What Does It Say About The US Press That The Toughest Interview Keith Alexander Has Is From A Comedian?

from the too-much-and-none-of-it-good dept

Last night was the debut of comedian John Oliver's new show on HBO called Last Week Tonight. Oliver, of course, is well known from his years on The Daily Show (though, if you're not familiar with it, you should also listen to his podcast, The Bugle). On his first show, Oliver was able to get former NSA boss Keith Alexander, who retired about a month ago. The resulting ten minute interview is well worth watching, not just because it's pretty damn funny, but because it's one of the few times a journalist has actually asked Alexander direct tough questions about the NSA -- and it's not even from a journalist:
Seriously, compare that interview to the one Alexander gave to 60 Minutes, a show that used to be associated with asking the tough questions of people in power.

Alexander kicks off this new interview claiming that Americans don't understand that they're not the target of the NSA, and Oliver immediately shoots back:
Oliver: No, the target is not the American people, but it seems that too often you miss the target and hit the person next to them going 'Whoa, him!'

Alexander: You see, we're not just out there gathering information, listening to their phone calls, or collecting their emails. But, that's the first thing that people jump to.

Oliver: But you are out there doing that. You're just saying that you're not then reading them. You are gathering that data.
Alexander responds with the usual NSA talking points about "we just collect metadata" and again, Oliver immediately hits back:
Oliver: That's not nothing. That's significant information. Otherwise, you wouldn't want it.
Oliver also pushes back on the whole "needle and haystack" argument, by pointing out that people's "concerns" are that the NSA is also collecting "the whole farm, and the county and the state, and now you've got photos of the farmer's wife in the shower as well." Later on, after a series of funny exchanges, including Oliver being shocked that Keith Alexander has never heard of Pinterest (where Oliver suggests all the worst people in the world gather), Oliver asks:
Oliver: In your mind, has the NSA ever done something illegal.

Alexander: In my time, no. Not that I know of. You know, one of the most impressive things that I've seen in my career was people who made a mistake, that could be a huge mistake, stepping up to say 'I made a mistake.' And in every case, to my knowledge, everyone but 12 individuals stepped forward at the time they made those mistakes.

Oliver: Right, but you can't say 'everyone... except for 12.' That's like saying 'I've never killed anyone... apart from those three people I have buried under my patio at home.'

Alexander: The key issue I was trying to make was, in every case, we reported. In some cases, those who made a mistake, but were still caught.
Alexander is being incredibly dishonest here, not surprisingly. The NSA's own internal audit highlighted that the NSA abused its power to spy on Americans thousands of times each year. The NSA's Inspector General's report noted a track record of flagrant abuse which led to the program almost getting shut down. As for those "12 individuals," Alexander is simply wrong. As we detailed, most of those 12 actually self-reported the details but often did so years later (in one case seven years later).

So Alexander is flat out lying in saying that there were 12 non-self-reported cases that got caught. In fact, it's pretty clear that if most of those 12 had chosen to keep their abuses secret, we'd have never known about them. Which should lead to the obvious question: how many people within the NSA abused the powers to spy on people, didn't self-report, and therefore were never caught. It's incredible for him to basically be arguing that everyone who abused the system was caught, when the details show they actually failed to discover most of the intentional abuses until someone admitted to them much later.

And we won't even get into the fact that a court and the federal government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) have both found the entire program to be illegal and unconstitutional.

Either way, those are only a few examples, but the pushback against Alexander still seems much greater from Oliver than any journalist so far, and that says something (not good) about the state of journalism today.

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    silverscarcat (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 5:59am

    And the media wonders why...

    People trust Colbert, Stewart and now Oliver for their news more than CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

    When Stewart is named the modern-day Walter Cronkite... Well, that should tell you something.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:42am

      Re: And the media wonders why...

      And of course Colbert is being given Letterman's spot, where his commentary will likely be toned down (or at the very least watered down by guests).

       

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        art guerrilla (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 1:57pm

        Re: Re: And the media wonders why...

        yeah, we'll see, but not 'happy' about it at the mo'...
        colbert as, well, you know, colbert is a NATIONAL TREASURE, and as alluded, one of the few MINOR ways we can get shadows of real news, not to mention political commentary with MORALS AND BALLS...
        while he might get some shots in as a letterman replacement (not a big fan of him, anyways), he will probably not be 1/10th the political influence/inspiration he is now...
        it will be a net loss, as far as i'm concerned...
        AND, as big a fan as i am, ain't stayin' up to watch him, they better do next-day replays, 'cause otherwise, they won't get one eyeballs worth of viewing from me and spousal unit...

