Civil Rights, Media

Laughing with Ferguson

A new kind of ritual has taken over Monday mornings on social media.

As if on cue, pockets of journalists and news outlets take to Twitter to extol the virtues of Sunday night’s episode of John Oliver’s acclaimed HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The reason the raves seem ritualistic is their breathlessness.

No matter the subject matter—mass incarceration, wealth disparities, net neutrality—Oliver is hailed for simply nailing whatever has dominated the weekly news cycle. Better than anyone else. In a nutshell. And he’s funny about it.

Some Twitter observers poked fun at the ritual on Monday.

And yes, he typically does. (His take on the nation’s prison problems is a must-watch—almost as good and painfully truthful as Stephen Colbert’s version.)

But last Sunday things were a bit different. It was time for Oliver to tackle Ferguson, the beleaguered Missouri town where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

Ferguson is different because the protests and civil-rights tensions haven’t abated.

The same night Oliver’s segment aired, the town and the country had just learned the result of Brown’s autopsy—he was shot at least six times, twice in the head. The town was still under a curfew, already decried as unconstitutional by civil-liberties groups. And some of the worst clashes between the Ferguson’s militarized police force and protestors broke out overnight. More journalists were detained. Brown’s character continued to be assailed. Wilson remained uncharged.

In other words, the wound was still open. Maybe even oozing. No solution seemed to be in near sight. No solution is in sight.

Which is why Oliver’s segment seemed odd. Yes, he hit many of the data points making the news: the rampant militarization of cops; the suspension of civil liberties; the racial tensions between community and police; the less-than-adequate response by Missouri authorities. In the words of the weekly ritual observers, he nailed it.

But the thing still felt off.

Maybe it was the timing. Or perhaps the cued-up laughter. Or the lack of solemnity. Or maybe there hasn’t been enough time for reflection. On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the happenings in Ferguson “a generational event [that] demands a generational response.”

Oliver’s segment wasn’t that. It was just a string of grim yet thoughtful observations about Ferguson, peppered with laughter from a live audience that just found it all hilarious. All from a comfortable HBO studio in midtown Manhattan. It felt strange—not untruthful or lacking in newsworthiness or editorial value. None of that is disputed. It just didn’t feel like something Ferguson itself would’ve cared for much.

Ferguson wouldn’t have cared because Michael Brown’s mother still mourns. It wouldn’t have cared because its history of racial issues still persists and residents want answers. Because police are still clashing with protesters and the press, the First Amendment be damned. Because the scent of tear gas still lingers in the air. And most of all, because the officer who gunned down one of Ferguson’s sons still remains at large.

None of that is laughing matter. And so long as Ferguson or Brown’s mother are not given a true reason to laugh, funny newsmen should wait a little bit before they tell the world to laugh along.


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