The line between editorial content and advertising in news media is blurrier and blurrier. That’s not bullshit. It’s repurposed bovine waste.
Other segments: Argentine debt restructuring, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Port Authority Bus Terminal

Season 1 Episode 13
Aired on August 3, 2014

Welcome! Welcome! Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight.” I’m John Oliver. Just time for a quick recap of the week. In a nutshell: Gaza–horrific; Ebola spreading; and Syria, to be honest, it’s barely being reported on, but let’s assume it’s still fucking awful.

Thankfully for all of our souls, though, in Uganda, there was one genuinely good piece of news this week. A controversial and much-protested anti-gay law in Uganda was invalidated today. Yes! That is fantastic! Uganda’s brutal anti-gay law has been struck down. Presumably, this was a simple case of a country finally coming to its senses and understanding the dignity and worth of all individuals. The country’s constitutional court ruled that it was “Null and void” because the parliament didn’t have a quorum when it was passed earlier this year. Well, that’s even better! It was overturned on a technicality! “Free at last, free at last. “Thank God Almighty, we are accidentally free at last!” It still counts. It still counts.

Now, you may remember, we actually covered Uganda’s anti-gay laws a while ago, and we all met one of its main proponents, Pastor Martin Ssempa.

[Pastor Martin Ssempa] They begin to use gadgets like bananas. They use carrots. They use bananas. They use cucumbers and other metallized ones, and they put them inside themselves. Maybe tiny coconuts.

OK. Just to be clear, what you’re describing isn’t a sexual orientation. It’s a juice cleanse, OK? Which, by the way, is an abomination before God. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. But surprisingly–perhaps unsurprisingly, Ssempa was not thrilled with this law being overturned, and he thinks he knows who is to blame. Barack Obama, who has been putting pressure in the U.S.-Africa summit. Wait. President Obama was responsible? That could actually be the most ignorant thing this man has said so far because it is one thing to believe that gay sex involves a complete edible arrangement, but if you truly believe President Obama has the power to influence legislation anywhere on Earth, you are a complete idiot.

And–moving on. Speaking of the president, he ended this week having to deal with the imminent release of a major report on the CIA and torture. Leaks suggest that this country is about to have to confront the brutality that has been committed in its name, and the president attempted to prepare us all for that in a bizarrely casual way. We did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. What? Folks? When you’re admitting one of the darkest chapters in recent American history, it’s maybe best not to come off like an old man in a Country Time Lemonade commercial. “Well, that was the day I met your grandmother. “We spent the whole afternoon at “the county fair. “Then that night, we tortured some folks. “We did it, and we’ve been together. That’s our story.” Even the CIA’s conduct towards the Senate committee that wrote the report is proving to be controversial. Back in March, Dianne Feinstein accused them of hacking into the Senate committee’s computers, which, CIA Director John Brennan thought sounded crazy. The allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s–that’s just beyond the, you know, the scope of reason. Uh-huh, uh-huh, OK. Beyond the scope of reason, uh-huh, uh-huh. I get it. Guess what. CIA Director John Brennan apologized today after an internal investigation determined the agency had spied on staff members of the United States Senate. OK. So it wasn’t so much beyond the scope of reason as it was nestled extremely deep within the scope of reason. Just all up in that scope of reason. Right up in there. This man has either lied to senators or been guilty of not knowing what his own agency was doing. At the very least, this has got to knock the president’s confidence in John Brennan, right? I have full confidence in John Brennan. How? How? How is that possible? The only way you can have full, 100% confidence in him is if you somehow had 300% confidence in him before all of this happened. In fact, Mr. President, let me try and put this in terms you might understand. You really might want to consider disciplining some folks. And finally, to some lighter news right here in New York. Fishs Eddy is a local independent kitchenware store. They make delightful plates featuring New York’s skyline, but this week they ran into some unexpected trouble with a government agency.

[Newswoman] Last week, a Port Authority attorney fired off a letter to Fishs Eddy. According to the letter, “Your use of “the Port Authority’s assets on dinnerware and other items is of great concern to the Port Authority.”

