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Why “Last Week Tonight” is the new champion of sanity in fake news

(HBO)

(HBO)

As Jon Stewart prepares to vacate his exalted role as our voice of sanity later this year, we need a fake anchor with the surgical wit to ease the burden of America’s twisted 24-hour news cycle. Luckily, we don’t have to search far for the protégé. He’s John Oliver, a former correspondent on Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and current host of “Last Week Tonight.”

Oliver, who was consistently one of the funniest correspondents on “The Daily Show,” quickly fashioned a novel format for his own HBO comedy-news program, which debuted last April. Rather than a standard rundown of the daily news, “Last Week Tonight” airs only once a week, briefly quips about a few headlines and then highlights a main story for the week. The bulk of each episode delves remarkably deep into its main story.

This style adorns “Last Week Tonight” in a slyly informative guise; barring the incisive one-liners, Oliver’s program often slips into genuine reporting, rather than lingering in mere satire. Bolstered by the host’s blunt delivery, the main story tackles all sides of an issue, from unpaid NCAA athletes to the IRS, and reaches far beyond any other news program’s coverage. Not even CNN and its incessant, hyperbolic reporting can shake loose the facts that Oliver does in only half an hour.

In addition to the show’s depth of coverage, its variety of topics enthralls. Oliver and his team focus on overlooked issues that slip through the cracks of the national discourse. Two of his most fascinating and troubling features focused on the continued oppression of citizens in American territories like Guam, and the judiciary’s rigged electoral process.

The case in the American territories discusses the dehumanizing system implemented to deny American citizens in these periphery spaces their rights as part of the country, like voting and veterans’ benefits. Based upon a court decision from Justice Henry Billings Brown, who made infamous the doctrine of separate but equal in “Plessy v. Ferguson,” the rejection of territories has continued under President Barack Obama. Although the doctrine is horribly outdated and racist, the Obama administration has justified the continued denial of rights based upon the “alien races” within these territories and their lack of understanding of basic Anglo-Saxon principles, arguments that originated in the 1901 Insular Cases.

Oliver’s coverage of the judiciary electoral process similarly outlines a rarely discussed flaw in the American institution. Using campaign clips from judiciary elections, Oliver proves our legal system faces the same post-“Citizens United” nightmare that plagues congressional campaigns. What’s worse, the seemingly impartial judiciary can be beholden to the wealthy donors who put them in charge of the courtroom.

Despite the quasi-journalistic delivery of “Last Week Tonight,” it remains a fake news program like its “Daily Show” counterpart. Even at its most objective, the HBO show is too subjective to be called classic journalism. At points, frustration and incredulity sharpen Oliver’s inflection. But neither Oliver nor Stewart before him ever claimed to be a true anchor. It was the American audience who dubbed them the official voice of news; recently, “The Daily Show” topped MSNBC as a trusted outlet. Furthermore, The New Yorks Times even suggested Stewart had become “the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow.”

That should serve as a chilling indictment of the actual news rather than as a critique of the fake news. With Oliver’s influence expanding, his legacy won’t be far behind Stewart’s. One of his funnier bits, Jeff the Diseased Lung, took aim at the tobacco industry; landed on cigarette packs throughout Australia and on billboards throughout Uruguay; and delivered t-shirts to Togo. The power to spark a movement like Jeff the Diseased Lung isn’t shared by Oliver’s contemporaries.

Two weeks ago, Oliver traveled to Moscow to interview Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor, famous for turning over classified government documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill and Barton Gellman. Oliver himself pointed out that although CNN, MSNBC and Fox frequently discuss Snowden and the debate on spying, none of them have established an interview with the man who catalyzed the discussion. Effectively, their reporting was conjecture. Conversely, Oliver’s interview, despite breaking convention through swearing and satire, engaged directly with the primary source of the issue rather than commenting on the debate from the sidelines.

The Snowden interview was a sobering moment. If only the fake news anchors choose to land integral interviews while the real news chases high speed pursuits and celebrity trials, where do we draw the line between intentional satire with an informative spin and distinguished broadcasting hampered by disastrous balderdash?

Until the corporate news networks set aside their sensationalized punditry, they’ll continue to reinforce the perception of Oliver as a veritable source of news – especially among millenials – but given the splendid job Oliver has done, that seems like little punishment. His brisk one-liners (“Voting rights in this country, much like John Travolta’s hair, are still very much a work in progress”) and investigative prowess whip a perfect cocktail of comedy and news.

Alexander Frail can be reached at afrail@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @AlexanderFrail.

Comments
2 Responses to “Why “Last Week Tonight” is the new champion of sanity in fake news”
  1. Rob says:

    It’s scary that such a large number of people get their “News” from someone as biased as Jon Stewart. It may be entertaining, but it’s in no way journalism.

  2. Zac Bears says:

    Less biased than the 30% of Americans who think FOX is news.

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