Several readers comment on our praise of Last Week Tonight:
My brother and I have fallen into something of a Monday-morning ritual where we rave about how great John Oliver’s expose-of-the-week had been the night before. Not because the extra 8 minutes have afforded him the equivalent of brutally delivered “long-form comedy-news journalism”, but because Oliver routinely taps into the collective influence of his audience’s Internet fluency toward a sort of “social media civic engagement” we haven’t seen before.
Seemingly without exception, he always gives the audience an opportunity to participate in his issue-of-the-week in surprisingly meaningful ways: send comments to the FCC about net neutrality, donate to other scholarship funds made available to women to supplant Miss America’s status at the top, copy a satirical letter to APSCU lampooning the abuse of student loan subsidies by for-profit colleges.
Where Jon Stewart tends to end his rants with pithy statements that leave us feeling angry but hopeless, John Oliver seems to be going out of his way to channeling that outrage into non-trivial calls for action. Even if his goal is only to dominate the next day’s cable news cycle in replays, it makes the endeavor seem much more traditionally journalistic than The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
Another sends the above video:
I know how you feel about Michael Moore, but he did much the same thing with his show TV Nation.
The most telling was how he hired a lobbyist to get Congress to declare a “TV Nation Day,” with clips of actual congressmen giving speeches about a show they had clearly never seen based on what the lobbyist told them, or rather, the money they got from them.
Unlike you, Andrew, I am very disappointed with John Oliver’s HBO program. While I think it serves a useful public service when it gets the word out on under-reported issues like Net Neutrality, I find it lazy and often insulting. The piece he did on for-profit colleges simply took its talking points and best clips from a superb Frontline documentary, “College, Inc.,” which aired four years ago. The show’s segment on Payday loans included a fake PSA from Sarah Silverman in which she encouraged the poor who use their services to make money by debasing themselves (“People will pay you to pee on them”). I spent many Saturday mornings driving my severely disabled mother to Payday loan stores (people were “so nice there.”). I stood by the door to keep her from getting mugged and paid back her interest for her. To even jokingly suggest that people like her should get the money they need through shitting on strangers (which Silverman also does) reveals how callow and insincere the show toward some of the issues it covers. (Don’t even get me started on the cute gerbil eating a burrito as a reward for hearing about death penalty abuses).
When you single out Jon Stewart’s failings for comparison, you miss the point. For me, the Daily Show’s genius is its investigative pieces, at which John Oliver once excelled. For an understanding of Russian political culture and how it might be capable of state-sponsored homophobia and invasions of its neighbors, look no further than Jason Jones’ Winter Olympics interviews in Moscow with a leadership delighted to spew their hate and aggression on camera to an American audience. Nothing else in the media comes close to getting at their “epistemic closure.” John Oliver needs to use his long-form platform to get back on the road and do what he does best.