Monday, April 6, 2015

HBO Becomes Part of its Own Story (again)

HBO seems to be running up an interesting track record when it comes from taking the news as a point of departure and then becoming the news. I suppose I was first aware of it when John Oliver ran a monologue about net neutrality that concluded by encouraging viewers to make their thoughts known to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explaining how they could do so through the Internet. It was pretty simple, since the FCC had set of a site for collecting comments; and the viewer response to Oliver was massive enough to crash that site. More recently, The Jinx led to a revival of attempts to investigate the role of Robert Durst in several unsolved murder cases.

Last night, however, Oliver raised the stakes to an unexpected height. His show had been off the air for a couple of weeks, and he had told viewers that this would be the case. Last night we found out why: Oliver had traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden on the issue of government surveillance. This turned out to be a major undertaking, and the show ran about fifteen minutes longer than usual. As had been the case with net neutrality, Oliver began with an extended monologue with his personal stamp of low humor aimed at bringing awareness to admittedly complex issues. There was also a fair amount of low humor in the Snowden segment, but not enough to mask when things got serious. Oliver even persistently argued that at least some of Snowden's actions could justifiably be called irresponsible, and he even managed to milk a reluctant acknowledgement from Snowden. Nevertheless, he let Snowden say his piece about the irresponsibility of current surveillance activities; and, to his credit, Snowden gave some rather good explanations for the why and how the National Security Agency could get away with doing what they did (and are probably still doing).

I suspect that the most important result of the show was that Oliver went a long way towards undermining the efforts of our government to demonize Snowden. It is clear that Snowden will never set foot in the United States as long as he runs the risk of being tried for treason and then executed. Nevertheless, his is a major voice in any debate that takes place over the complex relationship between security and privacy; and last night he demonstrated that he is given more to calm and rational speech than to the strident rants that have become so popular in our excuse for national discourse.

The net neutrality broadcast had particular impact because it ended with an action item. Last night there was also a need for action regarding a legislative stand on the content of the Patriot Act that must be reviewed by June 1. However, Oliver did not push for a write-in campaign, because it would be more difficult in this case. Therefore, the major impact of his broadcast may have been to demonstrate to the so-called "news" networks that neither Snowden's voice nor the issues he has raised can be ignored if we are to maintain even the pretense of a free society. Unfortunately, this is a matter of considerable complexity. Perhaps Oliver's next program should discuss how our country has allowed its educational system to deteriorate to a point that we no longer have the skilled minds to take on such complexity.

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