John Oliver Gets His Frost/Nixon Moment With Edward Snowden

John Oliver Edward Snowden Last Week Tonight

Source: HBO

Modern journalism has arrived at an odd point. Now more than ever, we distrust primary sources like CNN, MSNBC, and of course, Fox News. As a society, we’ve become fed up with the old guard, who nowadays is more concerned with maintaining the 24-hour news cycle than with informing the public. They’re very much in the pocket of big business, and even more, popular names like Brian Williams have proven themselves to be less than trustworthy. When this hit a tipping point years back, along came satire news. It was scathing. It was entertaining. Most importantly though, it was trusted.

Now we’ve arrived at a point where the satire news medium has evolved to be a more reliable source than the organizations they often mock. But with figureheads Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert leaving the game, it’s left one man in John Oliver atop the pyramid. Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO was an overnight sensation when its first season debuted last year, culminating last night in the most important interview of Oliver’s career. The British host hopped a 10-hour flight to Russia to track down NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and in a shockingly poignant interview we found ourselves in the middle of what felt like our generation’s Frost/Nixon moment.

Naturally, the context was far different than the legendary interview David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon, in which he raked the former president over the coals to the surprise of an entire nation. Snowden was far more cooperative and good-natured for his role, but all the same it may very well be remembered as a monumental interview for the future of domestic surveillance in our nation. Five minutes into the talk, the fact that it was being managed by a man who’d spent far more of his career as a comedian than a journalist didn’t matter one iota.

The interview itself started off innocently enough, with softball questions like “do you miss Hot Pockets?” It became abundantly clear though, that this was designed to lull everyone into a false sense of security, when two minutes later Oliver had essentially made Snowden admit that he was careless in his arbitrary leak of information directly affecting national security. The Last Week Tonight host quickly flipped the switch from friendly to contentious, sarcastically stating, “when you’re handing over thousands of NSA documents, the last thing you want to do is read them.” This was shockingly followed by Oliver flat out calling the improper handling of those documents a “fuck-up,” throwing both Snowden and us for one massive loop.

Throughout what was an incredible interview from John Oliver, what ends up as the most surprising aspect is the realization that this is what modern journalism has come to. By and large, Oliver is one of the most talented multi-national journalists working today, and he’s the host of what amounts to a comedy program on a non-news network in HBO. We’ve arrived at a strange point in our public trust for the watchdogs of our society, where we regularly feel as though we’re not being told the whole story. Once-proud networks like CNN occupy themselves with flashy graphics, talking heads, and most importantly, turning a profit. Flip over to Last Week Tonight though, and we as an audience don’t get the impression that someone like John Oliver has an agenda past simply informing the public.

It’s only appropriate to use the Frost/Nixon interviews as a parallel to Oliver’s trek to Russia to track down Snowden. David Frost was largely dismissed by his peers as an entertainer who was far in over his head. But in the end, he effectively turned the tide of public opinion, going toe-to-toe with a president in the interview of the century. Looking at Oliver, also an entertainer, we see a similar dynamic that’s evolved with the way we view the institution of journalism. This represents the future of an industry that in many ways has been ineffectual at best, making people like John Oliver more important now than ever before. Hit play on his interview with Edward Snowden and you, too, will see that the future of the fifth estate has arrived.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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