John Oliver Returns to Out-News the News—by Ignoring Trump
If it were up to John Oliver, this sentence will be the last time “Last Week Tonight” and “President Donald Trump” are mentioned in the same story. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take on the administration. Far from it. But he also knows everyone from CNN to his former coworker Stephen Colbert is already doing that on a daily basis, and covering Trump’s tweets just won’t cut it for a weekly show. Instead, he’s going to double down—not on the news, but on everything else.
In other words, Last Week Tonight can focus on things that matter. While cable news and online reporters struggle to report on Kellyanne Conway’s most recent TV appearance or fact-check the latest Sean Spicer press conference, Oliver and his team of four researchers can quietly spend months on a single 20-minute segment about something that will be incredibly important months from now.
They did that nearly a year ago when they covered the phantom menace of voter fraud, and they intend to do it again.
It just won’t be about the new administration. “We’re very anxious to not make it all-Trump, all the time,” Oliver told a group of journalists in New York earlier this week when asked about the plans for Season 4, which launches Sunday. “During the week the obvious stuff has been taken away, the carcass has been picked clean. There’s a benefit to us of being pushed into covering things that no one else in their right mind [will].”
No Spin Zone
The stuff Oliver will hit may be what news outlets won’t cover, but that doesn’t mean it’s what they shouldn’t. In the weeks since Trump took office, many people have speculated that the more outlandish things Donald Trump does—going after a department store chain, say—is just hand-waving to distract reporters, while much more significant actions of the executive branch go unreported. News agencies, for their part, have tried to parry that thrust: Reuters, for example, sent a memo to staffers last week telling them to deprioritize official government access and instead focus on trustworthy alternate sources. But that doesn’t mean that administration mistruths like the so-called “Bowling Green massacre” can go unreported, either. And as a result, the news cycle becomes a vicious cycle.
As it happened, by pure chance or by the fact that we might be diametrically opposed to the president’s instincts, lots of our stories over the last three years have become very relevant. John Oliver
Even as Oliver was joking with the press on Monday, Trump was claiming that the media was consciously not writing about terrorist attacks, saying the “dishonest press doesn’t want to report it”
because “they have their reasons.” (Wink.) What he was insinuating, of course, is that there is some hidden journalistic agenda based on ideological biases. While critiquing news coverage wasn’t new for Trump, his statement that journalists were ignoring important events hit hard and, as Chris Cillizza noted at The Washington Post, “for lots and lots of people listening to Trump, his suggestion that the media is complicit in a coverup of terrorist attacks will be taken as fact. They won’t seek out context or evidence that, frankly, totally undermines his contention.”
This is where Oliver’s work can matter most. Everything he says is fact-checked, but for most viewers who think of Last Week as a comedy show, he’s not seen as “the media.” (He’s also not Saturday Night Live, either.) That gives him precious maneuverability: Last Week Tonight doesn’t have to be impartial, and HBO doesn’t have advertisers, so Oliver can simply say what he wants. He might be speaking to a largely left-leaning, coastal-elite audience—though, Oliver notes, he has been approached by conservative viewers who say “I disagree with you on most things, but I like your show”—but what he’s able to illuminate for them is more valuable in the long run.
Getting the Story Right—Years Ahead of Time
This has already proven true. Even though Last Week has been on hiatus since before the election, the staff—Oliver included—hasn’t been resting. And as they began prepping Season 4, they went through the archives. What they found were traces of their reporting over the last three seasons in almost every one of Trump’s recent actions or executive orders. Torture, voter fraud, the issues inherent in trying to ban refugees to stop terrorism: All were covered by Last Week long before they were making headlines in 2017. “Over a period of five days last week we realized that each executive order related to a story that we’d done in the previous year,” Oliver says. “So, as it happened, by pure chance or by the fact that we might be diametrically opposed to the president’s instincts, lots of our stories over the last three years have become very relevant.”
And being relevant one, two, or three years from now is Oliver’s goal. He was loath to go into specifics of what this Sunday’s premiere or the rest of the season will touch on but stressed that none of them will directly address Trump. “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with administrations like this,” he says. “You need to reach past that.” The episodes that confront the president—like last year’s “Drumpf” episode, for example—are often the show’s most successful and most viral, but Oliver says he has “zero” concern whether something lights up the internet on Monday mornings. Instead he’d rather talk about net neutrality or the death penalty, even if “the unintended consequence of that is people actually watching the show.”
Covering Trump’s Impact—Not Trump
But just because Last Week won’t cover Trump doesn’t mean POTUS won’t influence the show. Now that he’s in office, he could easily impact an issue before Oliver and his team are even done reporting it. “Almost every one of the long-term stories [we’re working on] have an asterisk next to them that says, ‘Let’s see if this exists anymore,’” Oliver says.
Investigating what’s happening behind Trump’s antics, rather than the antics themselves, seems to be catching on. On Monday, a few hours after Oliver laid out his Less Trump in 2017 plan, Rachel Maddow went on the air on MSNBC and noted that she was going to start watching the White House like it was a silent movie, because “if you spend all your time trying to nail down their words—following every statement that they make as your next news story—not only do they get to lead you by the nose in terms of what you cover, but sometimes, for all the attention to what they’re saying, you miss what they’re doing.”
In the months since Oliver’s show went on hiatus, a few things have become clear: One, most people get their news from confirmation-biased, filter-bubbled social media feeds; two, the media is going to have to simultaneously run a marathon and a sprint to keep up with everything coming out of the White House; and three, no matter what they report, it will only be believed by those already inclined to believe it. As an internet-beloved show that can keep its own pace, Last Week Tonight can dodge the first and second problems. The third is trickier, but at a time when there’s equal distrust of both the free press and the administration, a fired-up Brit with a small army of fact-checkers starts to look like the best alternative. And when viewers tune in looking for a reprieve from CNN, he can give them what they want—even if they don’t yet know why they need it.