Saturday, April 25, 2009

Journal Nerd 

Jay Cost, writing yesterday at Real Clear Politics, doesn't help those of us who teach higher education for a living by equating reading an academic journal with being a nerd: "As a politics nerd, I have several subscriptions to very nerdy academic journals." Oh yes, blogging on a political website for a living is the epitome of machismo and verve. But that is not why I write here today.

Cost has been wowed by an article appearing in the most recent issue of "Political Behavior" that examines the political effect that Jon Stewart has on his audience. The article is written by a former colleague of mine, Jonathan Morris, who, along with Jody Baumgartner (both at East Carolina University) have cornered the market on the political effects of Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Fox News on our political system.

In this particular article, the author wants to know if Stewart was more critical of Republicans than Democrats during the 2004 party conventions and if so, whether that caused his audience to become more critical of the Republican nominee--George W. Bush. The findings? That Stewart (and his cast) were far more critical of Republicans than Democrats (which really is no mystery), and that the audience did indeed turn more critical towards Republicans during their convention than they did when the Democrats held theirs.

In Cost's analysis of the paper, he notes that one should not take this finding too far since Stewart's audience size is "fewer than Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and just 1.2% of the total number of people who voted for President last November." And that most of his audience is predisposed to be critical towards Republicans anyways.

While the caveats are warranted, there is something that Cost leaves out. There is an impact that is not considered in his analysis. It is what Matt Baum calls the "watercooler effect." The conversations that individuals have with friends and co-workers based on what they see or hear that interests them. So what of the network of the individuals who watch Stewart everynight? This "secondary" or "ripple" effect of individuals who may the cherished "Independents" of American politics, whose vote could go either way and look to important cognitive shortcuts to make their decision? At the voting booth, do they recall what their (best friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/brother/sister/boss/etc) had to say about Republican policy based on what they saw from "The Daily Show"? Or, what about the individuals--again the "Independents"--who see a posting of Stewart on YouTube after they were sent there via email from a friend?

All I am saying is that, sure, there are limits to the influence that Stewart has, but while we should caution against over-estimating, we should also caution against under-estimating.

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