Friday, September 30, 2011

Did The Onion's Recent Attempts at Satire Go Too Far? Or Just Get Our Attention?

Yesterday, The Onion, America's Finest News Source posted a serious of tweets and a satirical article about members of Congress taking school children hostage in the US Capitol. The article also featured a doctored photo (see below) and a short video clip.

While the story was obviously fake, the article and the tweets in particular have captured the attention of the mainstream media. For example, here's some  commentary from The Washington Post and an article in today's New York Times. In addition, the Capitol Police is now investigating the situation and The Onion's false reports of the attack. 

The Onion's reach on Twitter, (the satirical outlet had over 3 million followers as of August 2011 according to a report by Mashable) may explain much of the attention. Especially when you compare The Onion's Twitter followers to those of traditional print publications (from Mashable): 

"That’s about 300,000 more than Time, three times more than The Economist and 1.6 million more than Newsweek. Granted, The Onion also boasts the largest print and web circulation out of the four publications, but there’s more at work on Twitter than sheer eyeballs. The attention that The Onion gets on Twitter is a testament to its success of continuing its satire of news organizations onto social media."
Perhaps it's time to take The Onion -- or at least the outlet's reach and circulation figures, but not the satire -- more seriously?

New research on Twitter teaches us about cross-cultural emotional patterns

Emerging research by Cornell University sociologists (set to be published in the journal, Science) tracks the mood of Twitter users over time. Analyzing a large corpus of tweets, the researchers found that patterns in mood follow a general rhythm across cultures and countries. The highlight of the study was published in an article in this week's New York Times:

"Drawing on messages posted by more than two million people in 84 countries, researchers discovered that the emotional tone of people’s messages followed a similar pattern not only through the day but also through the week and the changing seasons. The new analysis suggests that our moods are driven in part by a shared underlying biological rhythm that transcends culture and environment."

The study offers a true analysis of mood patterns using text analysis -- a growing area of interdisciplinary research that has computer scientists, social scientists, and communication researchers working collaboratively to understand large bodies of text -- from Tweets and blog posts to traditional news content. 

I might be a little bit biased, but one of my favorite pieces of research in this area was completed by colleagues in computer science at UW-Madison. The piece by Goldberg et al. (2009) analyzed a corpus of 100,000 New Year’s wishes uploaded to the Internet by individuals across the globe to coincide with the 2007 ball drop in Times Square. The most common wish topics according to the research -- peace, love, and health and happiness. This research represents just one of the many ways that text analysis can be applied to everyday language and discourse.

Participating as a "tweep" at the White House Twitter Town Hall this summer offered me not only the opportunity to meet Barack Obama and live tweet the event from the East Room, but also allowed me to attend a follow-up discussion about Twitter, social media, and data applications with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and top White House new media and technology officials. Let's just say that it's not just academics who understand the value of mining Twitter text data. 

As the reach of Twitter spreads (13% of US adults use Twitter according to a May 2011 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project; with usage highest among Millennials, Gen Xers, and Blacks and Hispanics in particular) look for continued textual analysis of these precious tweets. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jon Stewart Takes on Rick Squared and Speaks to Republicans at Camera Three

Jon Stewart started off the week with a review of last week's Google/Fox News Republican candidate debate. There's an irony not to miss here given that this clip is from a Google sponsored debate and Santorum is well known for his Google problem. So here's the clip for Rick #1 from the top of the show:

 and here's Rick #2 (aka Rick Squared):

For viewers who often think Stewart is left-leaning, his address to Republican base over at Camera 3 offers a sample of partisan commentary. In fact, recent research with colleagues Patricia Moy and Michael Xenos published in the volume, The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News, explores the connection between partisan identity (e.g., being a Democrat or Republican) and the processing of humorous messages from programs like The Daily Show. In our research we find that some viewers of The Daily Show view the program through a partisan lens, using the perception that Jon Stewart leans left as a rule of thumb or heuristic when processing and interpreting content presented each evening. Partisan heuristics are particularly important when the target of the comedy is less well-known (e.g., think Nancy Pelosi, Rick Perry, or Chris Christie) as opposed to a more prominent figure like President Barack Obama.

