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John Oliver Roasts the News

<rch engines can continue to amaze, while also qualifying a bit of an online hypothesis about John Oliver, who’s now on a roll since “Last Week Tonight” started airing on HBO in the spring of this year. Not that it matters that it’s on HBO - segments from his news comedy program are on YouTube, and beyond viral at this point. Anything that the pundits are debating on the regular news networks, or anything you’re simmering on in Sayles when you glance at the headlines on the digital signage, John Oliver’s got covered. I’ve had a chance to watch a few of his segments (though old ones) from the Scottish independence referendum to the Islamic State organization, and I admit that he does his work insightfully, particularly in pointing out incongruities when it comes to understanding complex issues as humorously as possible. Many comedic critics are already in the field, but he’s quite his own brand.

This “charming scold”, as a New Yorker headline described hime, has a lot of words associated with his work on “Last Week Tonight”, words that without context would seem a bit, well, vitriolic. We’re talking about the perfected art that is the headline, the frosting on the cake that internet authors use to frame a post about a LWT segment. Slate uses the word, “hyperbolic” for the headlines, which is true. They are also confrontational at best, and downright hostile (and silly) at its worst. Several internet voices have pointed this out, and a Google search on him provides ample evidence. Rants (sometimes #longrants) are a trademark of Oliver’s, but when news website or news blogs share a video of his rants, here are several words to find that he purportedly employs in his rants:

Explains: Lots of issues come up on the show that some Americans may not know, like the election of Narendra Modi in India. Or to clear up big issues like Ferguson. Fairly reasonable that he is described to explain things.

Roasts: We actually know this from a comedic perspective, so it’s not surprising that he roasts people or things in the process of explaining or ranting.

Destroys: The words automatically following “John Oliver destroys” in Google are the words “FIFA” or “Dr. Oz”, among others.This is perhaps the word I most associate with him from all the newsfeed posts that pile up on Facebook, because that’s what many authors online have described his rants as doing. Adverbs “absolutely” and “completely” also accompany this verb, as though merely destroying something was inadequate.

Eviscerates: I forgot what this meant at the top of my head, and if you forgot like I did, this means according to Merriam-Webster, “to take out the internal organs (of an animal).” Now we’re really getting graphic about how he rants and argues against positions.

Skewers: Not as graphic as “eviscerates”, but perhaps as similar in meaning in terms of argument.

Rips: He does this too, usually “to shreds”. See synonym “tears”.

Verbally pants (or batters): Even Oliver knows what the writers were saying, and I didn’t know this was one of them until he pointed it out in a segment where he decided to go meta and actually destroy something on the program. It was a piñata.

It’s all fun and games with Oliver consciously making fun of the media that’s promoted him these past few months. Even Vox is in on the joke: they’ve programmed a random generator that makes hyperviolent headlines with John Oliver doing something more or less hyperviolent. (I just got: “John Oliver uses four horses to tear apart the limbs of Maltese land use policies.”) Not all of the posts of the segments have clickbait headlines like the hyperbolic ones mentioned; for example, Slate’s recent post of an LWT segment was simply, “John Oliver and Last Week Tonight Wonder, ‘How Is Columbus Day Still a Thing?’” And we can’t blame the news industry from succumbing to clickbait hyperbole when all of the Web competes for our views. But the LWT segments are shared by left-leaning sites like Slate and Vox to advance a specific point. It’s not just Oliver’s, but the sites themselves. (And what sites, of whatever orientation, aren’t opinionated in this day and age?)

Here’s a Vox headline on an LWT post: “Watch John Oliver completely destroy the idea that hard work will make you rich.” Pretty concise summary of the segment content. It surely is true (if you watch) that the segment does argue the incongruities in the belief in hard work. But to label the argument as a form of destruction risks blunting Oliver’s rhetoric rhetoric, instead blunted into a vehicle for opinionated analyses. In fact, an Ezra Klein video on wealth inequality follows the LWT segment in the same webpage. This is not to belittle the arguments over wealth inequality – an issue with disastrous consequences as seen from most points of view – but rather to show that news sites and other websites put their own spin on LWT segments.

The headline crafting and media spin on the LWT segments plays into the greater trend of adversarial social discourse. Our politics is already full of it, and so does the news we read. Beneath the facetious facade of the segments as portrayed by the news sites is that contest for who is right, debates that have kept our blood boiling for millennia. We witness in this contest winners and losers, and tons of people to blame for something wrong. It knows no party affiliation, no doctrine or ideology. The most important thing is that someone has got to be right no matter what. This is how Oliver’s videos become packaged by the online news media, particularly left-leaning outlets, with the language that apparently needs to reinforce the idea that their arguments are absolutely right. It isn’t enough to just “argue”: Oliver’s arguments have to really destroy the other side, as though this “other side” is a mortal enemy. (Hint: it isn’t, nor are the people who take it.) The media spin reduces other arguments into nothing – or worse, cheap jokes, something made easy by the segments’ humor. Not very argumentative, is it, when you can discard counterarguments?

You can be right – and perhaps you are – but even if the facts prove you right, does being right alone right any wrong? In fact, being right was never the point Oliver gets at in LWT. Timothy Oleksiak of the Daily Dot puts it this way about Oliver’s goal with his news coverage: “Do something about the injustice in the world.” Whether he consistently does this is not for me to say, having watched so little of his work. But considering his work in this context, and anything like it, blathering about his segments on social media with headline packaging does not cut it for action. Neither does reducing other arguments, regardless of how problematic their positions and supporting facts are. The idea of adversarial discourse is exactly what it means, and everyone knows it hardly works to change anything, from the dinner table to the conference table. Breaking the cycle of this discourse is another matter, but if those internet writers (or bots) keep churning out these headlines, who knows when we won’t need to look right all the time?

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