The Outrageous Brilliance of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Segment on Surveillance

Posted: April 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

My hope is that most of you will have seen Jon Oliver’s recent segment on government surveillance on “Last Week Tonight.” My thanks to my brother John Pettus for making me aware via a post on Facebook, because this is one of the more brilliant works of communication skills I have seen in a while.

If you haven’t seen it, do me a favor and go watch it right now. I’ll wait.

OK, welcome back.

In this post, to fully express my own appreciation of the incredible work of journalism and communication that this piece was, I will break it down element by element. I’m going to do this because I think the work that went into this segment is all the more appreciable if you can see the structure, discipline and rigor behind it, and identify the principles on which it was built. So here we go with the “wizard behind the curtain” analysis.

  1. Oliver introduces the topic- government surveillance. Pretty self explanatory.
    1. Oliver acknowledges the relative boredom and unpopularity of this topic among American audience, (inserts a joke about being more interested in whether cell phones give you cancer, and whether goldfish suffer from depression.)
  2. Oliver details why it’s important- he contextualizes the topic in current events
    1. Patriot Act reauthorization and its controversial civil liberties provisions, (inserts a joke about Justin Long’s birthday)
  3. He provides a more in-depth discussion of the surveillance programs on the table, (inserts a joke about Russian boy band)
    1. He explains that Section 215 allows the U.S. government to require businesses to hand over “any tangible thing” relevant to a government investigation to protect against international terrorism, (inserts an analogy/joke about teenage use of cars)
  4. He then digs further into government’s use of Section 215 regarding surveillance of phone records and calls, (inserts a joke about Aunt Cheryl)
    1. He plays Obama’s defense of Section 215 being leveraged to monitor US phone calls, (inserts a joke about pathetic guy calling his ex)
  5. Oliver now contextualizes the Patriot Act in the post 9/11 intelligence era, its re-authorization history, the complete lack of examination and news coverage from the past, and inserts a joke about hiding important information in phone calls between parents and children
    1. He introduces the optimistic assertion that Edward Snowden brought a greater emphasis on examination of the Patriot Act and all of its sketchy provisions when he released classified information to the press about NSA domestic surveillance programs, sets up intentionally false argument that “this all ended after Edward Snowden” in June 2013, and inserts joke about ineptitude of NSA and 20 year olds being able to steal its information
    2. Introduces an evaluation of Snowden’s logic in only releasing the information to the press, and Snowden’s assertion that he wants the press to decide what should be published, tees up the problem with that theory with examples of journalistic ineptitude, improper redaction of classified and relevant information to overseas intelligence operations
  6. Now Oliver moves to reiterate the flimsy argument he has built up to this point, which he is about to knock down, that now that we have had access to the Snowden information, we can no longer plead ignorance of these provisions, and inserts SeaWorld joke about Shamu
    1. He introduces the topic of public’s action on this information in light of the post-Snowden era, covers Pew report claiming half of Americans are not really concerned or not concerned at all about government surveillance
    2. He introduces the theory that this information is not based on a well-informed populace, and tees up video interviews proving that few Americans, if any, know who Edward Snowden is. The videos show Americans conflating Snowden with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. He inserts a joke about Julian Assange, Cumberbatch playing him in film- declares Assange “unCumberbatchable” which is significant because he seems to be aiming to render Snowden more likeable than Assange, and to distinguish him from Assange, who has proven to be widely unpopular to the public at large
  7. He once again returns to the beginning, resets the topic for the audience, and acknowledges that it is hard to wrap your head around all of the surveillance programs on the table, and the dilemma of wanting perfect privacy and perfect safety/security. Here he inserts a falcon and vole joke, having your cake and eating it too, to illustrate the point.
    1. He mentions the NSA’s defense that a court has to approve all surveillance programs before they go into effect, then adds the caveat that in 34 years, the court has approved over 35,000 applications and only rejected 12. Inserts Robert Durst joke.
  8. He tees up a discussion of where the limits should be, using Section 215 as an illustrative point. Introduces the fact that there is widespread agreement that Section 215 should be revised, even by the author of Section 215. Lewis Carroll Disneyland teacups ride joke.
    1. He informs us that the NSA has said that number of terror plots that Section 215 has helped to interrupt is 1.
    2. Argues that if we let 215 get renewed, we are in trouble because it is “the canary in the coal mine” relative to all of the troubling provisions rolled up into the Patriot Act, and argues that the public has done a pathetic job of discussing it. He here inserts an MSNBC clip of news anchor interrupting a congresswoman arguing for the revision of Section 215 in order to deliver breaking Justin Bieber news.
  9. He introduces his Snowden interview by arguing that the best person with whom to discuss the current state of discussions and dialogue about government surveillance would be Edward Snowden, but mentions how difficult that would be to pull off. Then announces he traveled to Russia to do just that, and what follows is travel, Russian cultural humor, and Oliver playing around with the possibility that Snowden won’t and shouldn’t show up to the interview, briefly mentioning the overt dangers and tribulations of arranging the interview and choosing to conduct it in the first place

And then Snowden shows up and things begin to get really interesting in the dialogue, because now Oliver doesn’t have to word things rhetorically, and he suddenly has another personality to build the outraged humor onto, but it is hard to anticipate how Snowden will respond to his prodding and light antagonism in the name of comedy.

