America’s New Moral Champion

America’s New Moral Champion


I will admit to having early mixed feelings about John Oliver’s delivery and comedy. As a contributor to The Daily Show his comic faux news work was on par with predecessors like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. He played the “Brit” thing well (always good for moral lecturing and wooing women), managed some immigrant endearment with his US military wife and after an awkward start last summer filling in for John Stuart as host he grew into the “anchor” chair with his own awkward, streetwise outsider with the bad toothed smirk.

Getting his own show on HBO last Fall, Last Week Tonight, that evolution continued with some attention getting, some good Daily Show style leftie laughs and the freedom to say, do and show more crudity thanks to pay cable freedom. Recently, however, his show has taken on some major moral issues as a champion. In recent weeks he has taken on and crossed swords with a pompous South American President, disgraced American Tobacco companies for their overseas legal bullying, frighteningly shone inherent conflicts of interest with US judges being elected and this past week an led an impassioned plea to change the debilitating cycle of fines and imprisonment following individual’s inability to pay minor tickets and fines.

Whether it is municipalities or states disguising taxes as fines, using private companies to enforce collections (where penalties mount and fines are paid off last) Oliver has a way of expressing liberal outrage from a very common sense, and often conservative-inclusive point of view with imperatives for change.

He had the guile to take on (former) sister company Sports Illustrated (one of my former employers) with their Swimsuit Issue segment called “How Is This Still A Thing.” It played with the same shake-your-head-that-makes-sense bewilderment that a like segment on Daylight Savings time did. The growing moral confidence of the show is amplified by their comic and highly effective use of Twitter hashtags, musical send-ups, and even ad quality caricatures that have gone far beyond the buzz a weekly news/comedy series would be imagined to have.

Where John Stuart has been trapped and dismissed as anti-conservative and Bill Maher is seen as too left to matter to the middle, the format and style of Oliver is packing some real moral weight across politics, though admittedly more center-left than right wing friendly. The disgraceful behavior of municipalities balancing budgets with fines and fees that unduly punish the poor and tobacco companies using legal cost threats to challenge safety images and warnings outside the US (while actually funding the often have-to-look-away anti-smoking ads in this country) is generating real buzz, outrage and action.

Starbucks attempt to “have a conversation about race” was a huge miscalculation Oliver’s show comically documented as a well intended but be careful what you wish for corporate PR nightmare. With the incessant left-right mutual dismissal of opposing points of view it would seem there is a vacuum spot in the middle where moral outrage, corporate positioning, actions and institutional wrongdoing can be highlighted, mocked, shamed, disgraced and forced into action. Is that good for America?

Despite some honest and some flimsy efforts for citizenship companies often are viewed with amoral personas but a detached pursuit of profit isn’t a defense against moral antagonism (banks and Wall St. examples to the contrary aside). Spin these days can spiral out of PR control overnight. We are seeing growing accountability in social media with stories like Mo’ne Davis and Curt Shilling holding individuals to the fire for vile words and actions. Last Week Tonight seems to have the same intentions for both social and business institutions. Seems like that is good for the country and if your business is on the right side of morality (not just ethics) I’d bet that could only be good for the bottom line…or at least your soul.