[Different Newswoman] The store was also told the use of the images interferes with the Port Authority’s control of its own reputation. That’s right, that’s right. The Port Authority is anxious to protect its reputation. And here is something the Port Authority clearly does not understand–its reputation is terrible. Because the only thing people think of when they hear its name is the Port Authority bus terminal, also known as the single worst place on planet Earth. It is–let me explain how bad. It is a place–it’s a place where cockroaches run up to people screaming, “Please get me out of here. This place is disgusting.” The Port Authority is so famously awful that the sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” once had an episode called “Everybody Hates the Port Authority,” which featured this scene.

[Rochelle] OK. I want y’all to be real careful in here. This place is full of pickpockets, pimps, and murderers and child molesters and thieves.

[Adult Chris] That’s the Port Authority slogan. And the producers were safe in the knowledge that everyone would understand that joke because you do not need to have been to the Port Authority to know that you never want to go there. And yet the Port Authority is worried that a whimsical plate will destroy its reputation. Well, look, if they really want to take ownership of their hard-earned image, maybe we can be of some help.

[Announcer] New York, home to such icons as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and, of course, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Big Apple’s magnificent worm. If you really want to know the Port Authority’s reputation, just ask any New Yorker. The Port Authority is pretty gross. I think it’s fucking disgusting. It’s kind of skuzzy. It really creeps me out. It’s kind of like a dumpy shithole from the eighties.

[Announcer] And in tribute to this great building, we’re proud to introduce the official Port Authority dinner plate. Handcrafted from Port Authority bathroom tiles, the plate features all the most famous Port Authority sights: an old woman throwing up in a garbage can; an unattended child; a rat orgy; a man relieving himself into a water fountain; a used condom and 3 loose teeth; and two pregnant women fist fighting. The official Port Authority dinner plate. Eat shit! Mmm! Oh, beautiful, beautiful. Moving on. There was an amazing international story this week that you may have missed. Argentina is in default for the second time in 13 years. Last-minute talks failed to produce a deal with the country’s bondholders, demanding payment overnight. Now Argentina has defaulted. Now Argentina defaulting is not, in itself, startling. They’ve done it 7 times before. Defaulting is an Argentine tradition every bit as grand as the tango and hiding Nazis, both of which they are flamboyantly good at. And you may be thinking, “Well, look, this is “horrible for the people of Argentina, who are “clearly in for a very difficult time, but what does this story have to do with me?” Well…

[Newsman] There is a deep-seated resentment against the United States in Argentina nowadays. People there say the world’s most powerful country is driving their financially strapped nation into the abyss. That’s an unpleasant surprise because normally if you see someone burning an American flag, you can at the very least guess why. Pakistan–well, probably drone strikes. Iran–let’s say crippling sanctions. College campus–looks like Tyler just learned about the military-industrial complex. “Hey, this is bullshit, man!” “I ain’t gonna take it” “No, Tyler ain’t gonna take it” But interestingly, this time, the flag is not burning due to the actions of the U.S. government as much as it is some U.S. hedge funds.

[Newsman] The dispute began when Argentina financially collapsed in 2001 and couldn’t pay its debts. Most investors owed money have agreed to accept repayments of as little as 25 cents for each dollar spent, but a group of U.S. hedge funds known as hold-out investors have refused and have taken Argentina to court to get their money. Now, I know that you are on the edge of your seats at this point. Hedge funds, foreign bonds, and court-ordered debt restructuring? You don’t often get a single story with all 3 active ingredients in a bottle of NyQuil, but how is it possible for a hedge fund, which is, by definition, run by a small group of extremely rich assholes–That’s a fact– how is it possible for them to bring Argentina to the precipice of default? Well, luckily, there is a hyperexcited financial reporter from “Reuters” who is anxious to explain this to you.

