Investigative Journalism on Last Week Tonight

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By Angela Hart

On Sunday, June 15, 2015, John Oliver addressed Putin’s plans for Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Canadian Senate, and torture tactics America conducted after 9/11. When discussing Putin’s potential summer invasion of Ukraine, Oliver said, “Here is why that won’t happen,” before showing a clip of Putin’s lack of punctuality. During the week, Putin was meant to meet with the Pope, but was late to the event by over an hour. Oliver was able to draw a humorous connection between the events to illustrate his point. Apparently, Vladimir Putin has a history of not being timely keeping the Queen of England waiting forty minutes and John Kerry waiting nearly three hours.

Even fun insights, such as the name of the music used by FIFA’S former president, Jack Warner, during his online speech depict that Oliver and his team go the extra mile. For instance, when one types “epic and dramatic music” into Google, Ash by The Secession is the first result that pops up. This was the song that Jack Warner chose to use in his video, which made for an interesting point of reference for the audience. This simple joke draws one’s attention to the imagery and motivation of the video as well the character of Jack Warner.

The main segment of the June 15th program was dedicated to analyzing the torture tactics. After being introduced in a comedic manner, joking about how torture happens to Mel Gibson in all of his movies, Oliver proceeded to address the real issues.

Why are we talking about this now? Didn’t we pass a law banning all those interrogation tactics? Well, it turns out, no we didn’t. We checked and the only restrictions put in place were by an executive order President Obama signed in 2009 requiring interrogations to follow the army field manual and that’s it. And executive orders can be instantly overturned as soon as a president leaves office.

Oliver read the entire published report as well as advertised Helen Mirren’s audiobook of the report, which was done per the show’s request. Not only does this encourage citizens to read the book, but also allows them the option to listen to a recording instead. 

Oliver proceeded to use the show 24 to demonstrate that people have the mistaken belief that torture works in real life due to the depictions. He said, “Torture works on 24, and in movies, because it has to, it is a dramatic divide to move the plot along…It is a movie trope that has no basis in real life. By Oliver stating this, he is being analytical and critical of not only the media, but cultural norms, something that demonstrates intelligence and an in-depth understanding of society.

In regards to President Obama’s current executive order, Oliver and his team reached out to the current fourteen presidential candidates and asked them if they would uphold the current ban. Only four of the candidates, Chafee, Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley, would keep it in place. The other ten candidates either did not respond or gave nonchalant answers. As Oliver points out, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Questions and issues, such as this, should be among the topics candidates should vocalize their stances on.

But, this type of reporting and knowledge has been going on since the show’s conception. On Sunday, September 21, 2014, John Oliver addressed the NFL Press Conference, Cuban Trade Embargo, and the Miss America pageant during his show, Last Week Tonight, on HBO. Clearly, the program addresses a wide range of subjects, and the manner in which they are delivered is entertaining, but the research and time spent on the stories makes Last Week Tonight a true news show. While many people associate investigative journalism with Exposé, Last Week Tonight may be shattering preconceived notions about the manner in which news needs to be portrayed. Although the show is categorized as a comedy and political satire, the reporting is excellent.

Oliver’s team consists of writers from The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica.[1] His staff is composed of more than comedians writing jokes and punchlines. It is important to note that the program airs on HBO making it commercial free. Oliver is able to spend a significant amount of time discussing and analyzing stories. Most of the stories range between ten to fifteen minutes in length, but can be as long as twenty or so minutes depending on the nature of the program. One story that was twenty minutes in length was Oliver’s take on Uganda’s gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens. This is different than other political satires, which tend to have shorter segments. Oliver takes the time to introduce a subject before diving into the important facts of the story.

Last Week Tonight fulfills all of the necessary elements of investigative journalism, “An original, proactive process that digs deeply into an issue or topic of public interest, producing new information or putting known information together to produce new insights, multi-sourced, using more resources and demanding team-work and time, revealing secrets or uncovering issues surrounded by silence, and looking beyond individuals at fault to the systems and processes that allow abuses to happen.[2]” Although the facts and stories Oliver relays are not always ground breaking or original, such as the death penalty, he brings them into the public eye educating people on issues they may not hear or read about otherwise.

Pointing out the fact that only America, Israel, and, at least for a time, Palau, were the only ones involved with the ban on Cuba, Oliver shed light on an important political issue. The Cuban Embargo was put into effect in 1962 by President Kennedy and has been renewed every year since. Considering the fact that only Spanish-speaking networks aired the renewing of the embargo is a shame in itself; “President Obama has extended the commercial embargo against Cuba for one more year, according to officials from the White House, renewing the law prohibiting American companies from doing business with the island.[3]” American news organizations overlooked this important story. John Oliver, on the other hand, took the time to inform the American public, which no other network or program did.

According to the 2014 Freedom Rating scores, Cuba scored the same as China and .5 below Saudi Arabia. Oliver and his team were able to find pertinent statistics in regards to the story they were educating the public about. Before finishing his segment on why the embargo on Cuba should be lifted, Oliver played a video of President Obama from 2004 saying, “I think it is time for us to end the embargo in Cuba…The Cuban embargo has failed to provide the sorts of rising standards of living and has squeezed the innocents in Cuba.[4]” Combining useful statistics from reliable sources, historical facts, and a video of President Obama, provides validity to the segment, making it persuasive and informative.

