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Late-Night Comedy and Politics Are No Joking Matter

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

It’s become a can’t miss stop on the road to the White House, a necessary gig for any would-be commander-in-chief who wants to be taken seriously as a true challenger for the presidency. During this marathon election cycle, taking a seat across the table from Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s the Daily Show became a rite of passage for candidates trying to reach young voters.

“We have this fragmented media audience today,” says School of Communication professor Lauren Feldman, who studies, among other things, the political impact of late-night comedy. “It’s not the case that candidates can necessarily reach [voters] through conventional ways. Twenty years ago if you wanted to watch television at 6:30 you could pretty much only watch the news, and you would hear news of the campaign. Now it’s so easy for people to tune that out, that I think it behooves candidates to go on these entertainment programs . . . to present their nonpolitical persona, which is more likely to resonate with people who are not following the campaign as closely as others.”

But do these Daily Show and Colbert Report devotees get their news exclusively from their favorite TV personalities, or do those who chuckle as David Letterman quips “John McCain looks like the guy who thinks the nurses are stealing his stuff” also pay attention to more serious political coverage?

Feldman, who arrived at AU this fall, is set to publish a paper later this year that examines the interplay between exposure to late-night comedy and attention to politics.

“There’s been a lot of concern in this narrative constructed in the media that young people are abandoning traditional news and getting all of their information from late night comedy, and we know that’s not true,” she says. “My study looked at whether exposure to late night comedy during a campaign might actually lead people to pay more attention to the campaign in traditional network news or cable news. We found that to be the case as a result of watching either Jay Leno or David Letterman. People who watched during the 2004 primaries were more likely to tune in to and pay attention to the campaign in traditional network and cable news sources.”

That’s a positive development, Feldman argues.

“It’s brought a lot of attention to the candidates among people who might not otherwise have been paying that much attention,” she says. “The more people pay attention to politics, the more likely they are to go to other information sources and go and vote on election day—that’s great.”

An Atlantic City native, Feldman originally studied psychology at Duke before becoming an English major. After graduating, she worked in development communications at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where she began thinking about children, the media, and technology. Communication presented itself as an ideal discipline, she says.

Feldman earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where her dissertation studied the effects of opinionated news shows, such as the O’Reilly Factor and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, on viewers.

“I found that while people can and do perceive biases in these opinionated news programs, those perceptions don’t interfere with their ability to be persuaded,” she says. “They say, ‘Hey, that guy’s biased,’ and they’re still swayed by the message. Kind of alarming.”

Yet young viewers today seem more able to consume both political entertainment and news programming. The Daily Show’s viewers are the most engaged, most informed members of the electorate, Feldman says.

“I think what we’re seeing is a [blurring] of the boundaries between entertainment and information in our media environment,” she says. “No longer are people saying I can’t get information from comedy.”

Not surprisingly, Feldman’s research has excited her students.

“It’s nice to be able to teach and talk about things that really resonate with students and at the same time instruct them on the theory and strategy that underlies all this,” she says.