Honoring the Impact of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight
Jana Lynn French - 3/14/2016
John Oliver is no journalist — at least, not in the classic sense of the word.
He revels in his own lack of authority, telling Jorge Ramos that he considers himself a comedian, not a journalist. When commenting on the amount of respect he has compared to traditional journalists, Oliver said, “That is more an insult to the current state of journalism than it is a compliment for the state of comedy.”
However, much of the show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver consists of journalism that has been repurposed to stand out into our world of information overload. He describes complex issues in a digestible way for audiences. His key to making underreported stories relevant is comedy: specifically, satire. As the board said, “[Satire] encourages us to come together — first to ridicule politics’ failings, then hopefully to overcome them — and it’s deeply funny while doing so.”
Last Week Tonight’s coverage provides a stark contrast to big network news. Oliver digs into data to prove and disprove claims, helping his audience know the truth about major people and organizations. He pulled all of tax records for each state’s Miss America organization to explore their claim that they provided the largest academic scholarships to women. After establishing that they, indeed, were the largest provider of academic scholarships to women, he went on to popularize other scholarship funds: Society of Women Engineers, the Patsy Mink Foundation, and Jeanette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, urging his viewers to donate to those organization.
One of the biggest differences between Last Week Tonight and traditional news shows is that Oliver doesn’t try to hide his opinion and biases, but he can put them front and center then back them up with his own coverage. Oliver also doesn’t let the audience come to their own conclusions about how to act on the news, he specifically tells them how to take a stand on topics like the NSA.
In the middle of interviewing Edward Snowden, Oliver stops him from talking about the information that was leaked, claiming Snowden’s delivery was like when the IT guy walks into your office. Instead, Oliver asks Snowden which departments of the NSA can see people’s nude photos. This, as Oliver proved with ‘man on the street’ video footage, was really what Americans cared about as far as virtual privacy is concerned. With that simple shift in conversation, Oliver summed up the National Surveillance Issue and explained to the audience why they should care about the bigger picture.
As Charlie Rose points out in presenting Oliver with his Peabody, Oliver has hired a whole team of some of the best journalists in the industry. Oliver himself touts the fact that he has “very aggressive fact checkers” behind him in his interview with Jorge Ramos. So while Oliver may feel more like a comedian, his show is certainly one with journalistic merit. He keeps his viewers engaging with issues in a way that has sparked public policy discussions around concerns where traditional journalism has been unable to capture audience interest.