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.
CLICK HERE FOR TCR’S PROFILE ON JOHN OLIVER
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.