John Oliver's 6 Big Lessons on How to Report on Donald Trump
"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" returns to HBO Sunday, Feb. 18, for the British comedian's fifth season, after a brief hiatus. Though, as he tells a room full of reporters at the network's Bryant Park headquarters Monday, he and his team never stopped working.
It's certainly an eagerly anticipated return, as Oliver has become one of the leading and most celebrated voices in late night. Unsurprisingly, "Last Week Tonight" has been renewed for two additional seasons, through 2020.
While most of the late-night hosts do a good job of holding the Trump administration accountable in inventive and hilarious ways, with the weekly show format Oliver gets to go deeper and beyond the daily circus acts taking place in the White House. His investigative, yet unconventional reporting style and deep dives into often un-sexy topics has earned the show millions of weekly viewers, eight Emmys and the dubbing of "The John Oliver effect," meaning once "Last Week Tonight" covers an issue, interest in it soars.
In a sharp gray suit, lavender shirt and eggplant tie, Oliver points to the fifth season's advert, with his glasses off, face pressed into his desk, one hand rests on top of his cellphone, perhaps mid-scroll, and his other hand signals that he just needs a moment. Naturally, on top of the image, it reads: "Everything is fine." Oliver tells the room of journalists, that's how he feels all the time, even before this presidency, but especially now.
But save the usual sarcasm and biting jokes at the state of the world that keeps everyone in the conference room belly-laughing, Oliver has a lot to say about how to report on President Donald Trump. Given the daily onslaughts on the media from the White House, the crusade against facts, and the labeling of any dissent or critique as "fake news," these lessons are critical and welcomed.
Number 1: There are other valuable things to report on besides Trump.
"There's other things happening in the world, it can be hard to remember that, just because he's so all-consuming," Oliver said, adding that of course, "There is some stuff you just have to address." It's a lesson of not being chained to Trump's Twitter feed for content; an outlet's coverage must also have room for deep dives and to amplify the voices that don't always have the microphone. Social media may present an arena where people only are talking about what happened five minutes ago, but that doesn't mean that's all the news can and should be.
Number 2: Accept that fact, that you'll be late to everything.
"When we started, we knew we were going to be late to everything, which was helpful because it means you end up having to make other decisions about what you're going to talk about," Oliver said of his weekly show. "Now, everything happens so fast and the reaction to is so fast, that almost everybody is late." Thus, it's not about being first, but about being better. What context can you add to the news cycle; stakes; can you challenge it? These are the questions Oliver clearly thinks deeply about and we all should, too.
Number 3: Regardless of #FAKENEWS, journalism still exists.
"Journalism is not cable news; if it was, we'd all be fucked," Oliver said. "Just because cable news is the loudest, doesn't mean it's the only voice." Oliver makes it clear that even though he often ventures into investigative research and reporting, he would never consider himself a journalist, "Because I really respect journalism," he said.
Number 4: Find your internal barometer.
Especially in the Trump era, late-night comedians have become the nation's front-running truth tellers. But Oliver said, "We operate on an internal barometer of what we want to talk about, not listening externally to what people project at our show." For every algorithm and trending topic that the social team advocates for you to cover, is your publication's internal barometer the outlet's heartbeat? It's a question that wouldn't be a quick answer for many, but an admirable place to try and get to.
Number 5: Narration isn't journalism and does us all a disservice.
"The tricky thing with him [Trump] is there's so much of it, right? It's just such a firehose of bullshit," Oliver said. "What you don't want to do is just narrate things that he said; you don't want to just chronologically repeat what he said. . . you want to try to show why that matters." This is an especially relevant message for Trump and the many other white supremacists who have gotten platforms to just spew their hate without challenge. Our job doesn't end with: "Here's what the alt-right is saying." That approach only legitimizes their rhetoric.
Number 6: It's important to offer concrete ways forward without drowning in superficial hope.
"We're definitely cognizant of the fact that we want to say 'and this is one potential approach that could be taken to put at least part of this problem behind us,'" Oliver said. But, "too much optimism is not always a great idea; I realize that might be the most British thing I've ever said." He continued, "especially now, I would not assume that everything's going to be okay, unless you actively take steps to make it that way. So yeah, too much hope can be an anesthetic. You want to know how much pain you're in."
Oliver didn't offer these tips as directives toward journalists per se, but as methods and best approaches that he, and the staff at "Last Week Tonight," believe in and operate by. But they were painfully applicable to the never-ending news cycle of Trump Twitter tirades and Tide Pod Challenge failures, and certainly indicative of the credence we've given to late-night comedians. As my colleague Melanie McFarland wrote of late-night hosts, "They’ve become the valued players who provide context and commentary to news headlines and the blizzard of executive orders." In short, when it comes to late-night comedians, we've never needed them more. But perhaps, most of all, Oliver's clear passion for his show and wholehearted support of journalism was a reminder that we've all got work to do.