Press Box

Democracy for Dummies

How Oprah and other infotainment programs encourage the mentally tardy to vote.

Oprah Winfrey

As a Slate reader, you probably also partake of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, or the Washington Post from time to time. I’d guess that your interest in politics and public policy leads you to consume editorials and columns in your local newspaper and supplement your news consumption with a few political magazines—the New Republic or the Weekly Standard, perhaps. You might even tune in the Sunday morning shows and a couple of the televised presidential debates.

For your labors, UCLA scholars Matthew A. Baum and Angela S. Jamison would type you a politically aware individual, as opposed to, say, your politically unaware sister-in-law who learned everything she knew about the 2004 presidential candidates by watching George W. Bush on Live With Regis and Kelly and John Kerry on The Late Show With David Letterman.

But Baum and Jamison aren’t here to bust your sister-in-law’s chops for scraping her civics lessons out of the infotainment bucket. Their new paper, “The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently,” which appears in the November issue of the Journal of Politics, refutes the notion that soft news on talk shows dumbs down the political discussion. Using a data set from the 2000 presidential election, they determined that soft news helps the politically inattentive vote “consistently,” i.e. for candidates who best represent their interests, compared with similar citizens who don’t watch soft news. The soft-news viewer doesn’t even need to know the candidates’ policy positions, just riff off their “likeability” factors before voting.

The political value of soft news isn’t lost on candidates. As Baum and Jamison write, Bush and Kerry appeared on Dr. Phil, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Live With Regis and Kelly, and The Late Show With David Lettermanin 2004. Sen. John McCain appeared on The Viewto campaign for Bush. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent appearance on Leno’s show prompted Phil Angelides, his opponent for the governorship of California, to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission demanding equal time on the show under federal law. (The FCC said no because news, interview, and documentary programs don’t fall under the equal time rule if the candidate is not the show’s sole focus.)

Baum and Jamison’s findings are certain to horrify civics teachers and good-government preachers, who would have voters study the ballot, the issues, and the candidates with the rigor of a law school graduate preparing to take the bar. Yet some scholars the pair quotes believe that “information shortcuts” allow typical citizens to “act as competent democratic citizens—at least with respect to voting—even if the political information is imperfect and they consume it in small quantities.”

Although the consumption of hard news increases the likelihood of voting consistently, the authors hold, soft news is a “cost effective” way for the apolitical to garner political information. Some citizens may be better off watching Oprah than Meet the Press because they won’t really comprehend the harder news variety.

This paper delivers a delightful kick in the pants to all those political journalists who have only recently wrapped their heads around the cliché that young people get their news from The Daily Show. A certain class of political reporter could tolerate the notion that “youth” found greater relevance in Jon Stewart’s sardonic treatment of events than their learned dispatches from the front, as long as nobody maintained the kids derived any utility from their viewing. The press release touting Baum and Jamison’s paper notes that Barack Obama told Oprah Winfrey during a recent appearance on her show that if he runs for president he’ll announce on her couch.

Somewhere, David S. Broder is weeping.


I make all my political decisions after consulting my way to the bottom of a bottle. You? Send e-mail to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co.)


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