John Oliver: Journalist of the year

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

The best journalist in America in 2014 isn’t American and isn’t a journalist.

He intends to change only one of those things.

“I would like to get into a situation where I’m not suffering taxation without representation, which I’m suffering right now,” British comedian John Oliver told ABC’s “This Week.”

As for the journalist part, Oliver insisted on PBS’s “News Hour” that the title is misapplied.

“I have no moral authority. I’m a comedian.”

Given his latest performances on television though, one is left to wonder otherwise.

The British expatriate and Cambridge University graduate settled in this country upon joining the staff of Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2006. Between assignments, Oliver continued to do stand-up routines and podcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, each refining a style of wit reminiscent of Monty Python. He obtained a Green Card in 2009 and considers himself a permanent U.S. resident.

Then in the summer of 2013, Oliver sat in the “Daily Show” host’s chair for eight weeks while Stewart was off directing the movie “Rosewater” and in that time Oliver displayed a formidable enough stage command to establish himself as Stewart’s likely successor. But before the notion could percolate longer, HBO plucked him out of Stewart’s stable to host the premium channel’s brand new Daily Show-esque enterprise.

What followed was a masterful mix of humor and social commentary that major news media should watch carefully — and learn from.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” does indeed borrow from the “Daily Show” style of squeezing satire out of social and political events and blowing them up to absurd, sometimes mocku-mental proportions. But where the 30-minute “Last Week Tonight” truly distinguishes itself is in the show’s feature pieces, which can last half the program. Among the notable long-form bits in the show’s first 25-episode season were an analysis of Miss America scholarship claims, a look at chronic corruption by World Cup organizer FIFA, and a breakdown of the hypocrisy endemic in the American lottery system.

Oliver does not just parse words. His staff includes former magazine researchers as well as comedy writers who sift for truth as much for laughs. Oliver and his crew understand that a little bit of bizarre behavior floats on the surface of authority and that by shining a light on it we can peer down into, and be less intimidated by, the darkness beneath.

“Last Week Tonight” even displays key information over Oliver’s right shoulder on the screen, noting also the source and publication date. Not even network newscasts do that.

“It is reporting in no sense. But there is a lot of research,” Oliver says. “If a joke is built on sand, it just doesn’t work. … It’s very, very important to us that we are solid.”

This commitment has enabled Oliver to navigate stridently dense, solemn topics such as America’s wealth gap, civil forfeiture, and student debt — topics journalists have reported on many times but with a predilection for the somber seriousness of suffering by which most events are judged newsworthy.

“There is something about playing with toys that are that difficult which become more satisfying to break by the end of our week’s process,” Oliver says.

Not just break — shatter, really. “Last Week Tonight” garnered 1.1 million viewers on Sunday nights. Across all platforms including DVR and on-demand showings, overall weekly viewership topped 4 million. But on YouTube, where “Last Week Tonight” continues to show its vigor months after signing off until February, a feature broadcast in July on the wealth gap has been viewed since then nearly 6 million times. The piece on civil forfeiture has more than 4 million views. The piece on student debt has 3.6 million.

A feature on the typically arcane subject of national elections in India has garnered 2.5 million YouTube views. (HBO releases each segment separately onto YouTube after their initial broadcast).

“It didn’t make any sense to me that the largest exercise in democracy in the history of humanity was not interesting enough for (the major news media) to cover,” Oliver says of the India feature. India has 1.2 billion people; the United States, 320 million.

Even Oliver’s exposition on events in Ferguson, Mo., in a piece mixed with equal parts humor and outrage just one week after Michael Brown’s shooting now has more than 5.5 million views. That number has grown by about 10,000 weekly. Meanwhile, Oliver’s most talked-about feature, the one about net neutrality that was blamed for crashing the Federal Communications Commission’s website, is cruising toward 9 million viewers.

All these numbers constitute a larger audience share per feature than the major news networks can muster per night.

What Oliver and “Last Week Tonight” have managed to do is find a way to engage viewers and keep them engaged on complex, contemporary issues long after the initial broadcast while managing to be informative, a puzzle that network news and newspapers still struggle to accomplish two decades into the digital era.

Journalism in its most basic form is the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information related to a particular audience. By that simplistic definition, Oliver qualifies as a journalist.

“I think that becomes more of a sad commentary on news than it does on us” as comedians, Oliver says. “The only responsibility as a comedian is that I have to make people laugh. If I don’t do that — and I am sure that I often don’t — I have failed.”

But in making people laugh, Oliver goes to journalistically admirable lengths to do it. In the feature on Miss America scholarship funding, which the nonprofit Miss America Foundation claimed was $45 million annually, the “Last Week Tonight” staff spent days sifting through 990 tax forms on nonprofit spending from 33 states right up until broadcast to try verifying that number. The amount turned out to be unjustifiable, but “Last Week Tonight” nevertheless discovered that the Miss America Foundation is indeed the largest provider of scholarships that are just for women — which news media then reported.

“I just want it to be funny,” Oliver says, describing the course he and “Last Week Tonight” have charted. “That is the key responsibility that you have to hold yourself to as a comedian. If you’re not making people laugh, what exactly are you doing?”

This is not to say America’s daily news needs a thick layer of humor to help it glide along, or that professional journalists are less capable of engaging audiences than Oliver & Co. But if an expat Brit can reach more people on tough topics than the major news media and incorporate impressive feats of news gathering and accountability while doing it, then the “journalist” label will stick to Oliver no matter how hard he tries to shake it off, and major news media will be compelled to watch him try.

So, Oliver’s success and that of “Last Week Tonight” raises the question: If the major news media have a responsibility of informing and enlightening the public and still struggle at it, what exactly are they doing?

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