Remember when John Oliver and Last Week Tonight purchased $15 million in medical debt owed by 9,000 strangers for around $60,000 and forgave it all? Yeah, that was less than two days ago, and already some corners of the internet have come out against HBO’s heavily televised and massively viral display of good will toward others. The first round of naysayers pointed to the debt’s value when purchased by Oliver’s legitimate debt-collection agency, which was more than $14 million less than what the segment advertised when comparing the show’s giveaway to Oprah Winfrey. The second, and most poignant batch of criticism is much harsher, because new claims suggest that Oliver and his team stole the idea from an activist group after consulting with them for research.
Let’s begin with the latter, as its allegations are far more disconcerting than the former’s emphasis on nitpicking the numbers. According to Debt Collective, a “membership organization that leverages” debtors’ needs and numbers via “a shared platform for organization, advocacy, and direct action,” Last Week Tonight‘s senior news researcher Charles Wilson contacted them to discuss their Rolling Jubilee project. Calling itself a “bailout of the people by the people,” Rolling Jubilee launched in 2012 to “liberate debtors at random” by buying debt “for pennies on the dollar” and forgiving it. To date, they’ve raised $701,317 to buy and forgive almost $32 million in debt.
Wilson, Debt Collective alleges in a blog post, said the show “was interested in reproducing” Rolling Jubilee’s efforts. They spent hours discussing the project, both how it came to be and the results, and due to Last Week Tonight‘s past coverage of pressing social issues and light activism, the organization was “under the impression they were interested in highlighting” their activist bent. Instead, Last Week Tonight “did not want to associate themselves with the work of the Rolling Jubilee due to its roots in Occupy Wall Street.”
The collective goes on to accuse Oliver and company of “[framing] the debt buy as [their] idea: a giveaway to compete with Oprah”:
The lead researcher who worked on this segment invoked the cover of journalism to justify distancing themselves from our project.
This line is ironic given that the show has expressly claimed not to be doing journalism.
Neither Wilson, Oliver, Last Week Tonight nor HBO have responded publicly to Debt Collective’s published grievances. Entertainment Weekly reached out to the cable network for comment, but none was given.
As for nitpicking the segment’s numbers, Slate posted a followup to its initial coverage of the Last Week Tonight viral video that deflates Oliver’s claims about precisely how much debt was forgiven. “Debts get less valuable every time someone tries to collect on them,” writes business correspondent Jordan Weissmann. “As the cycle continues and the paper gets passed down the food chain, its market price drops. Once you’re talking about debts selling for a penny or less on the dollar, it’s paper that’s probably proven almost impossible to collect on, either because the debtor has died, declared bankruptcy, or refused to pay for some other reason.”
In other words, the $60,000 Oliver’s Central Asset Recovery Professionals coughed up for the portfolio of medical debt originally valued at almost $15 million wasn’t worth that amount. Because of its constant devaluation along the selling, buying and reselling process, the so-called “paper” wasn’t worth nearly as much as it used to be. “That suggests the seller thought the debts were worth no more than, well, $60,000,” Weissmann quips. Of course, he adds that the company who sold Oliver’s C.A.R.P. the portfolio might have been wrong with its valuation of the debt. “Distressed debt is hard to value, because you never really know how much of it can be collected.”
So does this mean Oliver didn’t out-bee Oprah?