Lecture explores politicians and late night talk shows

Michael Parkin, associate professor of politics at Oberlin College, gave a lecture on March 21 about politicians’ interviews, titled “More Than Entertainment: Candidate Appearances on Late Night Talk Shows.”

Parkin presented his research on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to about 60 students. He analyzed the content of political interviews on these shows relative to the categories of policy, personal, campaign and other. Parkin said he found that “these appearances are a lot more than entertainment.”

Parkin transcribed 84 interviews from 1992 through 2008 and found that there were, on average, three mentions of policy per paragraph in the coded interviews. From this information, Parkin studied the possible factors that would cause the number of mentions to fluctuate. He looked at the effect of the host, the time the interview took place during the campaign and the tier of the candidate being interviewed.

Though there were some variations between the amount of policy, personal and campaign matters that were discussed in each interview, Parkin said he found that after putting his data through a regression model, overall the host did not have much of an effect on the difference in policy content.

Parkin said he also found that more policy was discussed later in campaigns, and third-tier candidates tended to talk the most about policy. He said this is “a little bit troubling in terms of a democratic perspective,” because third-tier candidates are not the people likely to be elected.

Studying how the content of the interviews he reviewed affected candidates’ popularity, Parkin looked at interviews with Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama, and rated them as either personal interviews, policy-driven interviews or a mixture of both.

Parkin said he found that people were less likely to vote for a candidate after a very personal interview. He said it is best for candidates to use these interviews to “talk about issues in an entertaining context,” but noted that some candidates are better at this than others. 

According to Parkin, political issues presented in an entertaining fashion are good for the shows’ viewers as well.

“I think there is some sort of political value of getting people who might otherwise not be so interested in politics actually interested through this medium,” he said. “It doesn’t just get them interested in a superficial way; it gets them actually interested because they hear about real policies.”

After the presentation, students asked questions and brought up some of their own ideas.

“You could really tell that [Parkin] did his research and that he knew what he was talking about,” said freshman Cassandra Nicol.