January 12, 2016

Question Of The Week: Is John Oliver A Whistleblower?

By Molly Knobler

Constantine Cannon’s Whistleblower Insider recently announced its 2015 Whistleblower of the Year nominations.  While I pondered who I might nominate, my brilliant and wonderful husband encouraged me to put forward late-night comedian John Oliver as a contender.  My doing so touched off a significant debate amongst the members of our whistleblower practice.  Could he be nominated?  Is he even a whistleblower?  We want to know what you think.

Admittedly, John Oliver is not a traditional whistleblower.  He’s not an insider.  He has staff, the resources of a major network, and likely dozens of lawyers lined up waiting to defend his next outrageous deed.  (I imagine the conversation leading to the creation of his faux church “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption” went something like: “Sure, John, you want to set up a fake church that solicits seed?  We can make that happen.”)

But do his on-air activities serve the same fundamental purposes as the acts of traditional whistleblowers?  Oliver challenges us to think about the status quo.   By shining a spotlight on the insidious, corrosive, soft-corruption of a system stacked in favor of the powerful and against the rest of us, he makes us question the inane and the absurd we live with every day, if only because we’re not paying attention.

And are his risks in doing so not similarly substantial?  Over the course of two seasons, Oliver has shown that he can build and maintain a show — a show he risks every night by openly offending and questioning powerful advertisers and private interests — by exposing issues that are not flashy or popular but have a real world impact on people, usually people with very little power.

In addition, Oliver appears to have had a remarkable impact on causes he’s championed over the last two years.   Several weeks after Oliver aired a segment on abusive practices in the contract chicken farming industry, the House Appropriations Committee moved legislation forward that would help protect against these abuses.  A month after Oliver expounded on bail requirements that put poor people in the ridiculous position of having to “plead guilty to avoid waiting in jail or stay in jail until a trial,” New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced the relaxation of bail requirements for those charged with nonviolent offenses.  Time magazine refers to this as the “John Oliver Effect.”

Or is John Oliver doing something admirable but fundamentally different from what a “whistleblower” does?  Is he more properly considered an “investigative journalist”?  (Keeping in mind that there is a long tradition of recognizing investigating journalists as “whistleblowers.”)  A left-wing mouthpiece?  As he would tell you, an entertainer who has found a welcoming audience?  What do you think?

Is John Oliver a whistleblower?  Please vote or comment below.  You can even nominate him for Whistleblower of the Year here!

Is John Oliver A Whistleblower?

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    One Response to “Question Of The Week: Is John Oliver A Whistleblower?

    1. A whistleblower is “[o]ne who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority.” Oliver clearly reveals wrongdoing within various organizations to the public. In turn, Oliver’s public has often put pressure on those in positions of authority to bring about change. Not only is Oliver a whistleblower, he is a serial one, as he does not limit himself to a single injustice. Oliver is a modern incarnation of muckrakers like Nellie Bly and Julius Chambers. Just as they brought about change through their journalism, so does Oliver. Just as they were whistleblowers, so is Oliver. He does the word proud.