  1. Beginning of Snowden interview
    1. Oliver starts by asking Snowden if he misses the US to outright establish Snowden’s patriotism and intelligence simultaneously by asking about hot pockets, Florida, and truck nuts. This is an intentional choice to allow Snowden to elaborate on his unique brand of patriotism, measure it out loud for the audience, but also distinguish for the audience that Snowden isn’t a jingoistic maniac. Oliver also chooses to leverage some Daily-Show and Stephen Colbert-like jokes about what most Americans regard as national treasures, such as hot pockets and truck nuts.
    2. Next he asks Snowden, why did you do this? Once again, to help establish his motives. Snowden here affirms that this was about daylighting what he regarded as troubling issues with the NSA’s surveillance programs against Americans.
    3. Then Oliver allows Snowden to offer his unedited opinion of why the NSA’s programs are nefarious, dangerous, and destructive to American liberty.
    4. Oliver next stops to distinguish between issues of domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance, and establishes that Americans don’t care about foreign surveillance, and provokes Snowden to finally agree with him.
    5. Allows Snowden to tell us whether he considered the dangers of releasing these documents to the public via journalists, during which Edward Snowden mentions that “he’s not handling anything any more,” which seems like something he has been coached by his legal team to assert at any chance he gets.
  2. Oliver returns to the questionable credibility of the journalists, returns to the redacted slide fiasco, to which Snowden argues, “in journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made” and then continues to ascribe this principle more largely to the risks of freedom in general.
  3. When Oliver takes the opportunity to distinguish between journalists acting in “bad faith” and what he regards as their plain “incompetence,” Snowden counters that as long as you’re free, you’ll never be living completely without risks. This is beautiful dialogue that allows Oliver to simultaneously spear modern journalists for their lack of basic skills with widespread media, acknowledge the segment of the population who view Snowden as little more than a reckless and naive hazard to national security, but also allows Snowden to bolster his own argument that there were always going to be mistakes made, and risks to releasing these documents, but that the perils to American liberties are far greater and worth the risks. It’s a jumble of complex points, but comes across and finishes simply- which I think is beautiful.
  4. Here, next, Snowden walks right into a pretty overbuilt and grandiose account of how many Americans are reacting to to the released information and to what he did, and Oliver stops him to inform him that no one knows who he is, shows him the blunt video clips of Americans who dont know his name, and inserts a joke that he is likely welcome to return to the US as a result. This is also complicatedly beautiful. You can see that Snowden has been largely left alone to generate vast and uncompromising accounts of his own heroism, and that he is susceptible to these narratives, but Oliver brings it crashing down with some really tough reality.
  1. Snowden then reiterates why he did what he did, in the context of the American people and their right to know and understand that they are being surveilled
  2. Snowden admits it is tough to conceptualize and understand the issues, Oliver makes an analogy about the IT guy in the office
  3. Snowden acknowledges that we need to figure out how to translate important topics into everyday terminology and terms for Americans

And here is where I just can’t say enough about the analysis, and the communication skills utilized in this particular segment, despite how crude and crass the analogy’s subject is:

  1. Oliver introduces the concept of naked pictures of Americans being passed around inside the NSA and how important “dick pics” are to Americans. In essence, he introduces the possibility of an NSA “dick pic program” as the “line in the sand” for the Americans. He then backs up his argument with taped interviews with the same folks who failed to identify Edward Snowden, and who now display anger and outrage at the idea of the NSA having access to their “dick pics.”
    1. Moving forward, now Oliver compels Snowden to break down, using only the NSA’s access to collecting and circulating dick pics as the significant unit of surveillance, whether Americans should or would be upset about each particular surveillance program the NSA is running
    2. This segment is so relatable, so well illustrated in Snowden’s accounts, mostly because Oliver shuts him down a few times when he strays from the “dick pick program” topic and insists that he focus solely on the dick pic unit in the context of each surveillance program
    3. Once Snowden gets the hang of this, it is mesmerizing. You can almost hear the world click into place. Everything can be framed in the context of this one unit of surveillance- the “dick pic”- in a way that is utterly relatable for a modern TV audience. It is so intelligent and simultaneously absurd, it is maybe one of the greatest pieces of modern art I have yet seen.
  2. In the end, Oliver asks Snowden whether Americans should change their behavior to accommodate this new era and the modern surveillance society, to which Snowden answers, adamantly, “no” and then reiterates that Americans should have the right to express themselves freely and without concern that they are constantly being monitored and recorded by their own government. Cue the applause.

So, in summary, why do I think this segment is a work of genius?

Because it clearly and uncharitably attacks our preconceived notions and refuses to remain at a higher, more generalized and rhetorical level of discourse about these themes of surveillance, security, privacy, liberty the way so many media outlets in our public sphere often do. It digs into the details, the historical context, the previous failures, the clumsy mistakes, the unchecked autonomy of government agencies, and the troubling apathy and ill-informed nature of the American public. The segment they designed and constructed attacks what the informed “Last Week Tonight” audience wants to assume about the large American audience, and lets them know in no uncertain terms that they should not assume as much. It brings to light the deep and nefarious nature of our government’s moves to watch us all in the post 9/11 era which now must be reviewed and curtailed. And it does all of this in the most humorous, and well organized way that it possibly can, by defining the unit of surveillance that we all care most about as the “dick pic,” which, though crass, is undeniably compelling as a unit of significance for anything in the modern era.

And there you have it, my rhetorical analysis of Jon Oliver’s Surveillance segment. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

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