So here's the Camera 3 message ... certainly an example of partisan commentary:

Perhaps the most disturbing piece from the whole show -- even more than the performances of Rick Squared -- is Chris Christie's version of Born to Run.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jon Stewart Interview with Rolling Stone

Jon Stewart's mug graces the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone. 

Highlights from the interview with Stewart are available on the Rolling Stone web site along with a fun gallery of behind the scenes photos

For those who need even more Stewart, check out this video segment with Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates:

Some highlights from the Rolling Stone interview:

Stewart says that the Daily Show has a lot in common with Fox News. "We are both reactions to the news and to government," he says. "We're both expressions of dissatisfaction.

Obama has been a disappointment to Stewart. "He ran on this idea that the system and the methodology are corrupt," he says. "It felt like the country was upset enough that he had the momentum needed to re-evaluate how business is done. Instead, when he got elected, he acted as though the system is so entrenched that it has to be managed rather than – I don't want to say decimated, because I'm not an anarchist or a nihilist.  But I'm surprised at how much he deferred to the legislative process."

And my personal favorite given my own appreciation for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band:

Bruce Springsteen remains one of Stewart's heroes. "When I listened to his music I didn't feel like a loser," he says. "I felt like a character in an epic poem about losers…Plus, you would go see his show and he would blow your fucking mind for four hours. At a certain point, you'd want to go up onstage and be like, 'Guys! It's OK. I got my money's worth, like, two and a half hours ago. Save yourself! I don't want you to burn out,. You're giving too much! We do not deserve what you've done here tonight! A lot of us are jackasses!"

Rick Perry's Proven Leadership Ad

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to this new ad for Rick Perry. The ad is certainly dramatic and chock full of startling imagery and movie-preview style music. I personally was waiting for a green preview screen at the end.

The ad is 1 minute and 45 seconds long -- a departure from the 30 and 60 second ads that are standard campaign fare. In addition, the ad starts off as an attack against Obama and ends with a rousing endorsement of Rick Perry -- a clear attempt to attach a positive ad to the initial negative message. The juxtaposition suggests that voters must make a choice between the failed policies of the Obama administration and the promises and hope offered by a Perry presidency.

While the design and elements of the ad are interesting in and of itself, the important thing about this ad and others will be their viral reach. This ad is clearly meant for television viewers in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The true impact of the ad however will be how quickly the piece spreads on sites like YouTube and the mainstream media's coverage and rehashing of the various claims put forth in the ad. In other words, you no longer need to be watching the evening news in Iowa to be tuned into the 2012 primary campaign ad wars and sites like YouTube offer the opportunity to present longer ads that deviate from traditional time formats.

Just another way that the Internet and new media are changing the dynamics of political campaigns ...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Al Gore Refers to Stephen Colbert's "Character" during interview segment

Al Gore appeared on The Colbert Report on Tuesday evening to promote his Climate Reality Project, a 24 hour reality special about the influence of climate change in each of the 24 time zones around the world. For those who want to check out the show on TV, it will be airing tonight. For those who don't get Current, it's also possible to stream the content online.

During the interview, when chatting about Keith Olbermann and his new role as a program host on Current TV, Al Gore revealed that Stephen Colbert is actually "presenting a character" in his role as program host.

For Colbert, who always strives to remain in character, the revelation offered an uncomfortable yet funny twist to the discussion of Current TV and Gore's recent work on climate change. You can watch the video of the interview below:

Research by fellow political communication scholars LaMarreLandreville, and Beam, published in the April 2009 issue of The International Journal of Press/Politics actually tested whether viewers correctly "understood" Colbert's in-character presentation.  (I also happen to like the Becker & Scheufele piece in the same issue, but I'm a bit biased).

Anyway, back to comedy .... LaMarre et al.'s research is summarized in a related piece in Miller-McCune. Specifically:

"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."

