My favourite journalist is a man who hates being called a journalist.
“It’s not journalism, it’s comedy—it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second,” The Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver said to The Daily Beast when the show first started out.
In August last year, he and his team devoted an entire segment to talking about journalism, and he made it very clear he felt “stupid shows” like his were mere imposters, weren’t close to the real thing. “Whenever this show is mistakenly called journalism, it’s a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on,” he said.
And he’s right.
He and his team certainly don’t go chasing down political secrets down the corridors of DC, or risk their lives to talk to people in the midst of war. They don’t have to follow source after source down blind alleys to dig out the truth, or stand in knee-deep water to interview a mother who’s lost all her possessions to a flood.
All Oliver and his team do, really, is aggregate the news. They sift through hundreds and thousands of hours of reportage on TV and read through the work of newspapers, local and national and even international, and draw attention to what they think is important.
But here’s why I think we shouldn’t draw a clear line between his show and ‘real’ journalism – and also why I admire him and his team’s work in the show.
For one thing, it informs. It educates. It empowers ordinary people to understand the forces influencing their lives, and it even helps them do something about it, such as when he urged his viewers to let the FCC know they wanted net neutrality. Isn’t that the primary role of journalists?
That he does all this while weaving in jokes about the shape of his own eyebrows or mocking Kanye West or waving around puppies should not take away from the very real impact he has had on the public and on American legislation and regulations, an impact that has even led to the coining of the phrase, “the John Oliver effect”.
What’s more, the line separating his show from journalism is becoming blurrier with time, as his team delves deeper and deeper into their chosen stories, and begins to investigate their issues and find their own sources. They have placed phone calls and burrowed through piles and piles of documents and tax records to dig out the truth about how much the Miss America pageant really contributes. They have conducted vox pops, carried out a long correspondence with televangelists and set up their own church to probe how they exploit the vulnerable, and placed ads in Fox News to educate President Donald Trump. They spoke to and brought in a gay rights activist from Uganda to talk about American influence on that country, another man who served time in prison and now lives a life with dignity to talk about the rehabilitation of prisoners, and an Iraqi translator to talk about how the US is making it difficult for translators to seek asylum even though they risked their life for the country.
Most remarkably of all, John Oliver travelled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden about government surveillance, and to India to speak to the Dalai Lama, who told him about problems and dilemmas he faced that no one else has covered yet.
Each of these interviews was incredibly difficult to get but very very important to inform the American public. That’s an awful lot of journalistic work for a team that supposedly isn’t doing journalism.
If what John Oliver is doing isn’t real journalism, then perhaps there’s a thing or two that real journalists have to learn from him. In my opinion, American journalism is a little too narrow in its perspective, a little too absorbed in America itself to care about the outside world. And this is bad, because not only does the US have tremendous impact on the rest of the world, but the rest of the world impacts it too. Moroever, there are lessons to be learnt in the issues and problems of other societies. At a time when almost no news outlet in the US paid heed to the Indian general elections in 2015, the largest exercise of democracy in the world, Oliver devoted his very first episode to it. He’s also covered the issue of Brexit, the refugee crisis sweeping Europe and the FIFA scandal – all issues that greatly influence the rest of the world even if they haven’t been the focus of American journalism.
Is it objective? Of course not. But perhaps now more than ever, American journalists need to recognise that true objectivity is impossible, and attempts to achieve it end up benefiting the wrong side. Perhaps now is the time to understand that journalists need to call politicians out and say they’re wrong when they are, whether it be through fact-checking and exposing their lies in headlines, or calling Trump a racist grandpa in a comedy show episode.
Oliver himself addressed the absurdity of unnecessarily ‘objective’ coverage in his episode about climate change, in which he pointed out that the media were doing the public a disservice by using one voice for and one voice against the issue (“Bill Nye the Science Guy and some dude” is how he described it) in their coverage of the issue, because the truth is that there is a huge imbalance in the number of scientists who believed in climate change and the number who don’t – 97% to 3%, he pointed out. To illustrate this, he actually brought in 97 climate scientists to his show and made them stand on one side, and three climate deniers on the other side – a true and vivid representation of the ratio of scientists who believe in climate change to those who don’t. It’s a visual that’s been burned into my mind’s eye since I saw it, and I’m sure into those of others watching, and no one who saw that episode would ever again be fooled by a ‘real’ news article’s ‘objective’ coverage of climate science again.
And that’s the part about John Oliver and his show that I think makes him stand out. By rejecting the label of ‘journalism’, Oliver can do more than ‘real’ journalists do and communicate issues in unconventional ways, such as filling his room with people in lab coats, or breaking down government surveillance by making Edward Snowden explain it in terms of ‘dick pics’. And by not calling his show a news program, he can touch upon issues that aren’t necessarily newsworthy at that moment, or that haven’t changed very recently, but that deserve in-depth attention anyway. It’s the secret of every Shakespearean jester. The less seriously they take you, the more rein you have to subvert power and tradition.
And because the show prioritises the audience’s enjoyment, because it simplifies issues and explains them in terms of easily relatable jokes, without letting go of complexity and context, people across the world tune in week after week in between their favorite movies and shows and Youtube prank videos and pay attention the way they never would to ‘real’ news shows.
In his own goofy, irreverent way, John Oliver is upending journalism.
(Credit for photos: hbo.com)