Late-Night Comedy in Election 2000: Its Influence on Candidate Trait Ratings and the Moderating Effects of Political Knowledge and Partisanship

By Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Late-Night Comedy in Election 2000: Its Influence on Candidate Trait Ratings and the Moderating Effects of Political Knowledge and Partisanship


Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Throughout the 2000 Presidential election, journalists, politicians, and comedians debated the nature of the relationship between late-night comedy and public opinion. Marshall Sella, author of a New York Times article entitled, "The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy," suggested that "part of what turns random episodes like the RATS controversy (1) into icons, what inflates them into pivotal campaign events, is late-night comedy" (Sella, 2000, p. 72). Democratic strategist Mandy Grunwald stated, "If Leno or Imus or Dennis Miller are making jokes about you, you have a serious problem. Whatever take they have on you is likely to stick much more solidly than what is in the political ads in papers like the Washington Post" (Grenier, 1999, p. 103).

Meanwhile, political comedians argued that since jokes are based on what the public already believes, their influence on public opinion was inconsequential. While speaking to AI Gore's class at the Columbia Journalism School, David Letterman, host of CBS's The Late Show, downplayed his role in the election, stating, "I would guess that very few votes were cast based on a joke that either I or Jay Leno made" (Berner, 2001, p. 3). Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, argued that it was unlikely that people were influenced by such content since "[writers and comedians] need [viewers] to know something before they even make a joke about it" (Bettag, 2000). Similarly, Jay Leno, host of NBC's The Tonight Show, stated, "we (writers and comedians) reinforce what people already believe" (Shaap, 2000, p. 75).

In spite of this debate's high profile in the popular press, its presence in the academic literature is far less prominent. This analysis is an attempt to assess the effects of exposure to late-night programming on perceptions of the candidates in the 2000 campaign. The paper includes a content analysis of late-night jokes and a brief examination of the late-night audience. It also includes an analysis of the relationship between late-night exposure and ratings of the candidates on their caricatured traits. Here I explore the moderating roles of political knowledge and partisanship, assessing whether the effects of exposure varied with the knowledge or partisanship of the viewer.

Political Humor, Persuasion, and Learning

Early studies assessing the persuasiveness of satire, such as editorial cartoons, hinted at satire's capacity to affect opinion, but with inconsistent results (Annis, 1939; Brinkman, 1968; Gruner, 1971). After the 1992 election, during which Clinton explored such nontraditional outlets as MTV, talk shows, and late-night programs, scholars became increasingly interested in the impact of such "new news," particularly on learning (Chaffee, Zhao, & Leshner, 1994; Davis and Owen, 1998; Hollander, 1995; McLeod et al., 1996). While some of this literature suggested audiences may learn about candidates' positions through exposure to such programming (Chaffee et al., 1994; McLeod et al., 1996), other studies suggested that exposure might enhance viewers' perceived knowledge without increasing their actual knowledge (Hollander, 1995).

Pfau, Cho, and Chong (2001) extended this research beyond learning as an outcome of exposure, to attitude change as an outcome, assessing the impact of exposure and attention paid to late-night as a source of campaign information on evaluations of candidates and views of the democratic process. Their results indicate a significant positive relationship between late-night exposure and perceptions of Gore and a nonsignificant negative relationship in the case of Bush. The authors speculate that jokes portraying Gore as wooden may have led viewers to see him as more human. But as Pfau et al. admit, "The [reason why television entertainment talk shows mainly worked to Gore's advantage] probably lies in the content of Letterman's and Leno's jokes and thus lies outside the purview of this investigation" (Pfau et al. …

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Late-Night Comedy in Election 2000: Its Influence on Candidate Trait Ratings and the Moderating Effects of Political Knowledge and Partisanship
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