Is John Oliver A Journalist?

I have to agree with Asawin Suebsaeng: of course he is.

On some critical public issues – take the scourge of “native advertising” – he has done more to bring the question to light than any other media source (I try but the Dish doesn’t have the mega-reach of a “comedy” show on HBO). That story was almost quintessentially journalism: it took on established interests – the whoring media industry – and called them out on it. It shamed the New York Times for their “re-purposed bovine waste”. That it did so with humor and wit and jokes is neither here nor there. Great journalism should be entertaining. It doesn’t all have to be vegetables. Was Mark Twain merely a humorist? Is Michael Lewis not our finest contemporary non-fiction writer?

Jon Stewart comes close – but the one frustrating aspect of his show is his meek interviewing. It’s as if once he has to enter a more conventional interactive piece of journalism, he panics and turns it into light comedic banter. Or he recoils when he needs to put the boot in – and apologizes for being too mean. Colbert pulls it all off through irony – he plays a fake journalist, but nonetheless exposes real truths and real phonies. But Oliver has taken all this a step further. His extra eight minutes give him a chance for relatively long-form investigative journalism – such as the wonderful bit on the Miss America pageant and its bullshit claim that it grants fellowships to far more women than it does. Yes, it’s funny; yes, it ended with a live comedy skit with Oliver as a losing pageant contestant. But its methods – tracking down massive amounts of documents to prove that Miss America is full of it – were classically journalistic.

And Oliver has a position each time: sponsored content is a massive scam betraying every ethical principle of journalism; the Miss America pageant is an utterly preposterous dinosaur engaged in comedic attempts to cover up its fathomless sexism. It’s opinion journalism at its entertaining best. The closest to it is arguably Real Time with Bill Maher – a comedy show that contains a serious broadcast about current events and ideas.

My own view is that Americans seem unlikely to tune into a weekly, lively show about the week’s events or news – of the kind you get in Britain. They want to be entertained – especially if the show is about the news. But what the brilliance of Maher and Oliver suggests is that there might be room for shows not unlike theirs’ but with less of an escape clause to claim it’s all jokes, never mind, move on … Why not a show that does what Oliver does but a few inches closer to opinionated and witty journalism? A show in which the punchlines are not always jokes but also key arguments to shift the public debate? I suspect Oliver and Maher and Colbert and Stewart have opened a door. Who will go through it?