So there you have it, both liberals and conservatives find Colbert funny but they disagree as to what he is trying to accomplish with his "character." For liberals, Colbert is truly more liberal politically but for conservatives, Colbert is a bit more conservative. We academics (and LaMarre et al. in particular) attribute this variance in interpretations of Colbert's character to confirmation bias -- viewers see what they want to see in shows like The Colbert Report in part so they can find some support -- or confirmation -- for their own political views.

Colbert's recent endorsement of "Rick Parry" in the Iowa Straw Poll and his Colbert Super PAC funded political commercials have encouraged the media and academics to again question whether viewers are correctly understanding Colbert's "character" and even more importantly, whether Colbert can have a considerable impact on the 2012 presidential campaign.

While it looks like we'll never know how many voted for "Parry" in the Iowa Straw Poll, it seems pretty clear that Colbert will continue to insert himself and his Super PAC into the 2012 GOP nomination process. Whether voters in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, or even Colbert's own South Carolina will correctly "get" Colbert's character remains to be seen.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jon Stewart on Obama's Jobs Speech

Jon Stewart kicked off a new week of The Daily Show with a strong start. Here's a very funny opening segment on the Obama jobs speech.

My favorite part of the segment is the focus on the "awesome cutaways to uncomfortable Republicans." John McCain and Mitch McConnell do look pretty uncomfortable, right?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Late Night Comedy Meets the Emmys

Yesterday's NYT featured an interesting story about the changing face of late-night comedy and the race for the coveted Emmy award for the best variety, music, or comedy series. As noted in the article, Jimmy Fallon is the only network host/program nominated for the Emmy. The other nominations are for cable programs -- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Conan's new show on TBS, and HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.

The article focuses on the importance of the nomination for Fallon and the reality that both Letterman and Leno are missing from the list of nominees. 

In addition, the piece stresses the success of both Stewart and Colbert and their increasing rise in the ratings:

The arrows continue to point up for him [Stewart] and Mr. Colbert; their ratings were both up over the past year, and with an election looming — the richest of subjects for the most topical of hosts — the prospects are good for even more increases. To say nothing of profits. Beyond the passionate fan reaction those two shows draw, they also constitute what many in late night see as the future of the format: cost-contained productions on fewer nights of the year.

In fact, the days of the expensive late-night variety show complete with a house band, expensive sets, etc. may soon become a relic of the past.

Also interesting is the changing demographics of the late night audience. Contrary to popular belief, late night comedy has an older and more diverse audience -- it's no longer just a time slot for a young adult male viewing audience.

The Fallon show generally has the youngest staff, but the O’Brien show has by far the youngest audience. The median age of his viewers is a stunning 32. By comparison Mr. Colbert’s audience age is 39; Mr. Stewart’s is 41; Mr. Fallon’s is 49, Mr. Kimmel’s is 51; and in the senior division, Mr. Letterman and Mr. Leno have audiences with a median age of about 56. 

While it is likely that a cable program will take home the statue given the odds (and I'd actually be pretty confident in betting on the winner), it's still an accomplishment for Fallon to be nominated. 

As audience demographics continue to shift, look for the networks -- both broadcast and cable -- to respond to the changing dynamics of the late night comedy audience. We may in fact see more programs shift to fit the Stewart/Colbert/Comedy Central mold.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Electability, the 2012 GOP Primary, and Authenticity?

In Thursday's New York Times, Nate Silver discusses two fundamental qualities voters look for when evaluating candidates in a presidential primary contest: (1) electability and (2) a candidate who will promote an agreeable (in this case conservative Republican) policy agenda.

Often times, it's electability that matters most to primary voters (aka the party faithful) because they seek a candidate who can ultimately win in a general election. As Silver notes, Perry does well in promoting a conservative agenda but is lacking when it comes to perceptions of electability. Romney on the other hand may not appeal to the policy preferences of more conservative Republican voters but he does give off an air of electability when it comes time to think about the general election.

The importance of electability was especially evident during the 2004 Democratic primary. In the early days of the primary I worked with a team of pollsters hired by a candidate who was promoting a very credible, actionable, on-point, Democratic policy agenda. The problem was with the candidate's perceived electability. As the Iowa Caucus results would quickly show, John Kerry was perceived by voters to be the most electable candidate in a general election match-up with President George W. Bush. Candidates like Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, and especially Howard Dean were seen as slightly less electable but more centrally aligned with the policy priorities of Democratic primary voters.

