Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Net Gain for Oliver

So, in my last post, On Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, I noted that among the names mentioned as a possible successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show was John Oliver, who had previously been a frequent "correspondent" on the show (referred to as "Senior British Correspondent"), and actually taken over as guest host for eight weeks during the summer of 2013, as Stewart took time off to direct his feature film, Rosewater.

Of course, Oliver has been hosting his own variation on The
Daily Show since April of 2014, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, on HBO. Whether he was contractually unavailable to take over Stewart's Comedy Central program, or simply preferred the deal he had with HBO (or in a more unlikely scenario, was not given the option of taking over The Daily Show), I don't know, and I suppose it doesn't matter much in the long run.

And I think it important to add that Oliver is an accomplished comedian, with a long career doing stand-up, and some significant appearances on television sitcoms, including the fan favorite show, Community. Like Jon Stewart, he is not a journalist, but like Jon Stewart, his comedy news program has served as an important form of social criticism, and media criticism. I think it a reasonable assumption that he has read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, because one of the segments on his HBO program is called "And Now This," a formulaic saying once commonplace in broadcast news that Postman pointed to as encapsulating many of the problems that occur when television tries to deal with serious subjects. Paradoxically, both Oliver and Stewart validate Postman's criticism by simultaneously turning news into entertainment while critiquing the process.

By the way, I follow up on Postman's 80s critique in my book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. But you knew that...

So, while Oliver's lack of journalistic background is sometimes apparent, for example when he went to Russia and interviewed Edward Snowden this past April, more often than not he has provided some very powerful critiques. One of them was on a subject near and dear to my heart—net neutrality. It hasn't been something I've gone very deeply into here on Blog Time Passing, but it has come up in some of my previous posts, for example going back to 2007, my first year of blogging, Net Neutrality, or Not, also on a related issue in 2010, All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, and ABC You Later, Cablevision!, as well as just a little more than a year ago, Purge the Merge!, followed up last July by Purge the Merge! Part 2 (and happily, the merge in question was indeed purged!).

And just in case you're not familiar with the issue, or even if you are, let me share some of the YouTube videos I've used in teaching about new media at Fordham University over the past decade to help explain the subject to students. First is this straightforward presentation uploaded back in 2006, when net neutrality first became a major issue:

For a more dramatic, exciting, and, yes, amusing (and note the inclusion of a Jon Stewart segment on the subject) video, this winner of a 2007 Webby People's Voice Award also serves as an interesting example of what can be done on YouTube:

And one more from the early days, just a talking head this time, but the head belongs to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web. And as someone who did not try to commercialize the web, but rather made it publicly available to serve the greater good, he was able to speak with a great deal of moral authority:

So, now,  these three videos, and many others like them, make their point all well and fine, but if I may employ a baseball metaphor, all three represent base hits, while John Oliver's segment on the subject, appearing in June of 2014, knocked the ball out of the part, a grand slam by any measure:

It's a great segment, and it had an immediate impact, as related in this segment from a few days after Oliver took on the Federal Communications Commission:

Note how they acknowledge the blurring of the boundaries between comedy and serious discourse in their discussion, and pretty much celebrate it. Now let's fast forward to November of 2014, as President Obama comes out in favor of net neutrality, and the following CNN segments give Oliver, along with Stewart and Colbert, due credit:

And on February 26th of this year, the FCC finally, finally ruled in favor of net neutrality, a development that Oliver did not fail to take note of, along with the immediate backlash that ensued:

So, as far as net neutrality is concerned, a victory for sure, but the issue is far from settled, as lobbyists for the cable and phone companies that provide internet service continue to try to influence Congress to pass legislation that would undermine or eliminate net neutrality. Clearly, the price of maintaining an even online playing field is eternal vigilance, and we best remember that we won't have John Oliver watching out for us forever.

Returning to the amusing and amazing ourselves to death argument, having more access to the internet is not necessarily a good thing, but in this case, net neutrality does protect sources of serious discourse, which otherwise would not be able to compete with the slick, entertaining content provided by the companies that could afford to pay for an internet fast lane, like, ummmm, HBO, and Comedy Central.

  Paradoxes abound! Anyway, I have more to say about John Oliver, but let me save it for another time, and conclude this post by noting that this is a victory for the concept of fair play, an ideal that once meant a great deal to us, that perhaps has faded a bit, but clearly is capable of being reinvigorated. It would be best if we could just begin with the value of fairness, but if we can't, at least we can arrive at it indirectly through our current obsession with play. 

And let me be clear that the problem is not play in and of itself, play is central to education, and playfulness is the key to creativity. The challenge is in finding a balance between work and play. All play and no work makes Jack an ax murderer after all (reference to the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, in case you didn't get it).  And the bottom line that we need to keep in mind is that it takes some serious work if we want to keep things fair!

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