A Muckraker for Our Times: John Oliver


Last month, in one of the final episodes of the second season of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver told his audience they deserved some ice cream.

“This year, we’ve covered many depressing aspects of our criminal justice system,” he said. “From how mandatory minimum sentencing has crowded our prisons, to how bail punishes the poor, to how overstretched public defenders threaten your right to a fair trial, to how small municipal violations can wind up putting you in the #f***kbarrel.

“If you binge-watch those episodes in order, you are entitled to an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen … just to be clear it’s not free, and Dairy Queen is not involved in any capacity.”

That mixture of raunchiness, comedy and dead-seriousness is one reason why, since the weekly late-night HBO show premiered in early 2014, Oliver and his staff at Last Week Tonight have racked up some prestigious awards: a Peabody, an Emmy, a Writers Guild of America Award and a GLAAD Media Award.

Now he can add The Crime Report’s “Person of the Year” award to the list.

In our annual end-of-the-year survey, TCR readers selected John Oliver as our criminal justice “Person of the Year” for the significant impact he has had on the U.S. criminal justice system during 2015.

Late-night comedy shows are not usually the place you’d think to look for in-depth explainers of complicated criminal justice issues, but that’s just what Oliver and his staff did this year. With his extended pieces on judicial elections, municipal violations, online harassment, bail, mandatory minimum prison sentences, public defenders and prisoner re-entry, Last Week Tonight was the show to watch in 2015 for deep dives into what Oliver calls America’s “shattered justice system.”

Oliver will usually explain a policy or process with a combination of local and national news coverage and original reporting — often concluding with a call to action or a short interview. He’ll describe the bureaucratic and political nonsense surrounding an issue for laughs, but then ground the issue by putting a human face on it.

For instance, following the release of 6,000 federal prisoners last month due to changes in sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenders, Oliver looked at the issue of what prisoners encounter when they leave jail.

He explained the many obstacles that ex-prisoners face when they re-enter society, like getting housing, applying for jobs and satisfying conditions of parole. To conclude, he interviewed Bilal Chatman, a man who served a decade for a non-violent drug offense but felt set up to fail when he left prison.

So, rather than interview a celebrity, Oliver interviewed a man who was hesitant to even to be on the show because he didn’t want to constantly be known as an “ex-con.” Oliver ended the episode by re-defining his guest, “Bilal Chatman, Tomato Grower.”

Blending Comedy and Journalism

Born in Birmingham and educated at Cambridge, Oliver worked as a stand-up comic in the U.K. in the early 2000s. He got his big break in 2006 when he was offered a job as “Senior British Correspondent” on Comedy Central’s popular satirical news show The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 2013, Oliver took over as host of the show for eight weeks while Stewart directed a film. He received rave reviews as host and seemed to be the heir apparent to Stewart, who had hosted the show since 1999.

But a few months later, HBO offered Oliver a show of his own; and in April 2014, Last Week Tonight premiered.

Before long, Last Week Tonight was heralded as a never-before-seen blend of comedy and investigative journalism, unafraid of tackling complicated issues that many mainstream news outlets avoided or ignored. Oliver recently wrapped up a 35-episode second season and will return in February for a third season.

The show’s format is unlike most late-night shows. Oliver usually spends between 15 to 20 minutes on a single topic on the 30-minute show that airs Sunday at 11 p.m. (For non-HBO subscribers, every Monday morning the in-depth piece is posted to the show’s YouTube account).

This year, his show has spent an incredible amount of time on criminal justice issues. Some highlights include an extended interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, a hilarious update to the Miranda warning with actors and actresses from popular cop shows and a touching piece on what prisoners go through once they are released from jail.

When the announcement came out that he had been nominated for TCR’s “Person of the Year,” legal blog Above the Law called Oliver “the criminal justice hero we need.” Critics have repeatedly argued he should be thought of as an investigative journalist, a label he ardently rejects.

“I’m not a journalist,” Oliver told Jorge Ramos in an interview earlier this year. “I’m a comedian.”

The New York Times’ late media commentator David Carr suggested Oliver had created a “new kind of journalism” on a show where the “list of topics sounds like the arcane scraps from the cutting-room floor of most newsrooms.” The Peabody Awards said Oliver is “at times an investigative journalist as skilled at interrogating his target as any Progressive Era muckraker.”

Whether his approach can be called investigative journalism or some other as-yet undefined hybrid media category for our time, he has galvanized a new generation of Americans who no longer depend on “mainstream” press for their news.

It should not surprise anyone who tracks the power of new media that Oliver’s show has had a profound impact on issues it covers. Time magazine calls this “The John Oliver Effect.”

For instance, in June, Oliver did a 17-minute piece on bail, calling it “a systemic problem” that increasingly has become “a way to lock up the poor regardless of guilt.” A month later, Time attributed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to relax bail requirements on people charged with nonviolent crimes or misdemeanors to Oliver’s coverage.

The Web analytics site Parse.ly analyzed the impact his show has had on issues and determined its impact on the digital news cycle was greater than popular CBS show 60 Minutes.

“Now, is there anyone that still believes John Oliver isn’t a real journalist?” Allie Van Nest at Parse.ly wrote.

If you need to get caught up, feel free to binge watch Last Week Tonight’s criminal justice pieces below. And afterwards, be sure get yourself some ice cream.

Editors Note: Below are links to some of John Oliver’s criminal justice-themed shows this year.

Adam Wisnieski is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Please feel free to comment on his article. Adam can also be reached at @adamthewiz

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