Has incisive investigative journalism, sharp-eyed cultural criticism, and engaging news-related interviewing found its most contemporary television voice with John Oliver?
Just about to mark its first-year anniversary, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” version 2.0 of the so-called “fake news” genre popularized by the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert over the past decade, surprised its growing number of viewers on Sunday with an unannounced taped interview with “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history,” Edward Snowden.
And with the interview, Mr. Oliver, with an even more aggressively lewd and profane brand of HBO-permitted humor, once again upped the ante for the liberal-leaning comedy genre. He has transformed traditional satire and news parody into what some are calling some of the most effective civic journalism on television today.
“He’s trying to make abstruse policy relatable in a way that closes the loop for citizens to participate actively in the process,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, N.J. “And he did it in a way that was rigorous, nonsensationalistic, and surprisingly nuanced.”
Indeed, many credited the British-born comedian with changing the national debate over net neutrality last year, introducing “Title II” of the hoary Federal Communications Act to many viewers and causing millions of them to inundate the Federal Communications Commission with pro-net neutrality comments. The agency eventually decided to regulate the Internet as a utility – under said “Title II” – a move few ever thought politically feasible.
It’s been nearly two years since Mr. Snowden, the exiled former National Security Agency contractor now living in Russia, infamously leaked top-secret government documents, exposing the stunning scope of the American government’s massive domestic surveillance operations, authorized by the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act in 2001. He faces espionage charges in the United States.
And this time, Oliver has reintroduced “Section 215” of the Patriot Act, the part of the law that has given the federal government a virtual carte blanche to spy on US citizens and is set to expire on June 1.
“Refresh your memory: Section 215, which I’m aware sounds like an eastern European boy band,” Oliver said during Sunday’s telecast. Then, with a Slavic-tinged accent: “ ‘We are Section 215; prepare to have your hearts throbbed.’ There’s the cute one, the bad boy, the one who strangled a potato farmer, and the one without an iron deficiency. They’re incredible!”
Yet jokes decidedly not aside, Oliver has brought a civic earnestness and unabashed advocacy to the news that his staff researches thoroughly, observers note.
“A lot of people have been critical ... that the younger generation gets its news this way, and that they don’t know the difference between comedy and the news,” says Paul Levinson, media critic and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “But I always thought the criticism itself was nonsense, because whoever was getting their news that way was getting real news.”
“John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden is the perfect example,” he continues. “So, yeah, he throws in Hot Pocket jokes and some other references – obviously, that’s meant to be funny – but that in no way wipes out the real news content.”
Oliver doesn’t simply lampoon what he sees as the absurdities of American journalism – as he did with a clip from MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” when the anchor abruptly cut off a former congresswoman discussing the perils of Section 215 to announce the “breaking news” of the arrest of Justin Bieber – he urges his viewers to get informed.
Citing a Pew study that indicates that nearly half of Americans are not concerned with government surveillance – “which is fine, if that’s an informed opinion, but I’m not sure that it is” – Oliver laments that “the public debate so far has been absolutely pathetic.”
In fact, most of the persons-on-the-street interviewed for this segment had little or no idea who Snowden was or what concerns drove him.
“Here’s the big problem here: If we let Section 215 get renewed in its current form without serious public debate, we’re in trouble, because Section 215 is the canary in the coal mine,” he told his viewers.
In the interview with Snowden, Oliver used the same kind of Swiftian satire and humor he honed as an alum of “The Daily Show” in face-to-face interviews.
“Oliver’s coup de grace, though, was how he got Snowden himself to explain the social consequences of government surveillance, and to explain all of the different aspects of this program, by using the conceit of “[naked] pics.”
Joking about how many Americans text and e-mail lewd pictures of themselves, Oliver asked Snowden if people should be worried about the government sifting through such private photos.
“The good news is there's no program named 'the [naked] pic program,' ” Snowden said. “The bad news is they're still collecting everybody's information – including your [naked] pics.”
“Spies are great when they're on our side, but you can never forget that they are incredibly powerful and incredibly dangerous,” the former CIA technician also cautioned. “And if they're off the leash, they can end up coming after us.”
Will Oliver’s interview with Snowden get his viewers as motivated as they seemed to get after his bit on net neutrality?
“Unfortunately, there’s not a way to gauge his success as easily in this case – e.g. letters to the FCC – as it was with net neutrality,” says Mr. Sinnreich. “It’s not like the NSA is welcoming citizen comments on its policies.”
But the men-on-the-street featured in Oliver's segment did appear to take notice when asked about the prospect of US intelligence agencies repurposing their private(s) pix.