'The Colbert Report' Did a Better Job Than News at Teaching People About Campaign Financing

Viewers of the satirical Comedy Central show, in which the host created his own super PAC, were better informed about the issue than people who watched news channels and shows.
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Stephen Colbert

The Colbert Report did a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing, according to a new study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The study found that those who watched Stephen Colbert set up a super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization during the last election cycle were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of other news channels and shows.

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Part of The Colbert Report's effectiveness, the study showed, was its use of a continuing narrative in which the host went from an observer to an active participant, which engaged viewers more than the news media's traditional approach.

The study, "Stephen Colbert's Civics Lesson," tested the Comedy Central show against CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and broadcast nightly news as well as talk radio and newspapers and was based on phone survey data from 1,232 adults 18 years or older who were interviewed between Dec. 13 and 23, 2012.

Watching The Colbert Report served as "an extended civics lesson," the researchers found.

Starting in 2011, Colbert actively explored the world of campaign finance regulations, creating his own super PAC called "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow," which was allowed to accept unlimited corporate donations. The host also created a 501(c)(4) shell corporation to which donations could be given anonymously. That group could funnel the anonymously donated money to the super PAC. During the creation of and modification to these devices, Colbert had former FEC chairman Trevor Potter guide him through the current state of campaign finance legislation, with Potter answering his character's questions like, "So I could get money from my (c)(4), use that for political purposes and nobody knows anything about it until six months after the election?" prompted by Potter's revelation that Colbert didn't have to file with the IRS until May 2013. And when Colbert and Potter determined that he could take funds donated anonymously to his (c)(4) and transfer them to his transparent super PAC and just say that the earlier donations came from his (c)(4), Colbert asked, "What is the difference between that and money laundering?"

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“Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching,” the study's lead author, Dr. Bruce W. Hardy, said in a statement. “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 Annenberg researchers found that guiding viewers through the process of creating and using a super PAC helped them understand the intricacies of such devices.

"Colbert's treatment of this complex issue did not simply explain the complexities of new campaign finance regulations but also walked his audience through the detailed process of creating super PACs and 501(c)(4)s," the Annenberg researchers wrote. "His insertion into the campaign process and real interaction with the legal system, FEC and mock candidacy allowed him to instruct as he entertained."

The study found that the show increased people's knowledge of political funding, including super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, at a greater rate than other news sources. Viewing The Colbert Report also increased respondents' belief that they were knowledgeable about super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups.

So what can other news programs learn from The Colbert Report's experience? While the study notes that what Colbert did is "likely a difficult process for other news programs to replicate," the study argues that "if other shows can effectively present complex issues using a humorous narrative, viewers may become better informed about the issues and more engaged in the political process."

The full study can be purchased here for $39.