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The Truthiness of The Colbert Report …

• April 20, 2009 • 4:51 PM

… Is in the eyes of the beholder, who, it turns out, sees what the beholder wants its eyes to see.

So … Stephen Colbert doesn’t really mean all those wacky liberal-bashing things he says, does he? Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report is obviously a parody of a wing-nut right-wing talk show. Right?

Or … is it? (Cut to devilishly quizzical chin-grabbing stare.)

He can’t be serious.

Or … can he sort of be? (Cut to screeching bald eagle.)

Well, apparently Colbert is just that good. His character is so pitch-perfectly ambiguous that, according to a new study, what it is you see in him is whatever it is you want to see in him. If you are liberal, he is a liberal, too. If you are a conservative, he is a conservative, just like you.

And if you are a bear, well, good luck.

Colbert is, it would appear, a fun-house mirror to the deepest recesses of your political soul.

In order to test this scientifically, Heather L. LaMarre, along with Kristen D. Landreville and Michael A. Beam (all communications doctoral students at The Ohio State University), subjected 322 participants with a mix of political ideologies to a three-minute 2006 video clip of Stephen Colbert discussing media coverage of the Iraq war with “super liberal lefty” radio host Amy Goodman.

Media, Politics, Stephen Colbert, Comedy

Researchers believe when someone looks at Stephen Colbert, they see their own views staring back at them, whether that makes Colbert a Bolivarian revolutionary or a truthiness-teller in the Archie Bunker mold. (Comedy Central)

They then asked participants to evaluate Colbert’s ideology and his attitude towards liberalism. What they found was that the more liberal participants reported their own ideology to be, the more liberal they thought Colbert was. And the more conservative they reported their own ideology to be, the more conservative they thought Colbert was. Both, however, found him equally funny. The results are published in the April edition of the International Journal of Press/Politics.

“Liberals will see him as an over-the-top satire of Bill O’Reilly-type pundit and think that he is making fun of a conservative pundit,” LaMarre explained. “But conservatives will say, yes, he is an over-the-top satire of Bill O’Reilly, but by being funny he gets to make really good points and make fun of liberals. So they think the joke is on liberals.”

How can this be? Are they really both watching the same Stephen Colbert? Actually, the reason is pretty simple. It is a phenomenon that has been familiar to social psychologists for a long time: confirmation bias. “When you look at social psychology and you see how people process information, people see what they want to see,” said study co-author Landreville. “They take whatever they want out of that message. So if I’m a liberal, I’ll have my liberal goggles on when I’m watching The Colbert Report and I’ll think he’s a liberal.”

Confirmation bias is likely to be especially pronounced in satire because one of the things about satire — especially the deadpan, bald-eagle satire of Colbert — is that it is chock-full of ambiguity and uncertainty. This leaves lots of opportunities for a viewer to fill in the blanks — a kind of choose-your-own-truthiness, if you will.

“The nature of satire, when you boil it down, is that messages are to varying degrees implied messages,” explained Lance Holbert, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University who studies the intersection of entertainment and politics. “It requires the audience to fill in the gap, to get the joke. And it requires a certain bit of knowledge to fill in the gap. … Certain types of humor are much more explicit. In satire the humor is very complex.”

LaMarre got interested in the question of how audiences interpret Colbert back in 2007, when she started puzzling over how several appearances by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had seemingly helped to jump-start Huckabee’s campaign from out of nowhere. Was it a joke? Or what?

“[Huckabee] would publicly thank Stephen Colbert,” she said. “So, from a research point of view, you can ask is this because there are a lot of conservatives who watch Colbert and are now suddenly interested in Mike Huckabee? Is it because they think Colbert is supporting Huckabee?”

One parallel study the authors note is a 1974 article on perceptions of the television show All in the Family. In the piece, professors Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach found that although the show’s creator, Norman Lear, had intended to use the Archie Bunker character as a gentle way to poke fun of and discredit racist attitudes, audience members who held racist attitudes never quite got the joke — instead they sympathized with Archie Bunker and may have even found his folksy prejudices to justify their own.

In general, communications researchers are now only beginning to explore the implications and impacts of the new and growing domain of late-night political comedy. Though political satire is nothing new, it was typically encapsulated in larger comedy programming, for example as a sketch on Saturday Night Live. But both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are primarily about politics. And their widespread audiences — both average more than a million nightly viewers (mostly in the 18-to-49 demographic) — give them the potential to have an impact on American politics.

“Satirists provide a unique perspective to what’s going on with elite decision-makers,” said Holbert. “They’re holding them to the fire a bit. There are discussions to whether they can be too powerful, but those discussions have been around for a long time, and their influence ebbs and flows.”

Most studies have focused on the The Daily Show. One ongoing debate, for example, is between those who think that Jon Stewart promotes a level of cynicism that is ultimately harmful to democracy, and those who think that Stewart actually gets citizens engaged in politics and helps them to feel more politically efficacious.

But this Colbert study is the first to focus exclusively on The Colbert Report. So what, exactly, does it matter if people see in Colbert only what they want to see? One consequence LaMarre and colleagues discuss is that Colbert may actually be reinforcing existing prejudices and polarization. If his goal is to persuade, he is doing a poor job of it.

But, what is Colbert’s purpose, anyway? LaMarre said she’d love to interview him to find out what he’s up to. (Miller-McCune.com tried to talk to him but hasn’t had any luck so far.)

But then again, would Colbert ever give a straight answer? And if he did, wouldn’t that ruin the whole effect?  “I think what I enjoy most about Colbert is that he is true to this character,” said LaMarre. “I think he’s brilliant. He always leaves you wondering a bit how serious he is.”

Or … is he?

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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