Last Week Tonight With John Oliver: Changing Journalism For The Better

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Satirical news isn’t a new platform – from SNL’s Weekend Update to The Onion, making fun of current events is a time-old tradition. News plays an important role in American culture, so it makes sense that satirizing the news would play an integral role as well. And yet the news ain’t what it used to be. American families aren’t sitting down with Edward Murrow or Walter Cronkite. Broadcast news organizations have become bland productions built on over-the-top punditry, while even respected networks of a decade like CNN rely on sensationalism to get viewers. Given the void of reliable sources in today’s journalism, it’s no wonder people are seeking out satirical comedic news shows to obtain their news.

HBO hopes to fill that void with John Oliver of The Daily Show fame. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is pretty much The Daily Show if it didn’t have to worry about pesky commercials and restrictions on foul language. However, Last Week Tonight has its own impediment: it only airs weekly, so it can’t cover stories as soon as they happen. To compensate, Last Week Tonight has built its entire concept around long-form reports.

In a news cycle dominated by the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine and a downed commercial airliner in Ukraine, John Oliver reported on prisons. Critics could claim that he is covering topics with less newsworthiness, the idea that a subject must have sufficient relevance to the public to warrant special attention or coverage. In reality, what Oliver is doing is redefining newsworthiness – a subject isn’t worthy of coverage because it just happened, it is worthy because it is important to human understanding. Addressing issues that have been pushed to the backburner is newsworthy, and they should be brought to the public’s knowledge. Oliver has even remarked, “If something happens on a Monday, realistically all the meat is going to be picked off that bone by the time it gets to us – there’s probably barely a point in doing it… I think we’ll be attracted to some extent by stories that are off the grid.” The show has found a new niche in presenting in-depth, well-researched pieces on topics not usually covered on Fox News, NBC Nightly News, or even The Daily Show.

Every week on Last Week Tonight, Oliver features a long-form television essay on a topic plaguing America. He has covered net neutrality, nuclear weapons, and even the FIFA World Cup. The show takes topics that are usually covered in a benign or boring way and makes them interesting by adding comedic elements. Last Week Tonight can do things most news shows and satirical shows cannot, as John Oliver and his writers have complete creative control over the content they present. Because the show is on HBO, they don’t have to worry about advertisers pulling out because a particular topic was addressed. The only thing HBO has to worry about is people subscribing to HBO. However, HBO doesn’t prevent  the incredibly popular Last Week Tonight With John Oliver YouTube channel, which has over a half a million subscribers, with the videos ranging from 200,000 views for their short-form pieces to almost a million views per video for their long-form pieces.

One recent episode covered native advertising, a topic most news programs would be loath to address. Native advertising is when a news program presents a story sponsored by a company or corporation that looks consistent with the overall media presentation. The format can be  pretty conspicuous (e.g., this example on Buzzfeed), but native advertising is starting to appear on more respected media sites as well. The topic of native advertising shows where Last Week Tonight has a further advantage: The Daily Show on Comedy Central, for example, might have a harder time presenting an objective story. Comedy Central needs advertising dollars to make money, and insulting advertisers is not the best way to keep them. The lack of reliance on advertisers allows John Oliver to cover native advertising more fairly. In his segment, he frankly discusses the ways in which native advertising could open the door for journalistic abuse. For example, what is to stop an oil company from sponsoring content about energy or Lockheed Martin sponsoring content about Russia? Oliver’s creative control gives him the freedom to go after corporations, and with that comes one of the best presentations on native advertising’s effect on journalism:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the satire we need. When journalists only cover “newsworthy” issues, we as society forget why those issues are important. If the only time we hear about gun control or mental health is after a school shooting, then the issues become partisan topics instead of public safety issues. When we only discuss violence in the Middle East in the wake of a crisis, then these dilemmas are removed from their historical context. When we allow journalism to be influenced by advertising and corporations, we knowingly ignore important topics because it may hurt the bottom line of a news organization. Muckraking journalism is an important part of American history; bringing it back is integral to the survival of journalism. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver can be that revival.