John Oliver's show on HBO is essential at this point, and last week, I ran a piece they aired on whitewashing, the Hollywood practice of casting white actors to play people of other races. I loved that piece, but this week, they topped themselves, and it's actually hard to name any moment like it in the history of the uneasy relationship between television and American politics.
To be upfront about things, I'll tell you that I think Donald Trump is a terrible person full stop. I don't just dislike him as a candidate for President of the United States… I dislike everything he represents. One of the fundamental rots in American culture is the worship of money as the only metric of success, and the display of obscene wealth as a positive thing. Trump symbolizes that as much as anyone in American culture today, something he's cultivated carefully.
In fact, that's what made Oliver's reporting last night (and that's what it was, really, above and beyond mere comedy) so significant: not only did he carefully articulate what is wrong with Trump as a potential President, he laid bare the mechanics by which Trump has carefully constructed his own media image over the last three decades. In doing so, I think he has definitively pulled back the curtain to show you the tiny, sad little man operating the Great and Terrible Oz. Donald Trump is the equivalent of a 30-year marketing campaign for an empty box, and Oliver's piece speaks to the way passive media brainwashing works, how people absorb an idea, whether it's true or not, through simple repetition.
He's also basically dared Donald Trump to sue him, and with a glee that speaks of deep pockets and both moral and legal certitude. Anyone who wants to work in the public space should study what Oliver did last night, and exactly how he built his argument. He quotes Trump directly, over and over, to enforce every point he makes, and he quotes Trump's daughter directly, and he builds a foundation that Trump can't assault without destroying his own credibility in the process. If Oliver's argument is based entirely on Trump's words, then how can Trump call anything Oliver said untrue?
I'm sure there are people who have already stopped reading this piece in order to write something angry about liberal media or bias or asking if I'd laugh and share something like this about a Democrat, but that's beside the point. Earlier in the same show, Oliver did a piece highlighting how many times Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and how many times he has failed completely to do so. What the two pieces have in common is that they are about exposing the way media manipulates and massages information, and this is something I've been writing about for years at this point. One of the most valuable changes we should make in educating people in this country is teaching media literacy, teaching people how to look for manipulations of the truth, how to understand bias, and Last Week Tonight is doing fantastic work right now at laying these things into a context where all the mechanics are exposed.
Check it out for yourself.
Last Week Tonight airs Sunday nights on HBO, and can be seen via HBO Now and HBO Go as well.