Can a talk-show host drive meaningful social change?
In the post-Letterman, post-Leno era, just asking the question reveals the intriguing new forces at work in today's media landscape. It wasn't too long ago that “serious” discussion of national issues was confined to Op Ed pages and the “talking heads” of Sunday news shows.
Talk-show personalities like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher were among the first to exploit widespread dissatisfaction with the orthodox daily-news formulas that dominated our national conversation, with brilliant parodies of the news that often got to the heart of a subject more effectively than your daily newspaper.
But faux-serious comedy about criminal justice? Forget about it.
Cue John Oliver. Since the UK-born host's Last Week Tonight premiered on HBO in 2014, his probing, acerbic reports on the nation's criminal justice challenges have not only galvanized millions of viewers; they appear to have significantly improved the climate for reform.
That was the judgment of an overwhelming majority of TCR readers who chose Oliver as their top choice for criminal justice “Person of the Year” in 2015.
Considering that our readers are among the most informed and professionally active players in the nation's criminal justice world, that amounts to both high praise—and even a little bit of envy at Oliver's effectiveness in bringing to light the complex issues they have been working on, often with frustratingly little public attention.
“I realize this may sound crazy, but I have to say John Oliver should get the award,” wrote Anne Milgram, a former New Jersey Attorney General who is now vice-president of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, one of the country's leading funders of innovative justice projects.
“He has done more to change public perception of (criminal justice) than the rest of us.”
Oliver would be the first to concede that he considers himself an entertainer—not a journalist—and certainly not, in his public life at least, an advocate, as TCR contributing editor Adam Wisnieski writes in his special profile accompanying this year's Newsmaker.
But as our readers made clear, such “categories” are irrelevant at a time when Americans are searching for an alternative framework to understand and digest the often-painful headlines that have dominated the year in criminal justice.
It's probably not a coincidence that our readers' top choice for criminal justice stories in 2015 was the emerging impact on policy of citizen activist groups like Black Lives Matter.
“Week after week, the HBO show devoted more time than any network news show could claim to the kinds of topics that criminal justice reformers have long dreamed would find coverage,” wrote TCR Contributing Editor Graham Kates. “And his treatments of these topics were deep, thoroughly researched segments that helped bring the subject out from the niches they filled.”
Call it the “John Oliver Effect.” That phrase, coined by TIME magazine, which named Oliver earlier this year as one of the top 100 influential people of 2015, has resonated widely—including among our readership.
“John Oliver has done more to bring attention to crime and justice issues than any other journalist,” wrote a reader who asked to remain anonymous. “His in-depth reporting, supported by statistics and anecdotes, makes people laugh and cry as they learn about issues they probably don’t know about.
“What’s more, his reporting actually has real-world consequences (the 'John Oliver Effect') as people and agencies respond to his stories.”
And there's the rub. The ultimate test of the “John Oliver Effect,” of course, will be whether the drive for justice that he has helped set in motion will move beyond the late-night agenda to strengthen the efforts of those who wake up each day to work for change in our prisons, courts, police stations, and at-risk neighborhoods.
Our readers' other choices for 2015 Newsmakers, in fact, speak to just that challenge.
America's Police Chiefs
The men and women who lead our nation's police forces have been at the center of our tense national conversation about the shortcomings of the justice system. And this year, they topped the news both as individuals and as collective symbols of the promise of change (and the failures) of that system.
As reader Einer Rivera put it, policing has a “tremendous impact” on the lives of every American, regardless of where he or she lives. Whether you happen to run a small rural force with half a dozen officers, or a big-city agency with a force of thousands, law enforcement leadership in 21st century America now calls for the kind of skills and expertise that are rarely covered in the police academy.
We expect our chiefs to not only keep us safe, but to ensure that vigilance in the defense of public order doesn't translate into injustice and tragedy. And when things go wrong, we expect them to take the heat.
This year, several of the country's most prominent police executives lost their jobs over perceived lapses in leadership or the failure to satisfy one of the constituencies that are essential players in modern policing—ranging from vocal community groups to rank-and-file unions. Just naming a few of them, who include some of the country's most progressive chiefs, provides a sobering glimpse at what's been called the “short shelf life” of American law enforcement's top managers: Chicago's Garry McCarthy, Baltimore's Anthony Batts, Spokane's Frank Straub.
