Thursday, October 16, 2014

A reminder about comedians and journalists.

During my lunch break at work the other day (before I was stricken with some miserable rhinovirus that seemed to all but confirm the veracity of the rumors regarding hushed-up Ebola cases in DC) I was sitting in the back room and reading The Washington Post, which featured a story about police using civil forfeiture laws to confiscate cash and property to help subsidize their transformations into paramilitary gangs.

"Holy shit," I said (or something like it) before even getting to the third paragraph. A coworker who was passing through glanced at the paper and asked what I was reading about.

"Yeah," he said after I gave him the gist of what I'd read so far. "I heard all about that on John Oliver the other night. I don't know what to call it but but pathetic that a television comedian is breaking more stories than the 'real' news."

Since I hadn't seen the John Oliver piece and hadn't even finished reading the article, I couldn't offer much more than a nod and a grunt in reply to what seemed like a pretty unfair swipe against journalists. But now I'd like to offer my colleague a corrective fact check—and since our shifts probably won't overlap again for another couple of weeks (and by then he's unlikely to remember what I'm talking about), I guess I'll just throw it up here.

So: the Oliver monologue. Somehow my associate failed to notice that Oliver, like any good comedian/reporter, follows the good practice of citing his sources.

Right out the gate, Oliver begins with a clip from Al-Jazeera. Moments later he says "and if you think that sounds bad, just wait [till you see] how it looks, because The Washington Post recently published a major investigation..." (He's referring to this article from September 6, and the over-the-shoulder graphic even displays the date of its publication.) as a source. At around the three-minute mark is a clip from an interview with Sarah Stillman, who wrote an extraordinary piece on civil forfeitures for The New Yorker which was published in August of last year. (Her story mentions the ridiculous names of civil forfeiture cases, like "United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins," which was probably what inspired Oliver's writers to trawl the public records for some other silly names.)

Then we come to the video clips of cops blatantly attempting to extort cash from motorists. Most were aired by local television stations to begin with; you can track most of them down via Google (examples A and B).

Actually, I'm not sure why I'm bothering to do this. It will suffice to say that yes, a lot of "real" news outfits were reporting on this story months before Oliver picked it up.

An open message to my coworker: don't bash journalists when they don't deserve it. John Oliver broke no news here. He just put the news in a place where people who can't be bothered to read a newspaper could see it.

None of this is to say John Oliver isn't a great talent, that he's not doing a fine job as this decade's sequel to Jon Stewart, or to deny that the phrase "civil forfeiture" wouldn't be on nearly as many people's minds if he hadn't done a piece about the practice and its abuses. But let's give credit where credit is due. Oliver and his writers weren't the ones with their boots in the mud during the effort to expose this rotten practice.

Let's please not mistake the DJ for the musician here. The person who does the compiling relies on the people who do the composing.

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