bill O’Reilly: Tough interrogation methods: : : : is the subject of this evening’s Talking Points memo: : : : The far left believes the Bush administration wants to torture
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 637
people for sport and asserts that making terror suspects uncomfortable is actually
torture. In addition, they claim tough interrogation methods never lead to valid
information: : : :
Now today the Senate continues to debate the coercive interrogation issue, the
White House wanting the CIA to have some latitude, the opposition saying only
Geneva Convention techniques, name, rank, and jihad number should apply to
captured terrorists. Talking Points believes there will be a compromise, that the CIA
will be allowed to use some so-called coercive interrogation methods and that’s a
good thing. Because they do work on some bad people. (Tabacoff, 2006a)
The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert: Torture is illegal. The U.S. obeys the law. Therefore, the U.S.
does not torture. So we need to make it legal. Unfortunately, Republican senators
John McCain, John Warner, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell oppose the
President’s plan because they’re not seeing it clearly: : : :
First of all, John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war so he’s not objective.
Now if John McCain introduced a bill to prohibit the torture of John McCain, I’m
all for it: : : : Now as for Colin Powell, sure he was a general but who could trust
that guy? He got up in front of the U.N. with a bottle of baby powder and started
talking about Saddam cooking up anthrax in a Winnebago. You know, he really
misled the President: : : : Now, I’m sorry these guys are all confused; combat does
that to a man. We all saw Rambo: : : :
Now, fortunately there is a solution. The clarifying language the President wants
to put in: : : : I personally think the image of the President saying specifically what
to him is not an outrage on human dignity will make everyone see his position very
clearly, like a squirt of wiper fluid right in the eyes. (Karlin 2006a)
Topic Three: The Mark Foley Scandal and the
Midterm Elections
The O’Reilly Factor.
Bill O’Reilly: We all agree Foley got what he deserved and he should go to jail if
the FBI finds he did anything wrong. [But] I want to know who was shopping the
e-mails. Don’t you? : : : Wouldn’t you like to know? That is a legitimate start.
Ann Coulter [Later in the broadcast]: I think we have a good object lesson. And
the difference in Republicans and Democrats. Jerry Studds was having sex with a
teenager, he runs again and is reelected. McGreavy, the former Democrat Governor
of New Jersey, holds a press conference saying he’s a gay American. Why don’t
they go hide in a hole?
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2008
O’Reilly: No, McGreavy’s an adult. I wouldn’t care what Foley did if the kid wasn’t
16. That’s too much. Now, 5 weeks from now there’s a vote. You’ve got Iraq, very
bad for the Republicans. You’ve got Foley. Is Foley even going to remember this
5 weeks from now or is this a 1-week story?
Coulter: No, but look at what he does. He goes, he does the proper thing when he’s
caught in a humiliating scandal. He resigns immediately, he hides in a hole: : : : as
far as we know right now, and he is specifically denying it, there was no sexual
O’Reilly: You think the Republicans are maintaining both Houses?
Coulter: This is going to be a very tough year for Republicans.
O’Reilly: Why? : : : you don’t think there’s anything driving the anti-Republican
Coulter: No, to the contrary, I think they’re : : : hysterical overreaction to Foley.
When they, The New York Times ethicist says, ‘‘We should boycott the Boy Scouts’’
because they don’t want gay men camping with 14-year-old boys. But they think
we should be wiretapping a congressman for asking a kid what he wants for his
birthday. They are hysterical : : : (Tabacoff, 2006c)
The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert: I’m exhausted. I was up late last night trying to figure out who
the luckiest bastard in the world is. And I am stuck. I can’t decide if it is the
congressional candidate who was going to lose to Mark Foley a week ago or the
one who was going to lose to Dennis Hastert a week ago. Those guys are laughing
all the way to Washington because, of course, the Democrats politicize everything.
What a bunch of hypocrites. Where were they back in 1983 when Democratic
representative Jerry Studds was caught having sex with a 17-year old male page?
All he got was censored and then he was reelected to five more terms representing
And look at Bill Clinton. He refused to step down, Democrats rally around him
and his ratings went through the roof. So Republicans, take a page from the Dems’
book, they’re good at sex scandals. You guys don’t know anything about sex. From
what I understand, Republicans reproduce with a firm handshake. So just do what
the Democrats do, Republicans, and rally around your sexual predator. Remember,
the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the symbol for opportunity. Which
is also the same symbol for man-boy love. At least, I think it is: : : : If you want
Baumgartner and Morris/ONE ‘‘NATION’’ UNDER STEPHEN? 639
to punish him for his actions which were inexcusable, this November vote for a
Republican. That will show ’em. (Karlin 2006c)
1 These routes are actually conceptualized as being located on a continuum, not simply as
dichotomous points.