And there are many others who are fighting an uphill battle amid calls for their resignation—often as scapegoats for the shortcomings of rank-and-file officers or elected political leaders.
“It's almost analogous to a struggling football team—you can't fire the whole team, so you fire the coach,” Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum was recently quoted as saying.
Unfair? Perhaps. But the focus on America's embattled chiefs also places the responsibility on changing “police culture” and responding adequately to the growing community desire for change where it properly belongs: on the leaders who are primarily responsible for training, and nurturing, a new generation of law enforcement officers.
Some readers singled out particular chiefs for their impact on justice debates this year, such as New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton and retiring Philadelphia Police Commissioner Chuck Ramsey. Not coincidentally, Ramsey was co-chair of the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing which issued its landmark report this year.
And it's also worth noting that a broad consensus of chiefs dedicated to change is emerging around the country—as illustrated by the November 19 justice summit hosted by the White House and the invitation to President Barack Obama to address the annual conference of the International Association of Police Chiefs in Chicago.
That segues into the third choice of TCR readers for Newsmaker of 2015.
President Barack Obama, wrote one reader, was “the first national politician in a generation to talk about criminal justice consistently.” Obama received notice in our 2014 poll; but this year, his actions—in the view of many—deserved special recognition for his effective use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency.
He became the first sitting president to visit a U.S. prison on July 16 when he toured Oklahoma's El Reno Correctional Institute—capping a year during which he weighed in on issues ranging from policing (see the above-mentioned Chicago conference and the White House Justice summit) to prison reform. The final report of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing contained a long list of recommendations for reforming law enforcement.
Even as his final presidential term is buffeted by partisan rancor, the first African-American president (who appointed the first African-American attorney general—followed by the first African-American female attorney general), has been a game-changer for criminal justice in 2015, in the view of TCR readers.
And to round out our 2015 list, TCR is pleased to recognize a few of the other notable figures who earned special notice in our survey.
Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson, leaders of the citizen activist groups that have propelled movements like “We the Protesters,” Campaign Zero, and Black Lives Matter into the forefront of efforts to put criminal justice reforms on the agenda of the 2016 campaign. “DeRay and Netta,” noted one reader, are symbols of a movement that emerged without any hierarchical leadership, but are now “integral to the continuing conversation” which the movement has spurred.
Laurie Robinson and Charles Ramsey, co-chairs of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued its report this year. “What a task (they accomplished),” marveled a reader. “Write a report in 90 days addressing the ills of law enforcement, AND in such a tense time for police-citizen relations and (questions about the) legitimacy of law enforcement.”
Dr. Nineka Jones Tapia, the new head of Cook County jail in Chicago, and the first psychologist appointed to head a major jail, earned notice from readers who point out that effective mental health care has become a critical issue in the nation's courts and jails.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Georgia's reform package of adult and juvenile justice legislation was “the most comprehensive reform of any state recently,” observed TCR Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest. Although much of the legislation was enacted before 2015, adds Gest, “Deal keeps speaking out on the issue and fine-tuning reforms.” Many readers agreed with Gest, underscoring his point that while “most criminal justice is practiced on the state level…the federal government gets too much credit.”
And it's worth mentioning here, as Gest and several readers did, the actions of several other governors, such as:
California's Jerry Brown for his continued push for justice reforms following the sate's landmark justice realignment program;
Connecticut's Dannel Malloy for, among other things, his groundbreaking juvenile justice proposal to raise the age limit of juvenile jurisdiction to 20;
Missouri's Jay Nixon for his post-Ferguson court reforms;
New Jersey's Chris Christie, for his efforts to promote what he called a “more humane treatment” for drug addicts;
Ohio's John Kasich for his work on prison reform;
And finally, Utah's Gary Herbert for spearheading far-reaching sentencing reform legislation.
We can't help but note that at least two of the above-mentioned governors (Christie and Kasich) are also—at this writing— candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.
Which brings us full-circle to our top Newsmaker of 2015.
While John Oliver has clearly broken new ground in focusing public attention on the serious challenges we face in criminal justice, ultimately it will be up to our elected political representatives at every level to turn those challenges into legislation.
By this time next year, we will likely know who our next president will be. But whether he or she will preside over a country where the long-sought overhaul of our justice system finally receives traction continues to be an open question.
Meanwhile, as we look forward to an eventful year, TCR's staff and contributors join me in wishing you and your families a happy, healthy and safe 2016!
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers' comments.