[Felix Salmon] How exciting is this, people? I get to bring out my Legos again and bring out my toys and use it to explain to you what is going on. Oh, no, no. Why does he have to be English? Why? And not just English. His name is actually Felix Salmon, which sounds like what the Queen would feed her cat. But, look, I’m sorry, Felix. You were explaining. So what happens is that every so often there’s a coupon payment. And the train goes choo-choo-choo through Clearstream and various other bits of financial intermediaries. These people owe those people money, and unless those people have money, you’re not allowed to do anything. Felix, Felix, stop. Stop, Felix. How are you somehow managing to make this complicated story even more confusing than it already is? Look, in its most basic form, this is what happened. Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001. Their government wrote a bunch of IOUs to bondholders that it later decided not to pay. 93% of those bondholders eventually accepted Argentina’s offer to pay the debt back at around 30 cents on the dollar, but the remaining investors– led by a hedge fund called Elliott Management– listened to Argentina’s kind offer of 30 cents on the dollar and counteroffered by telling them to go fuck themselves. And then two years ago, Elliott Management, who at this point were acting like an international collection agency, went full “Repo Man” on Argentina. A court in Ghana today ruling that this Argentine navy ship, the “Libertad,” cannot leave port. Elliott Management, run by secretive hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, sued to take control of the ship. JOHN: Just–just think about that. A secretive billionaire’s hedge fund managed to essentially boat-jack a warship like a Somali pirate in an Armani suit. “I am the captain of industry now. I am the captain!” And the hedge fund held that ship for more than two months, which is crazy, almost as crazy as how Argentina greeted the ship upon its return.

[Newsman] She arrives to a full-blown celebration. The “ARA Libertad” is finally home after being detained for two months in Ghana. The triumphant return was watched by the Argentinean president Cristina Fernandez. OK, OK. First, Argentina, what exactly do you think you’re doing? If you’re on the edge of default, maybe cut the fireworks budget a bit. And also, it’s a little suspicious that you suddenly care this much about a warship which, no offense, would look more at home inside a decorative glass bottle. Because, look, just to be clear to you, Argentina is by no means blameless in this story. They reneged on their debts. So throwing a party for that boat is the international equivalent of a deadbeat dad celebrating moving his car before his ex-wife could seize it for child support. “Yes! Fuck you, Carol. “I need this Celica to drive to the job I’m “definitely gonna get. “Yes! Celica is mine!” But the point is, Is anyone else a little uncomfortable that a hedge fund with 300 employees has the power to seize the ship of a sovereign nation of 41 million people? Even the reporters covering this whole story seem a little flummoxed. All sides continue to negotiate through a complex web of rulings and conflicting ideologies–what is legal or illegal, moral or immoral.

OK. Well, there’s one thing I can definitely clear up for you there. Hedge funds are neither moral nor immoral. They are amoral. They only exist to make money. Hedge funds look at distressed countries with assets the way that vultures look at dying zebras. “Mmm! “Sure it’s suffering, but this one’s gonna taste all stripy!” Elliott Management has been here before. They reportedly made a 400% profit on Peruvian debt in 2000 and then, in the Republic of Congo, invested less than $20 million and got $90 million back. Give them credit. That is skilled secondary-market investing. And it also must make great small talk at parties. “Hey, nice watch, Brian.” “Thanks! I paid for it by shaking the Congo until $90 million fell out.” “Oh, I thought I liked it.” It is no wonder hedge funds prefer not to have their activities scrutinized. The head of Elliott Management, Paul Singer, has been called publicity-shy, and his firm’s recent letter to investors said, “Obviously, our lives would be easier if “the press cared less about this particular position.” So is that clear to everyone? All Paul Singer wants– this Paul Singer here– is for people to respect Paul Singer’s demands for Paul Singer’s privacy at this very difficult, potentially profitable time for Paul Singer, OK? Respect his privacy. Respect it. You respect that man! You respect him! Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this whole story is that a brief moment of notoriety could be the worst consequence for the hedge funds who are involved in the current situation in Argentina because they’ve not broken the law. And the fact that that’s true makes this story so much more concerning to me. That a dispute with a small group of powerful investors can drive a G-20 nation into default is one of those things that is technically not illegal but really feels like it probably should be, like being drunk on a Segway or watching porn on an airplane or naming your puppy Cunty McGee. You’re technically allowed to do all of those things, but isn’t humanity supposed to be a lot fucking better than that? And now this… Stop what you’re doing and listen to this. Your face wash could kill you.

[Newsman] Too much sugar can actually kill you. Binge watching TV could kill you? Your digital life may be killing you. Is your purse killing you slowly? Are your shoes killing you? Nagging spouses can kill you. Your desk job may actually be killing you. Your daytime snoozing might be killing you. Oh, boy!