2 This expectation is also consistent with research on the effects of negatively framed
political messages on cynicism (Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995).
3 There seems to be no agreed upon definition of satire among literary critics, but common
to most definitions is the idea that satire is intended to critique or ridicule (Elliott, 1962;
Feinberg, 1968). Parody might be thought of as a particular form of satire that ridicules by
imitating (Kreuz & Roberts, 1993).
4 This discussion fits with the notion of polysemy, or the idea that words, texts, or even
televisual representations can be interpreted in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways.
See, for example, Schaefer & Avery (1993) for an examination of how David Letterman’s ‘‘Late
Nite’’ was seen by some audience members as a brilliant parody of talk shows, while others
saw Letterman simply as an inept and obnoxious talk show host.
5 Although this sample was disproportionately male, this actually coincides with Colbert’s
audience, which is also disproporationately male (see Pew Research Center, 2007).
6 Due to practical concerns of using students recruited from introductory courses, the
authors randomly assigned the entire class to an experimental condition, rather than the
individual—and the viewing of clips was conducted in a group. This assignment method,
however, was not problematic, as the demographic traits of each condition did not significantly
differ from the others. Also, to ensure that there were no significant ideological differences
between experimental groups, an analysis of variance test (ANOVA) was conducted on a 5point scale of partisan identification with the condition (control, Colbert, or O’Reilly) as the
sorting variable. Assuming party identification was exogenous, the distribution of partisans
in each group did not significantly differ, thus illustrating a satisfactory level of random
assignment. The authors also tested for significant demographic differences across the three
experimental conditions, and found no differences of concern.
7 The data were taken from the Pew Research Center’s 2006 Biennial Media Consumption
Study. The data are available for download at (see Pew
Research Center, 2006, for survey report reference).
8 Because this analysis made use of human subjects, approval was received from the
University IRB to conduct the study beforehand. Subjects were informed beforehand that
the investigators were going to show a brief clip of a television show and then distribute a
short survey. Following the survey, subjects were invited to ask questions about the clip, the
survey, or the project.
9 Specifically, subjects were asked to check whether or not they had (1) written or called
any politician at the state, local, or national level; (2) attended a political rally, speech, or
organized protest of any kind; (3) attended a public meeting on town or school affairs; (4)
written a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine or called a live radio or TV show to
express a political opinion; (5) posted a message on a blog to express a political opinion; (6)
signed a petition; (7) worked for a political party or campaign; or (8) been an active member
of any group that tries to influence public policy or government.
10 The four knowledge questions were as follows: (1) As a result of the recent midterm
elections, who is expected to become the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?
(2) As a result of the recent midterm elections, which political party will become the majority
in the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress? (3) Who is the current Secretary of State? (4)
Who is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?
11 In addition to the regression analyses listed in Tables 1–4, Table A1 in the Appendix
displays the findings from a more parsimonious comparison of mean values for all of the
dependent variables across the three experimental conditions. Analysis of variances (ANOVA)
results indicate variation across the groups is statistically significant.
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Table A1
Comparison of Mean Values for Dependent Variables Across Experimental Conditions (One-way Analysis of Variance)
Who do you think would do a better job of managing the
(1 if Democrats, 2 if neither party, 3 if Republicans)
Who do you think would do a better job of managing the
(1 if Democrats, 2 if neither party, 3 if Republicans)
On a scale of 1–10, how do you feel about George W. Bush? The
Higher the number, the more favorable you feel toward George
W. Bush. The lower the number, the less favorable you feel
toward George W. Bush.
Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following
statement: ‘‘I trust the Republicans in Congress to do the right
thing.’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (somewhat disagree), 3 (neither
agree nor disagree), 4 (somewhat agree), 5 (strongly agree)
Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following
statement: ‘‘I trust the Democrats in Congress to do the right
thing.’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (somewhat disagree), 3 (neither
agree nor disagree), 4 (somewhat agree), 5 (strongly agree)
Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following
statement: ‘‘Sometimes politics and government seems so
complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s
going on.’’ 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (somewhat disagree), 3
(neither agree nor disagree), 4 (somewhat agree), 5 (strongly