In a 17-minute report last year — nearly as long as an entire network evening news show — the comedian John Oliver reported that 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, that more than half of us take two, and that we collectively spent nearly $330 billion on prescriptions in 2013.
Lest he get too serious for too long, he followed with a gag, surmising that the chemist-turned-drug-maker Walter White, from the television series “Breaking Bad,” could have made “more money cooking up rheumatoid arthritis medication.”
It was classic Oliver: Solid reporting, judicious aggregation, and loopy observation skillfully entwined so that viewers might not notice that they’re consuming a mounting narrative punctuated by evidence. The humor arises not from a distortion of the facts, but from the satirical way in which they are presented — but Oliver gets the facts right.
Judge for yourself:
This sort of thing is a staple of his weekly HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” which frequently deals with scientific and technical subjects, from abortion, food safety, and Medicaid, to mental health, cigarette packaging, and sex education. And while Oliver stands in the tradition of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” it seems clear he is doing something different here. Where Stewart dealt with “fake news” (his term of art) and Colbert developed a fake persona, Oliver delivers something very close to straight news, albeit between a succession of gags and profane outbursts. More importantly, he joins a widening array of enterprises that raise intriguing questions about the role of advocacy, and the withering concept of objectivity, in journalism.
It was a reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union, after all, who was widely credited with doggedly breaking the news on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting went to InsideClimate News, a site founded by a former public-relations executive and dedicated to coverage of global warming science and politics. The year before that, the same award went to David Wood of the left-leaning Huffington Post. So are journalists with strong points of view — not just comedians like Oliver, but others who claim a stake in a story’s outcome — now giving us news and insight we can’t find in mainstream journalism? And ought we even bother to distinguish anymore between so-called “objective” journalism and advocacy?
Patricia Aufderheide, a university professor and the founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, thinks not. “We might have passed the point where we can talk about objectivity in journalism with a straight face,” she says. “Objectivity was always a shortcut. It was a useful little shortcut of a concept to say you should be fair, you should be honest, you should have integrity, you should tell people accurately and responsibly what you think are the important things about what you saw or researched.”
“If what we’re doing is advocating for the public,” she adds, “that’s our job.”
Oliver meets that standard, she says, because he’s “invested in people understanding the importance” of what he says. “He cares whether we get it.”
David Sassoon, the founder and publisher of InsideClimate News, says a better way to think of advocacy might be to consider how news organizations have always decided what to cover. In that sense, he says, there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism. “Every group of editors makes choices about what is newsworthy,” Sassoon says.
Last December, an article in National Review took issue with Sassoon’s site, arguing that InsideClimate News was “run by a public-relations consultancy that gets its funding almost exclusively from groups with an environmental agenda.”
Sassoon, who until now has not publicly responded to the article, says the story got some facts wrong. InsideClimate News has never been owned by a PR firm, as the article suggested, Sassoon says. He was in public relations before InsideClimate News, but left it when he started the website. “We are journalists. Period. Full stop,” Sassoon argues. “If you want to put an adjective in front of it, you could say watchdog or investigative journalists.”
Objectivity was a useful little shortcut of a concept to say you should be fair, you should be honest, you should have integrity, you should tell people accurately and responsibly what you think are the important things about what you saw or researched.
But are they also advocates? “We’re not taking sides, but we are trying to hold business leaders and advocates accountable for solutions,” Sassoon says.
In recent months, journalists and media critics have looked closely at the case of Flint, Michigan, the subject of a huge national story involving the lead contamination of its water supply. The story was broken not by the Detroit newspapers or television or radio stations, but by a lone investigative reporter, Curt Guyette, while working for the ACLU, the nearly 100-year-old litigation and lobbying nonprofit.
Last summer, he produced a documentary exploring concerns about the water in Flint. According to an account in the Columbia Journalism Review, that film led to a scoop: A leaked memo from the Environmental Protection Agency that revealed problems in the way Flint’s water was being tested for lead. The story grew in September when a Virginia Tech researcher, Marc Edwards, reported finding dangerously high levels of lead in Flint’s water. It is now a major national story, and lead contamination in water turns out to be common in many communities. But Guyette broke the story while working for an advocacy organization. Does that make him an advocate whose journalism should be suspect?
“I am obsessed with the model of what happened in Flint,” says Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of the Center for Media and Social Impact. “The guy is an investigative reporter hired by an advocacy group, working with a documentary film maker, and working with citizens to help them understand what they were seeing,” she says. “That is a really interesting, fresh new model.”
Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York, argued two years ago in a piece in Medium that objectivity is dead. “We are not objective,” he wrote. And if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism.”
“Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism?” he continued “The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest?”
For his part, Oliver, like Stewart and Colbert before him, insists he’s not a journalist. “It’s not journalism, it’s comedy,” he told The Daily Beast when the program launched in 2014. “It’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.”
Chattoo notes that the distinction is probably important to the people promoting the show. “From a consumer point of view, they don’t want to say they’re doing journalism. They want people to watch,” she says.
But Oliver’s success can hardly be seen as being based solely in comedy. He and his staff are also very good reporters, and very sharp writers. “What is so interesting and probably obvious is that he can often take very esoteric subjects and make them go viral,” says Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who studies comedy and journalism. Where Stewart would have had a field day with Donald Trump, for example, Oliver tackles such bell ringers as net neutrality and bail bonds. “These are all cases where vulnerable groups are being exploited by powerful institutions,” Feldman says. “He’s interested in challenging those power structures.”
Net neutrality in particular — a deeply complex technology issue with implications for how we all use the Internet — is not the kind of thing likely to be addressed at length on the evening news. And yet, the Columbia Journalism Review said Oliver and his team “broke down the complex issue of net neutrality as well as any real journalist has.” The publication also noted that Tim Wu, the Columbia professor credited with coining the term “net neutrality,” tweeted that Oliver’s coverage had “rendered every other explanation obsolete.”
Chattoo was also impressed by Oliver’s piece last summer on bail bonds in New York, in which he demonstrated that they were little more than a tool for locking up poor people. “It immediately set the agenda, and a month later, [New York Mayor] Bill De Blasio announced a complete policy change,” she noted.
Feldman argues that Oliver’s work reveals a troubling truth about traditional journalists: They often rely on objectivity as a crutch. “That can have devastating consequences in that it leads to uncritical deference to official sources,” she says. For some journalists, she adds, a he-said, she-said approach to reporting “can be an easy way out.”
As these scholars and journalists see it, “objectivity” was always a false measure of journalistic excellence, and a superficial stand-in for more meaningful ideas like honesty, accuracy, and transparency — terms that might better describe the characteristics of a top-tier journalist.
As Oliver and others are showing, another term might be advocate. After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?