[Man] How can my necktie kill you?

* * *

And finally, finally tonight, let’s talk about corporate influence in the media. And before I do, I am very aware that we’re extremely lucky here on HBO. We don’t have advertisers, so if I want to say that, for instance, Cadbury Cream Eggs are filled with dolphin sperm or that Old Navy clothing makes you look like a tacky murderer or that Snickers only satisfies you for about 8 minutes, then makes you hate yourself for the rest of the day, I can. I can do all of those things, and why? Well, because of HBO’s business model, which no one has been able to adequately explain to me yet. But most other outlets are locked in a constant battle for editorial independence, which is especially problematic when it comes to the news. America has a proud tradition of a free and independent press, but it has always been a fight. Back in the fifties, newscasters like NBC’s John Cameron Swayze were introduced like this.

[Announcer] Sit back, light up a Camel, and be an eyewitness to the happenings that made history in the last 24 hours. The Camel News Caravan presents… Today’s News Today! Produced for Camel Cigarettes by NBC.

Top story this evening– [coughs loudly while pretending to be smoking a cigarette] Americans’ life expectancy, still 45. That’s Camel smooth.

Now, exceptions like that aside, it’s generally agreed upon in journalism that there should be a wall separating the editorial and the business side of news. It’s sometimes referred to as the separation of church and state, although I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately they’re good, but if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.

But recently, the integrity of news has become harder to protect, particularly in print. Print is still where most original journalism is done, but since papers moved online, they have struggled financially, mainly because news is like porn–people don’t want to pay for it on the Internet, even though somewhere in a dimly lit room Paul Krugman worked very hard to make it. Online–online… Uh-uh. Online– he worked hard. He put his heart and soul into that. Online, print publications have struggled to attract advertisers, partly because traditional banner ads are so ineffective that one study found we only intentionally click on them less than 2/10 of 1% of the time, which actually sounds about right because did you know that if you ever actually click on a banner ad, you literally get taken to a page that reads, “Hey, is everything OK? “I’m presuming you passed out and hit your head “on the keyboard. I’m calling an ambulance right now!”

The publishing industry, though, has responded to this crisis by finding a new way to appeal to advertisers.

[Ken Auletta, Contributor, The New Yorker] Native advertising is basically saying to corporations that want to advertise, “We will camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories.” That’s essentially it.

“That’s essentially it”? Are you saying that to sum up your point on native advertising, or are you describing independent journalism? “That’s essentially it. It’s over. We’re done here.”

Even if you’ve not heard the term “native advertising” before, you have probably been subjected to it by now. It’s when a piece of ostensibly normal content is stamped with tiny disclaimers like this and this and then contains messages that are often clear endorsements, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just take a break from making this point by enjoying the refreshing taste of Mountain Dew Code Red. Mmm. And then it’s at this point that you usually realize, “Oh, this isn’t the thing that I was looking for. “You’re just advertising the most disgusting fucking drink ever manufactured.” Although–although, I will say it does undeniably taste of red.

Native advertising, though, has been so lucrative for new media organizations, they’ve basically built their entire business model around it.

[Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed  100% of our revenue comes from branded content. So we have a lot of partners who are marketers and major brands. We work with 76 of the top 100 brands now.

That’s the CEO of BuzzFeed Jonah Peretti, and his face is like BuzzFeed itself– successful, appealing, and yet somehow you want to punch it. BuzzFeed has created– BuzzFeed has– no, no, no. BuzzFeed has created masterpieces of native advertising, such as “10 Lifechanging Ways to Make Your Day More Efficient,” sponsored by GE, and “9 Ways Cleaning Has Become Smarter,” sponsored by Swiffer, and “11 Sea Creatures Who Deserved to Die,” sponsored by BP. Now, that– that– that last one is a joke, but it’s not significantly different from the previous two.

Full disclosure–HBO did pay for lists to promote this show around the time that we began, very cleverly realizing, “We’d better promote this show. No one is going to give a shit about it.”

But the success of this practice has clearly impressed old media such as Time Inc., whose CEO recently created a native advertising team, and he also doesn’t see why that might be an issue.

