John Oliver: What I Read

"This particular media diet would give you information diabetes." John Oliver doesn't recommend his particular media intake to anyone who isn't, say, hosting a weekly comedic news show on HBO.

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How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a phone conversation with John Oliver, former Daily Show correspondent and Jon Stewart stand-in now the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO.

I don’t really regulate it. I basically imbibe the news all day in all forms. As soon as I get up I’ll maybe put on CBS This Morning and then flick around. So, yeah, I guess I’m probably not going to have your classic response because I basically have to watch everything. The only thing I kind of watch for pleasure is Fareed Zakaria’s show on Sundays. Or I used to, but now I can’t do that because I’m working. That and 60 Minutes I watch for pleasure, or maybe Frontline. Everything else I watch nonstop. So at work I have a TV on in my office all the time and I’ll generally flick around on that from CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Al Jazeera. And then we also use SnapStream. That means you can search C-SPAN transcripts, everything.

I’m watching with a certain thing in mind and that is how to see a story told badly.  What I need to go find, then, is primary information, which will be from AP’s footage or Al Jazeera America, which is pretty straight down the line, or BBC World. Then I go into a much much deeper dive through SnapStream, or online, of all the world media sources. [As for primary sources,] I basically do the cycle: New York Times, Wall Street JournalWashington PostLA Times. Everything. Everything. I cannot over-stress to you. [Maybe for fun I'll check] the BBC Sport webpage to see how Liverpool were doing, which was not great on Sunday.

It’s worth looking at aggregate sites early in the morning like Real Clear Politics and then more interesting sites like ProPublica. Then I would go and again look around at Drudge Report. I guess Mediaite. Nothing that feels nice. Nothing that you click on and then feel good going through it. It’s kind of the process of imbibing as wide a variety of poisons as possible. It’s like trying to make a sausage out of some of the most disgusting ingredients.

This is just for the purposes of the show, my personal preference would be to eliminate about 95 percent of this, because there’s basically very little of substance in it. I’m not recommending this media diet to anyone who does not have to do a show about the news. This particular media diet would give you information diabetes. This is only really applicable for very small handful. Not even an adult hand, a child’s handful of people.

When you’re tackling a story like the Indian election or indeed the Pom Wonderful [story, both of which were featured in Last Week Tonight's first episode], you’re basically becoming like a Google deep sea diver. You’re just going into the weeds. That’s how we found some of that Indian election footage. There’s not an easy place to access that stuff. You just have to watch it.

Say for example, the Supreme Court case, Pom Wonderful vs. Coca Cola. You get the transcripts earlier in the week, just searchable. The audio is released on Friday. So you know you’re going to get the audio. However, as happened with us, the audio sometimes kills you because there’s crosstalk and the primary source doesn’t work as well as you need it to. Those are the raw materials of that oral argument, then you’re looking at doing the deep dive through LexisNexis or through SnapStream or through print media: how did this case get to the Supreme Court? And for that you’re needing to look through sometimes state court records to see how it got there and what happened there. Then you’re also looking back to things like, in our case, the key Kellogg’s First Amendment. And then from there, what you’re wanting to do is get some sources. So you’re looking to get old commercials. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that that we ended up cutting out. What we wanted to do was show a commercial, show the kind of bullshit slap on the wrist from the FDA that the commercial got and how they basically didn’t change it at all. Now we didn’t have time in the end to do all of that. That was that specific process for that specific story. But then it completely changes for India.

I don’t [subscribe to any print newspapers or magazines at home]. I don’t have time. I just don’t have time, which is a really depressing thing to say. On my walk to work generally there is a podcast I listen to just because I want to, not because I have to. If it was for work I might listen to On the Media, the NPR podcast. Or Fresh Air, if there was someone on that worth listening to. Or a world news thing. There are a whole bunch of different ones. I might listen to Marc Maron’s podcast for fun. I like that.

Otherwise I’ll watch sports. I watch the English Premier League on NBC Sports. Then I’ll watch SportsCenter at night to see what’s happened. I like watching Ranger games, Nets games, Knicks games, Jets games. What was the last thing I watched for pleasure? I watched Nurse Jackie with my wife last night. Otherwise I’ll kind of watch things on long flights. I think I watched all of House of Cards on the way to Australia, and then most of Breaking Bad on the way back. I went to Afghanistan and I did the same kind of thing. I like Sarah Vowell’s books. I’m generally reading for work as well. Books that get sent or background stuff. 

I used to sleep with the TV on, until I got a wife. I used to sleep with the news on, and she quite rightly pointed out that was perhaps not the mentally healthiest thing to do. That got kiboshed pretty quickly. I used to have it on all the time and now she’s pretty good at stopping me from doing that to myself. I’ll usually check in [before I go to bed].

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.