With every new episode of John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," another herd flocks to the Internet to watch his most impassioned social or political takedown the Monday after it airs. That longest segment is covered by every news site worth its ad revenue (including this one) -- for good reason.
Oliver has a gift for finding little-told stories, or ones that could be told better. And his rants -- on topics as varied as torture and sugar intake, unburdened by advertisers' interests thanks to HBO's subscription model -- never disappoint. They might even have some real-world impact, which TIME magazine dubbed The John Oliver Effect.
But it's tough to quantify Oliver's influence. Some of the issues he tackles, like government surveillance, were already inspiring outrage before his show came on the air. On the other hand, some issues, like contract chicken farming, were obscure, forgotten or poorly understood until he threw them into the spotlight. Without further ado, here's an update on some of his most talked-about clips.
For-profit colleges are facing the consequences of being crappy colleges.
In this September segment, Oliver lamented the state of student debt in America, calling out for-profit colleges as a major perpetrator. While for-profits like the University of Phoenix and ITT Educational Services benefit from about a third of U.S. student loans, he told us, their students only account for 13 percent of the total college-student population. Oliver seemed uncertain which is worse: the schools' quality of education (one psychology class made an ostensibly educational trip to a Scientology church) or their moral code (some recruiters target military veterans -- including those who aren't well).
Federal agencies, however, are cracking down. The Department of Education fined Corinthian Colleges $30 million in April for overstating job placement rates to current and prospective students. In May, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged ITT Educational Services with fraud. And last month, The University of Phoenix's parent company announced a Federal Trade Commission investigation into the college's marketing, tuition, billing, accreditation and military recruitment practices.
New parents are increasingly allowed more paid time off.
In a Mother's Day segment, Oliver skewered (typically dismal) parental leave policies in the U.S. Under current law, women receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs -- a measure that was strongly opposed when it was introduced in 1993. Of course, not everyone can afford that. "For many women, the current situation forces them to return far before they want to," he explains, before treating us to a montage of tired new mothers sluggishly getting back to work at the office or in retail.
Luckily for new parents, American businesses seem to be independently moving toward more progressive policies. Last week, Netflix announced it would provide "unlimited" parental leave over a child's first year (a good step, though it didn't apply to all at the company). Microsoft quickly followed suit by offering 12 paid weeks' parental leave, and Adobe now offers half a year of paid time off for new mothers, with 16 weeks for new fathers.
New York City recently relaxed its bail bond rules.
In June, Oliver railed against the system of setting bail for nonviolent offenders. For those unable to pay, their recourse is often to plead guilty -- regardless of actual guilt -- and await trial in jail, often with detrimental employment consequences. "Jail can do for your actual life what being in marching band can do for your social life," Oliver explained. "Even if you're in for a little while, it can destroy you."
In July, New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced changes to the system, with new regulations aimed at sparing low-level offenders jail time. Jails in Kentucky, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have already made similar moves, the New York Times noted, with encouraging results.
Lawmakers in Congress may finally be able to defend contract chicken farmers.
In May, Oliver explained the issues between companies like Tyson that own chickens ("everything that makes money") and farmers who own chicken-raising equipment ("everything that costs money"). Rules imposed by the companies, he argued, sometimes put enough financial strain on farmers to drive them into poverty.
Politico spoke with Democratic lawmakers in Congress who'd been fighting to amend the 2008 Farm Bill in order to give the USDA more power to ensure fair treatment for chicken farmers. "We’ve never had publicity like this in the 16 years I’ve been working on this issue," Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) told the site. Several lawmakers and farmers hoped that increased exposure would end the stalemate over the bill.
The FCC is now well aware of people's feelings on "net neutrality."
In a June 2014 segment -- arguably his very best, viewed nearly 10 million times to date -- Oliver dissected the problem with "net neutrality," the idea that Internet service providers shouldn't offer faster or slower connections depending on how much bandwidth companies like Netflix use. The FCC was gathering public comment on its website at the time before its chairman, Tom Wheeler, made a decision. Calling Obama's appointment of Wheeler "the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo," Oliver didn't see a good future for a free and open Web.
And so, at the segment's end, he urged the Internet's population of vile commenters to "focus their indiscriminate rage in a useful direction" and take their outrage to the FCC's website. Which they did. Enough to crash it. Leaving FCC employees to have a good laugh and wonder, "Who watches this?"
A scholarship fund for women engineers received a bump in donations.