[Joe Ripp] As long as it’s clearly marked, as long as the consumer knows the difference between what’s editorial and what’s native, I don’t see any problem with it at all.

Yeah, but it is a problem, though, because the consumer cannot tell the difference. A recent study showed that less than half of visitors to a news site could distinguish native advertising from actual news. And, of course, they can’t because it’s supposed to blend in. You’re like a camouflage manufacturer saying, “Only an idiot could not tell the difference “between that man and foliage. “I mean, look, the camouflage clearly states “not foliage on the collar. “It’s clear, and besides, I’m sure the deer knows “the difference between the two things. “Deers are so smart. You have to respect deer.”

And if you are wondering how he reconciles this with the line between church and state, well, funny story.

[Time CEO] Quite frankly, I’ve changed church and state, as you know. We took that away, and we said the editors are gonna now be working for the business side of the equation. Quite frankly, I think they’re happier, they’re more excited about it because no longer are we asking ourselves the question, “Are we violating church and state?” Whatever that was.

“Whatever that was”? That’s like a surgeon saying, “Hey, I found “this squishy thing in there, all bloody and gross, so I removed it, whatever that was!” That was the heart! That was what made the whole thing work! You needed that!

And it’s not just Time Inc. that’s doing this. The Atlantic published some native advertising for the Church of Scientology.

[News] The ad is the kind you’ve probably seen. It’s called sponsored content, and it’s formatted to look like an actual article on their web site, and the article lavishly praised Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige.

OK. Now for The Atlantic, that is ethically compromising, but for Scientology, that is just plain stupid. They clearly should’ve gone with a magazine with better access to their key demographic, such as “Depressed Aspiring Actor Monthly.”

But even–even the New York Times is now embracing this. They had a recent feature on their web site about women in prison, which looked like a serious piece of journalism but was actually a paid post promoting season two of Orange is the New Black. And here’s the thing–as far as native advertising goes, that’s about as good as it gets. The reporting is real, and the sponsored branding was minimal, but it is still an ad. It’s like hearing the one Katy Perry song that you like. You think, “Sure, this is the best possible “iteration of Katy Perry, but it still feels wrong to be listening to this.” You’re gonna hear me roar Louder, louder than a lion. It’s a good song. It’s a good song. There’s a 12-year-old girl inside me who is empowered by that song.

The problem is– the problem is–the problem is sponsors aren’t always going to be as benign as Orange is the New Black. Sometimes, it’s going to be a company like Chevron, who recently sponsored a piece in the Times about “How Our Energy Needs Are Changing.” And, spoiler alert, the notion that they’re changing because we fucked up the Earth thanks to companies like Chevron is not the conclusion of the article.

You might think all of this might seriously damage trust in a news organization, but a “Times” advertising executive would like to vigorously refute that.

“Let me start by vigorously refuting the notion that native advertising has to erode consumer trust or compromise the wall that exists between editorial and advertising. Good native advertising is just not meant to be trickery. It’s meant to be a publisher sharing its storytelling tools with a marketer.”

Exactly, exactly! It’s not trickery. It’s sharing storytelling tools, and that’s not bullshit. It’s repurposed bovine waste.

And, look, in news– in news, that is seemingly the model now. Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie, except it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie because no one fucking wants them there. And the point is, think how much it would affect your trust in me as a source if you knew that that last anti-raisin-cookie joke was actually brought to you by Chips Ahoy!

But before we demonize these organizations for selling out, it is worth remembering this is all at least partially our fault. A press cannot be free and independent if nobody is willing to pay for it, and it seems nobody is going to. In which case, I’d like to make a suggestion. If our news is going to be corrupted, we should at least get something in return. Every time a corporation sneaks advertising into our news and ruins it, our news should be allowed to sneak into their advertising.

[Announcer] When you get hot, you get thirsty, and when you get thirsty, there’s only one choice… Diet Coke. The recent Ebola outbreak has killed over 700 people in West Africa. The World Health Organization says they don’t yet have it under control and the situation threatens to become catastrophic.

[Announcer] Diet Coke. It’s only fair.

That’s it for our show this week. See you next week! Thanks for joining us. Good night!