In the end, Kerry secured the nomination primarily because he was seen as the candidate who was mostly likely to beat Bush in November.

Both Kerry and now Mitt Romney suffer from problems of authenticity, or the perception that they're not being "real" or true enough to what they say they really are.

As the New York Times points out, Jon Huntsman also suffers from an authenticity problem among Republican voters who don't see him as conservative enough for their tastes. For Huntsman, it's a real problem of perception and of not being able to promote an agreeable policy agenda that will appease 2012 GOP voters. Interestingly enough, Huntsman would actually be quite "electable" given a head-to-head match-up with Barack Obama, but without a truly Republican policy agenda, he'll never make it out of the early primary contests with much, if any, partisan support.

With Republican voters so fed up with the current administration, look for electability and even perceptions of authenticity to drive the 2012 primary contests. While a conservative policy agenda will be important to the Republican party faithful, it may take a backseat to the desire to win in November 2012.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dick Cheney = Darth Vader? At least on Jay Leno ...

Last week, Dick Cheney made the rounds promoting his new book, In My Time: A Personal or Political Memoir.

He made a brief appearance on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show, engaging in the art of self-ridicule with his brief appearance in a Darth Vader costume. Here's a brief video clip of costumed Cheney:

As my own research has recently shown, politicians who are willing to engage with political comedy and practice the art of self-directed humor warm the attitudes of voters -- both voters who would normally support and oppose the particular politician or candidate. While Cheney is no longer running for elective office, it is possible that his appearances on programs like The Tonight Show and his willingness to act as a satirist engaged in the practice of political satire might actually encourage more positive feelings toward the former Vice President. Or perhaps he'll just sell some more copies of his memoirs.

A lesson in statistics: Perry's 40% job growth in Texas

Rick Perry, the conservative governor of Texas and contender for the GOP Presidential nomination likes to tout his record as a job creator. In his stump speeches across the country (or just in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina), he likes to emphasize that Texas led the country in job growth since 2009. 

In fact Perry claims that 40% of all the jobs created in the US since 2009 were in Texas. Astonishing statistic, but according to an analysis by, Perry's claim is actually accurate. 
The problem with Perry touting this 40% statistic is that given population growth in Texas and other factors the unemployment rate in Texas has actually increased since June 2009 even if it is still below the national average. According to

"In fact, if we look at the June 2009 starting point that Perry refers to, unemployment got worse in Texas – going from 7.7 percent in June 2009 to 8.4 percent in July 2011. The national rate, meanwhile, improved – dropping from 9.5 percent to 9.1 percent."

Moreover, it's not just the rate of job creation that's important in Texas, it's the quality of the jobs being created. Along with Mississippi, Texas has the highest number of workers earning below the minimum wage and the highest percentage of workers in the US (26%) who lack health insurance.

Paul Osterman, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management offers a compelling analysis of the jobs picture in Texas' Rio Grande Valley in today's NYT. The opinion piece reminds us that it's important to look at what Perry's "40%" really means and the impacts on the community, schools, and health care system. 

All in all, this "40%" label offers a valuable lesson in statistics, especially relevant for me and my students at Towson University as another semester of both undergraduate and graduate research methods gets underway. When looking at a statistic like this 40%, it's important to put things in perspective, to truly understand the full "statistical significance" of the percentages we cite, and to understand whether what's going on in the sample (e.g. Texas) is representative of what might be happening in the true US population. After all, Texas is a unique state that depends on the oil industry in particular to drive growth. 

As Obama prepares for his big jobs speech and the GOP Presidential candidates debate the economy and jobs tomorrow night, it will be important for us to understand the full jobs picture, compiling both statistics and trends that speak to our experience with unique samples like Texas and the larger US population. Moreover, sometimes it's not just about the percentage but what the percentage means and how it impacts other important factors and concerns. All in all, Perry's 40% offers a good lesson in statistics for us all.