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Future of news? What’s amazing about Last Week Tonight is the amount of lucid information John Oliver puts forth in under 30 minutes. And the way he does it gives me more pause and fodder for thought than an entire week’s worth of primetime news. pic/facebook
Fortunately, this is not just an Indian problem. Unfortunately, this is not just an Indian problem. 24 kids drowned in Himachal this week, a senseless and unacceptable side effect of decades of ingrained negligence. On the news though, they didn’t drown. They just participated in an awesome audio-visual package (with music composed by Jatin, Lalit, Sajid, and Wajid on a piano made of dramatic thoughts) called “Pachaas Second Tak Yamraaj Ka Taandav.” Please re-read the name of that package; that name doesn’t address the sudden crushing of 24 lives, it sounds like a game show.
The news format itself is broken, a shrill parody of itself. It doesn’t inform me, it yells in my general direction for 5 minutes, and then Prasoon Joshi recites a poem about it. Mainstream news as it stands today is as pointless as a 3D re-release of the Nuremburg trials. It needs to be rebuilt, from the ground up. Except, someone’s already doing exactly that, right under our noses.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a new show that runs on HBO every Sunday night. On the show, Oliver hilariously parses important issues from the past week that didn’t get enough attention. Last Week Tonight is ostensibly a news parody show, and you’re thinking “What’s so revolutionary about that, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report did that ages ago!” They did, and their greatness is assured and not in question right now. But what’s amazing about Last Week Tonight is the amount of lucid information Oliver puts forth in under 30 minutes. And the way he does it gives me more pause and fodder for thought than an entire week’s worth of primetime news.
The show is hilarious, and Oliver leverages HBO’s lack of censorship in a way that should make the Game of Thrones producers cry. The jokes fly thick and fast, and like all comedy, they range from the sublime to the cat picture. But once you’ve processed every joke and peeled away at it, underneath is a travesty that should make you angry, and does. It’s a curious irony when you think about it. Most mainstream news today evokes a string of jokes from viewers.
This comedy show on the other hand, evokes the outrage that stirs action. Which is exactly what a good news show should do.
Unlike “real” news outlets, Oliver’s primary concern isn’t to be the first at the scene. It’s to give the scene context, to slow things down and spend an entire segment explaining why the issue at hand is important, and how insidious it is that no “real” news outlets are talking about it. And he’s not fussy when it comes to picking targets. In his first week, Oliver flayed the US media’s lack of attention to the Indian election. A few weeks later, he rapped GM on the knuckles for (allegedly) making terrible cars through willful negligence. And this week, he stood with one foot on the slain carcass of FIFA, eviscerating them for the financial and human rights atrocities they perpetuate in the name of sport.
And he spent time on each issue, devoting entire segments to impassioned, well-reasoned arguments about why the situation is dire, and why it should matter to everyone. And he conducted a lengthy, probing interview with Fareed Zakaria about what Modi means for India. Another way the show fixes the news; it proves that a long, measured debate with one or two people is more productive than a short, shouty one with fourteen people.
But the biggest lesson that news could learn from Last Week Tonight is the way Oliver calls viewers to action. At the end of his argument, he calls the viewer to action, suggesting constructive solutions that you can participate in. During a segment on Internet neutrality, he told Americans they could directly petition the Federal Communications Commission online to safeguard it. So many people responded that it crashed the FCC’s website. Most news channels tell you to text Yes or No to their own phone number, and then they put it all on a giant card and give it to Sachin Tendulkar. Oliver doesn’t just speak truth to power; he reminds you that you can too. Sounds like the news’ job to me.
And Last Week Tonight, for me, is the future of news. Ditch the hectoring and the posturing and the rush for three seconds. Bring out the bleak hilarity of it all. Joke, opine, weep, but for the love of god, be lucid. Because if the news is already doing the laughing and eye-rolling, that leaves us free (and informed enough) to do the getting angry and doing something about it part. So come on news folk, make me laugh. I dare you.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi