John Oliver is the host of Last Week Tonight, a satirical news program that airs on HBO and is also uploaded onto YouTube. Oliver’s show is often funny and well-researched. Sometimes, I do think he goes too far in sacrificing accuracy for the sake of humor. Also, his progressivism is obvious and clearly impacts the message of the show. Now, that really is not much of a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a program advocating for a particular point of view, and in any case, Oliver is a comedian, not a journalist, as he himself will tell you.
However, sometimes he goes so far for the sake of humor, or is so one-sided, that he diminishes significantly Last Week Tonight’s utility as a source of information. His segment last week on third parties was one of those occasions.
That segment focused on what he rightfully refers to as the most well-known third party candidates, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Also, it’s worth noting that these are the only two candidates who would not have to rely on write-ins in order to win through the electoral college.
He focuses on Jill Stein first. He did a good job of explaining how it isn’t clear that Jill Stein has a clear idea of how government works, citing her contention that the President can cancel student debt through quantitative easing. As Oliver points out, that is pure nonsense. The president does not implement quantitative easing, which is a monetary policy tool used by the Federal Reserve. Secondly, it has nothing to do with student debt. He also points out how Stein, at least, tolerates fringe ideas like 9/11 trutherism and anti-vaccination theories.
However, his segment began with the contention that “she has a broadly appealing pitch,” and he lists environmental issues as one aspect of that. If he meant this in only the most open ended way, that environmental issues are popular, he is certainly correct, but Jill Stein goes well beyond advocating for them. Her solutions are quite extreme.
As only one example, her website calls climate change “the greatest threat to humanity in our history” and calls for a transition to 100 percent renewable fuel use by 2030. According to the Energy Information Administration, about 67 percent of American electricity production came from fossil fuels in 2015. If you’re thinking that means we’d only need to increase clean energy from 33 percent, think again. First of all 20 percent of electricity comes from nuclear, which Stein wants to ban. Also, these figures are for electricity production, not total energy production. In order to eliminate the need for fossil fuels entirely, we’d have to get rid of gas powered cars. This is not a broadly appealing pitch. This is lunacy. Oliver’s segment leaves the viewer with the impression that Stein just does not understand how government works, but it ignores the larger problem of how outside of the mainstream her ideas are in the first place.
Still, a bigger omission is him not mentioning Evan McMullin in the entire 18 minute segment. For those who don’t know, McMullin is an independent conservative candidate. Now, there are many third party candidates, and like all but Stein and Johnson, McMullin is not on the ballot in enough places to win the presidency through the electoral college. So, why is Oliver’s nonmention of him a problem? It’s in part because McMullin actually has the best chance of winning anything out of all of the third party candidates.
He is polling extremely well in Utah for candidate not from one of the two major parties. He’s been above twenty percent in more than one poll. He’s been within the margin of error of Trump and Clinton. His chances of winning Utah should not be overstated. Trump is still the most likely person to win the state. However, with Utah, McMullin is the only plausible candidate besides Trump and Clinton who could win a state. In the extremely unlikely scenario that neither Trump nor Clinton win a majority in the electoral college, the House would choose between them and McMullin. Him winning in the House is also unlikely. However, he is the only person besides Trump and Clinton who even has a plausible shot at the presidency.
I’m not sure exactly why Oliver did not mention McMullin. I suspect it is primarily that McMullin does not have any of the wackiness of Stein or Johnson, so using him for a comedy segment is not as easy to do as with the others. However, considering he at least mentioned the Prohibition Party nominee, the Legal Marijuana Now Party nominee, and that he spent over a minute for independent Joe Exotic, his omission of McMullin is quite glaring.
Another omission is near the end of the segment in which he describes the race as choosing between the lesser of four evils. He describes Hillary Clinton as “a hawkish, Wall Street friendly embodiment of everything that some people can’t stand about politics.” Really? That’s the way he describes Clinton?
First of all, I completely understand why some on the left describe Clinton has hawkish and Wall Street friendly. For a show hosted by a progressive and with a mostly progressive audience, that criticism is not unreasonable. However, I do hope that people keep in mind that that characterization is relative to a progressive worldview. Prior to Donald Trump’s isolationism, I think it would be fair to say that most criticism of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy from the right would have been for not being hawkish enough. Conservatives generally saw her as an extension of Obama’s foreign policy which they saw as too weak.
If we take Wall Street to mean favoritism for the big banks, I think many Republicans would agree that she is too Wall Street friendly. However, if one means that she’s too lax on business regulation, calling her “Wall Street friendly” is laughable from a conservative perspective. Many readers on the left are probably thinking that these labels are still accurate and that conservatives are just even crazier. I won’t try and dissuade anyone of that here. My only point is that calling her hawkish and Wall Street friendly is relative to a progressive worldview, not necessarily to the political center.
Secondly, Oliver only says that she embodies what some people hate about politics? No mention of her own lies and scandals? For reference, on September 25 he compared the scandals between the two major party nominees, and came to the conclusion that Clinton’s scandals might be larger than typical politicians’, but that they are still miniscule in comparison to Trump’s. Fair enough, but his segment on scandals mischaracterizes some of the criticism she has received.
For instance, he mentions Benghazi and how Clinton had not been found “evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton” in regards to the attack. However, the “scandal” part of Benghazi are the allegations that Clinton (and the Obama administration more generally) framed the attack as spontaneous and blamed it on an Internet video all while knowing it was pre-planned.
He spends most of the scandal segment analyzing the email scandal, though. He makes it seem as though Clinton’s most dishonest remark was that the server was allowed. However, when he discusses how there was some classified information found on her emails, he does not mention that this information came out after Clinton had long maintained that there was no classified information. Clinton has also claimed that there was no information that was marked as classified, which is also untrue. Furthermore, she has said that she gave all of the work related emails to the government, which is untrue as well. Her personal aids deleted thousands of emails that they deemed personal. The controversy about her emails is not just that she had it in the first place; it’s also about how she has repeatedly lied about her email server. Using the words “lying” or “scandal-plagued” would have been a far more appropriate negative description of Clinton than as being the “embodiment of what some people can’t stand about politics.”
These omissions leave Oliver’s segment on third parties less informative and more one-sided than it could have been. Of course, Oliver is a comedian and does not have a journalistic responsibility for neutrality. However, viewers should always keep in mind that when they watch Last Week Tonight, it’s a comedy show first and foremost, and a source for information second.