Similarly, Oliver’s take on the Miss America pageant was just as enlightening. One aspect of the Miss America pageant that Oliver pointed out right away as unfair is the question and answer portion of the program. Contestants are asked extremely intricate and detail orientated questions, while only being given twenty seconds to respond. By introducing the Miss America pageant in a rather fun and light-hearted approach, Oliver was then able to dive more deeply into the event and organization.  

Investigative journalism involves analyzing facts that may seem out of the norm in regards to their contribution to the general public. John Oliver heard one of the hosts during the Miss America pageant claim to award forty-five million dollars in scholarship money causing him to become curious. Oliver said, “Forty-five million dollars is an unbelievable number, as in I literally didn’t believe that. It is the kind of number that can get stuck in your head and rattle around for days driving you crazy.[5]” Forty-five million dollars is a lot of money to award on a regular basis so Oliver and his team took quite a few steps to try and find the large sum stated. Oliver proceeded to go on the Miss America official website to learn more. After visiting their home page, he learned that it is a non-profit organization, which means that they need to publish their financial records.

At the national level, the Miss America pageant spent $482,000 in cash scholarships. In pursuit of the forty-five million dollar statement, Oliver and his team pulled “the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.” They were able to get thirty-three state forms and learn about the intricate financial elements of the pageant.

It turns out that the forty-five million dollars is how much money the organization provides as a whole, not how much is actually used. The example Oliver provided was that Miss Pennsylvania is offered scholarships to Arcadia University, Cedar Crest College, Carlow University, and Delaware Valley College. The Miss America pageant includes all four of the scholarships when they tally up their numbers. They provided four university scholarships so rather than count the one used, they apply all four offered to their total number. In spite of their actual numbers, Miss America is still the largest “provider of scholarships for women.[6]

The Last Week Tonight team was able to analyze the facts before them and track down those that were not well known or acknowledged. Even though John Oliver makes viewers laugh and snicker under their breath, he is more than an entertainer – he is the mode to tell thought provoking and informative news stories. Just because this show makes someone laugh, doesn’t mean it is not educational. People can learn a lot from Last Week Tonight.

The topics range in subject matters, too. Oliver addressed the death penalty and its potentially disastrous nature.

It costs up to 10 times more to give someone the death penalty than life in prison. So what a death sentence is really saying is, "Hey! This is America! And the way we treat the most despicable members of our society is by spending the entire budget of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on them." So what we know now is the death penalty is expensive, potentially kills innocent people, and doesn't deter crime. And here is where it gets hard—harder than is potentially appropriate for a comedy show late on a Sunday night. But if we are going to answer difficult and profound questions...the toughest one is probably if someone is guilty of committing a horrible crime, and the family of the victim want the perpetrator executed, do we want to live in the kind of country that gives that to them? I would say no. You might, very reasonably, say yes...But it's a question that is going to need an answer.[7]

This type of dialogue sparks intrigue and intellectual thought within viewers causing them to think about an important ongoing cultural and society issue. Discussing a topic such as the death penalty in an enlightening manner demonstrates the depth of this news program. Last Week Tonight truly educates viewers in addition to making them laugh.

Footnotes

[1] Steinberg, Brian. "How John Oliver and HBO Shattered TV's Comedy-News Format." Variety. N.p., 2 July 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/how-john-oliver-and-hbo-shattered-tvs-comedy-news-format-1201257084/>.

[2] "Investigative Journalism Manual - Chapter 1 – About Investigative Reporting." Investigative Journalism Manual. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://www.investigative-journalism-africa.info/?page_id=31>.

[3] Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 21 Sept. 2014. Web.

[4] Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 21 Sept. 2014. Web.

[5] Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 21 Sept. 2014. Web.

[6] "Miss America: Welcome." Miss America: Welcome. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://www.missamerica.org/default.aspx>.

[7] Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 4 May 2014. Web.

 

Sources

"Miss America: Welcome." Miss America: Welcome. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://www.missamerica.org/default.aspx>.

"Investigative Journalism Manual - Chapter 1 – About Investigative Reporting." Investigative Journalism Manual. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://www.investigative-journalism-africa.info/?page_id=31>.

Bauder, David. "John Oliver Making His Mark on HBO in a Mix of Journalism and Comedy." US News. U.S.News & World Report, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://www.usnews.com/news/entertainment/articles/2014/09/25/oliver-adds-journalism-to-his-comedy>.

Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 21 Sept. 2014. Web.

Oliver, John. "September 21, 2014." Last Week Tonight. HBO. New York, New York, 4 May 2014. Web.

Steinberg, Brian. "How John Oliver and HBO Shattered TV's Comedy-News Format." Variety. N.p., 2 July 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/how-john-oliver-and-hbo-shattered-tvs-comedy-news-format-1201257084/>.