Challenging Journalistic Norms on Political Satires

By Angela Hart

On June 21, 2015, John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” introduced his main story for the evening, The Internet. “It’s an incredible place where you can see things like glamour shots of cats, angora show bunnies, or this rare heartbreaking footage of this World War One soldier returning home to his pregnant wife.” “Last Week Tonight” then played the music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. Oliver followed up this surprise by saying, “You idiots. I got you so good. I got you so good.” Rather than dive into this joke, Oliver proceeded to show an AOL tutorial for the Internet from the 1990s. He simply included this segment and moved on.

Then, after discussing the issues of revenge porn and harassment online, Oliver introduced the future plans for the “Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2015.” He cited an introduction about a figure discussing the act saying, “We’ve attained an exclusive video of one representative’s genuinely moving speech about balancing First Amendment rights and protecting victims.” Oliver showed “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley again. After playing a few seconds of the clip, Oliver said, “I got you again. You are a bunch of idiots and I’m the king of pranks.”

Why do viewers assume that an introduction is going to yield a clip? Audience members have become accustomed to a certain format. Oliver has the power to surprise people by deviating from the expected due to the fake news format of the program. Considering “Last Week Tonight” is a satire and not a regular news program, the production team can make these changes. Oliver can include jokes such as this insertion of “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Additionally, it is worth analyzing the two introductions Oliver made. Firstly, during World War One, the country had more rudimentary technology than available to all citizens. Capturing a soldier returning home would have required a professional photographer or videographer to be nearby. Secondly, why World War One? Why didn’t Oliver cite the Iraq War or War in Afghanistan, the two most recent ones? The Vietnam War would have also been an option. During Oliver’s segment, his introduction was seamless. He said it with a serious expression and delivered the lines in a sympathetic tone. As a viewer, it would be difficult to not believe him.

Similarly, when Oliver addressed a fictitious video of a representative discussing the First Amendment rights and protecting victims, the viewers would be inclined to believe him. Thinking about this introduction in a more analytical fashion, one would need to ask: Which representative said this? Was this an official statement? When did he or she say this? Has the proposed bill gone to Congress? When will this go before the Senate? And more.

Due to Jon Stewart leaving “The Daily Show” early in August, the program has started to pay homage to his career. One clip showed Jon Stewart openly admitting that he did not read a book or watch a movie from the guest for the evening. When interviewing an author or an actor, journalists tend to compliment their latest project and mention some specific element of the book or film. Stewart, on the other hand, will respond to the guest’s question of, “Have you read it?” or “Have you seen it?” with a “No. I have not.”

Since Stewart helps write, produce, and host “The Daily Show,” and has a family and outside obligations, he probably does not have time to read every book or see every movie, just like a lot of reporters. Why do people assume that a host reads the book? Why do people believe a host needs to see the film? There are numerous people involved with creating a show and therefore plenty of employees available to delegate or share duties. It is likely that many reporters have not actually read a book in its entirety or spent a night at a local movie theater in preparation for their interview.

In this way, Stewart is being straightforward in his approach, allowing the guest to speak about their book or film plainly. This, in turn, allows the author or actor to explain the premise of the book or film in an easy to understand manner, since they are the only knowledgeable person around. The viewing audience would not have seen a movie premiering that weekend or read a book that was just released that day. By not acting as a wealth of information on the subject matter, Stewart is allowing the guest to express the story or theme, which is different than a typical interview where the reporter will ask questions, some of which are leading, and the guest responds in a sound bite.

Satires do not need to adhere to the same journalistic norm as regular news shows, being fake news programs. By making jokes via a false introduction or a host’s lack of knowledge, they make viewers laugh while at the same time drawing the audience’s attention to these areas. This is similar to an expose or media watchdog role. Satires are demonstrating areas that are glossed over by other organizations and shows. Expectations from official news programs have left viewers believing certain things that may not be true or not believing them, and becoming disenchanted because of the deception. Introductions can be inaccurate, hosts can be ill-informed, and information can be subject to errors.