What is wrong with John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden

A fuckeulogy to the surveillance debate?

This week, comedian John Oliver landed a huge journalistic exclusive when he travelled to Russia to interview none other than Edward Snowden. Here is the clip, but bizarrely it cannot be viewed in the UK at the time of writing, so fire up your VPNs or proxies.

I have to start this article by saying that I’m a huge John Oliver fan, I’ve listened to the fantastic The Bugle podcast since the very early days of Hotties From History and the Audio Cryptic Crossword. Before his new-found fame hosting This Week Tonight, he coined the term fuckeulogy, for which the world should forever be grateful. I can’t sing enough praises for the genius comedy duo of Andy Saltzman and John Oliver. This is why I was hugely disappointed with the Snowden interview, Oliver should have known better, and he should have given the interview a different direction if he was really interested in kick-starting the surveillance debate.

If you have not seen the show, the segment begins with clips from several members of the American public answering whether they know who Edward Snowden is, and this is incredibly depressing showcase of just how little the public knows about the surveillance apparatus. John Oliver flies to Russia, and has to wait for over an hour, wondering if Snowden will even show up. When he does, Oliver goes for the jugular asking some truly tough questions about whether Snowden really thought things through, whether he actually read the leaked documents, and whether he cared that there had been some journalistic mistakes made. The interview then turns into an explanation of the leaked documents using “dick pics”, as Oliver assumes that the American public doesn’t really care about privacy and surveillance unless their nude pictures are being intercepted and viewed by the security services. The interview ends with an admonition from Snowden that Americans should not stop taking naked selfies because this would be against freedom.

I have read a lot of praise for the interview online. In my opinion this was a missed opportunity, and John Oliver got it wrong.

For example, the interview has given Snowden’s critics ammunition to attack him, and some sections of the media seem to care only about how Snowden was grilled, how he squirmed, how he admitted that he f*cked up, and how his handlers are losing their touch, instead of talking about the substance of the surveillance revelations.

This is one of the main mistakes that John Oliver makes. By deciding to go on the offensive at the start, before even talking about the leaked documents and the substance, he changed the narrative from one about surveillance, to making it about the interview itself, about what a great journalistic coup it was, and how tough he was on Snowden.  The other mistake was to try to explain the revelations using “dick pics”, and while the gimmick was funny, it infantilizes the surveillance debate, but most importantly, it allows the mainstream media to ignore the revelations because they cannot repeat that part of the interview without talking about penises and nude pics. The media then chooses to talk about the interview without talking about the substance because they have to shelter their audience from genital jokes.

It was also baffling that Oliver did not think it worthwhile to pursue the fact that people all over the world are subject to mind-blowing levels of surveillance, purposefully ignoring that line of questioning because “Americans don’t give a shit” about foreigners. While true, Oliver must be aware that his show and his clips are hugely popular all over the world, and that his audience is potentially larger outside of the narrow US borders. For an English comedian, he seems to have caught the annoying short-sightedness of the American media, completely blind about what the rest of the world thinks. The interview was petty, small-minded and provincial.

While it is depressing that most of the American public does not even know who Edward Snowden is, that is not at all surprising. Glen Greenwald has astutely picked up on that issue, and said:

“Oliver’s overall discussion is good (and, naturally, quite funny), but the specific point he wants to make here is misguided. Contrary to what Oliver says, it’s actually not surprising at all that a large number of Americans are unaware of who Snowden is, nor does it say much at all about the surveillance debate. That’s because a large number of Americans, by choice, are remarkably unaware of virtually all political matters. The befuddled reactions of the Times Square interviewees when asked about Snowden illustrate little about the specific surveillance issue but a great deal about the full-scale political disengagement of a substantial chunk of the American population.”

The real issue here is that Oliver had an opportunity to try to get people to understand Snowden’s revelations, how we know that security services have compromised protocols and the Internet’s infrastructure, and how they are colluding with private entities to collect data. Instead we got infantile junk jokes and college-level sniggering.

This is one of the most important subjects of our time, and Oliver missed a great opportunity to enlighten us about it in a more mature way. Having said that, he is only a comedian, and if anything the segment shows just how dire large part of the mainstream media has been at covering the surveillance debate.

Nevertheless, this episode has given us this site that explains the revelations using naked selfies. Enjoy.

Comments 2

  1. Nah, Oliver got millions more people to think about it – it was a triumph. Never under-estimate the ignorance of the general public – infantilising is exactly what was needed. And as for non-US citizens – Americans in general – and Congress in particular – really don’t give a f#*k.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with John Oliver’s interview, and I’d say that this particular one is arguably the most crucial Snowden interview to date. Oliver didn’t miss any opportunities here. Instead, he opens new possibilities over the subject of government surveillance.

    Firstly, it’s inevitable that this interview would “give Snowden’s critics ammunition to attack [Snowden]”. But all that John Oliver did in the first part is to ask Snowden over his actions and motives on his leaking of the documents; that’s it. Oliver’s interview did get new information of Snowden, so it’s hardly surprising that Snowden’s critics would use this new info against him. And if the news media focused more on the interview itself “instead of talking about the substance of the surveillance revelations”, it’s not John Oliver’s fault, either. I don’t think Oliver did this interview of Snowden for the sake of the interview.

    Using penis analogies might be “infantile” when dealing with the topic, but this is really the most effective way to drag it to a human-level conversation. If we go any more technical with explaining the NSA programs, people would not get the idea of how they work. (Snowden nearly went with the technical terms in the interview, which is why Oliver had him held that thought.) You *might* understand the functions of the programs with the technical terms, but this is a discussion everyone must have, and therefore must understand. Plus, the “dick pic” analogy gives surveillance a more “personal” tone, and that helps a lot as well. So these “infantile junk jokes” are actually necessary because, in Oliver’s words, this “is the most visible line in the sand for people”.

    We might say that the mainstream media ignored the analogy out of fear or audience compliance. Or another possibility is what you mentioned before that: the media might have focused more on “…how [Snowden] squirmed, how he admitted that he –cked up,…”, and as *I* mentioned before, it’s not Oliver’s fault. Frankly, the mainstream media should have put out the complete context of the interview instead of cherrypicking for the “juicy” parts. (Pun intended.) The media should help Oliver in getting the Americans talk about surveillance instead of showing the interview for its own sake.

    And, sure, Last Week Tonight is indeed a popular show (and a viral one also) all over the world, but the topic at hand is a United States issue (the domestic kind), that is taken to consideration by a United States Congress, whose roles are filled by the American people. We can consider how surveillance impacts people worldwide, but since the PATRIOT Act’s fate rests on the American people, issues at home would need to be dealt with here more. It’s the say of the Americans on how to reform the Act that is important, regardless of “what the rest of the world thinks”.

    As for how surprising (or not at all, in your case here) people do not know who Snowden is or what he did, I think that the lack of perception on surveillance is not only due to how disinterested or unaware Americans are to politics, but also how complicated political affairs turn out to be. One reason that they cared little about politics might be because political issues are too complex for people to actually care; politics might just be too “hard to get [one’s] head around”. That’s the point Oliver took up when he thought whether or not the lack of concern by the people on government surveillance is an “informed opinion”.

    If to you, Oliver “should have given the interview a different direction”, to me, I’d say he already did. If there might’ve been muddled-up messages over Oliver’s interview with Snowden, the very source isn’t to blame. John Oliver prepared this interview to Snowden, and he prepared it exceptionally. Snowden, however, is not the main topic of John Oliver’s half-hour long story, it’s how Americans must have a conversation on government surveillance and what they must do to improve it for everyone.

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