Picking apart Miss America's tax returns in September, Oliver and his team figured out how the organization claimed to offer a whopping $45 million in educational funds: It counts the value of every potential scholarship it could possibly award, regardless of actual payout.
While he lambasted Miss America for that misleading claim, Oliver also went after the pageant itself. Eligible women, it turns out, must not only participate in its pageants -- subjecting themselves to all the joys of swimsuit butt glue -- but certify that they are unmarried and are not currentl,y or have ever been, pregnant. Yet, Oliver stated, the misogynist organization's claim to being the largest provider of scholarships to women was true. And obviously, there are more deserving funds out there. The Society Of Women Engineers was one such group Oliver called attention to at the end of his segment, which ended up receiving 15 percent of its average yearly donations in the three days after the show aired.
It's more difficult for authorities to seize personal property without just cause.
"I know it sounds like a Gwyneth Paltrow euphemism for divorce, but, incredibly, it's actually even worse than that," Oliver said in this October segment, following a huge Washington Post investigation the month prior. Civil forfeiture, rising out of the war on drugs, is the hilarious idea of accusing inanimate objects of crimes in order to seize them. Police departments are free to keep most of whatever they take, and any officer who makes a civil forfeiture claim is generally subject to little or no regulation, Oliver said, "like the anti-Spider-Man -- great power, no responsibility."
In January, then attorney general Eric Holder announced much-needed regulations. Local police departments can no longer use federal law as a basis for seizing property -- except in very few cases, such as child pornography -- without a warrant or formal charge. (State law, of course, may still be used to justify taking cash or cars.) In March, Holder also forbade federal authorities from seizing bank accounts until illegal transactions had been documented.
D.C. activists got a pep talk in their fight for rights.
Pointing to a centuries-old rule giving Congress authority to govern the territory it occupies, Oliver starts in on the gross unfairness of it all in this recent clip. Aside from being taxed without representation, he explains, the District of Columbia is often kept from enacting popular policies by members of Congress who personally disagree with them. The segment ended with a twist on the rhyming 50-state song to include the District, at the expense of Florida.
The segment resonated with D.C. activists -- a group even gathered on Capitol Hill earlier this month to sing Oliver's version of the states song. And D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton plans to show the clip to members of Congress when it resumes.
FIFA execs got what's long been coming to them.
While FIFA's corruption may have been well-known to many soccer fans, we're guessing it was news to a lot of "Last Week Tonight" viewers -- as evidenced by Oliver's June 2014 World Cup segment being his most-viewed YouTube clip to date. Oliver explains how the "comically grotesque organization" actually considers itself a non-profit, despite its billion-dollar "rainy-day fund" and tendency to not share World Cup earnings with host countries.
In May, the FBI made international headlines by charging several high-ranking FIFA officials with corruption, extraditing them to the U.S. Days later, FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigned just after winning another four-year term. Oliver covered this in another segment shortly after, challenging former FIFA vice president and likely bribe-taker Jack Warner to fulfill his recent promise to air the organization's dirty laundry. Oliver got a response, although not the one he was looking for. Another video message to Warner resulted, sadly, in radio silence. Meanwhile, it's possible that Russia and hot-as-hell Qatar will not host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively, as investigation into FIFA continues.
And lastly, income inequality is on more voters' radars.
The July 2014 segment in which Oliver discusses American optimism from the outsider perspective of a well-mannered Englishman remains one of his most popular. After cutting to President Obama talking about inequality as one of the "defining challenges of our time," Oliver suggests that it remains a taboo subject for fear of prompting "class warfare." And, he points out, the American public has a stake in protecting its super-rich because we're all under the misguided assumption we've got a real shot at joining them.
Over the past year, though, inequality is a long-simmering issue that's finally become a national conversation -- likely thanks to Obama's attention to the issue, Thomas Piketty's bestselling deep-dive and other media scrutiny. A May 2015 New York Times and CBS News poll revealed attitudes toward wealth that seemed markedly different from those reflected in Oliver's rant a few months prior -- 66 percent believed distribution of money and wealth "should be more even." And, for 2016 presidential candidates, inequality is a key issue whether you're Rand Paul, dismissing it entirely, or Bernie Sanders, making it your stump speech.
CORRECTION: This article previously said that Oliver told viewers to lobby the FCC against net neutrality; he encouraged viewers to voice their support for it. Language has also been modified to more accurately describe the concept.
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