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 6:02am

      Re: And the media wonders why...

      Isn't Kronkite some ultra right wing extremist?

       

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    Jeff (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 8:59am

    Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end."
    -- Sid Caesar

    "When you're born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."
    -- George Carlin

     

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      David, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:10pm

      Re:

      "When you're born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."
      -- George Carlin

      More like a stage pass.

       

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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:00am

    12 people stepped forward...
    were still caught....

    If they admit it, have you really caught them?
    Perhaps the problem you have parsing that explains the entire dysfunction of NSA.

     

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    CK20XX (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:01am

    In times of distress, always seek out the comedians. A big reason why jokes are funny in the first place is because they're true on some level, otherwise they wouldn't make any sense, so a skilled comedian is an important source of honesty.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:34am

      Re:

      This, by the way, has always been the role of the comedian in societies. It isn't just to make people laugh. It's to speak unpleasant truths in a way that gets people to understand them.

       

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        David, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:13pm

        Re: Re:

        This, by the way, has always been the role of the comedian in societies.

        Cf. the jester in Shakespeare's "King Lear".

        But then nobody of importance listens.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:17pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          The comedian's target audience is not those who are in power, so it doesn't matter if they listen or not. The audience is the common man, and they actually do listen.

           

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    TasMot (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:03am

    He's Asking the TOUGH Questions....

    because he's a comedian and not a journalist. If he were a journalist, he'd be tried and convicted as a terrorist. Just sayin...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:09am

    You literally could not make this shit up! It would be too unrealistic! And once again, John Oliver proves his chops as a satirist.

     

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    Geno0wl (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:19am

    They don't fear repercussions

    They push back against these people because they are not afraid of repercussions. Both personally or professionally.
    Professionally they don't care if they loose access to those people directly. They don't NEED sources to make their program work and work well.
    Personally they are VERY public figures compared to most real journalists. If they were to be attempted to be thrown in jail or continuously hassled for hours on end by the government "we" would throw a shit fit. Not so for your average no-name or even semi-well known journalists.
    That is why they have no issue with fighting back, and every "real" journalist is.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:24am

    He's funny

    O:"how about rebranding yourself as a great listener?"
    A:"The only agency in gov't that really listens!"

    Who says Alexander doesn't have a sense of humor... wait, you don't suppose he missed that, do you?

     

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    mcinsand, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:37am

    the sad thing is that some still trust

    With elections around the corner, I am incredibly disturbed by not just the fact that there are people that still trust the government, but that combined with the fact that some of these people will still be voting. The only way Congress and Senate will take action to reign in this monstrosity is if they think it will affect their chances of holding onto power.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:43am

      Re: the sad thing is that some still trust

      On the bright(?) side, the percentage of US citizens who trust the government is at an all-time low and continuing to fall. According to Pew, looking at the period from 1958 to 2013, trust in government hit its high (around 78%) in 1968 and has fallen ever since, to the 2013 figure of 19%

      Gallup does similar polls, and show similar numbers.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 6:08am

      Re: the sad thing is that some still trust

      I am one of the few people out there who say that when your democracy becomes a joke, everybody should stop voting. 0% participation, 0 votes in. I really wonder what would happen then..

       

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        TasMot (profile), Apr 29th, 2014 @ 6:19am

        Re: Re: the sad thing is that some still trust

        This is actually the exact opposite of what should happen. If there is a general call for "everybody" to stop voting, then only the ones who "want" power will still vote and elect whomever they want. All the call for "don't vote' will accomplish is to "let them win" unopposed.

        The correct call is to find a better candidate and get everyone to go vote for the better candidate.

        Apathy and no-shows will have to just take the crap from those who showed up and voted for the better candidate.

        THAT'S how democracy is supposed to work.

         

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        John Fenderson (profile), Apr 29th, 2014 @ 8:13am

        Re: Re: the sad thing is that some still trust

        What would happen is that the bad actors will get everything they can dream of, because they'll vote.

         

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      K, Apr 30th, 2014 @ 10:03am

      Re: the sad thing is that some still trust

      Do you forget that you are still part of the government. The government is us, not they. If we don't like our government, it is upon us to change it.

      I don't like the way our NSA is working, so we need to vote for people who also want to change it, so that our government works the way we want it to.

      When you distance yourself from our government, our government distances itself from you.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 9:49am

    And people wonder

    Why we tend to get our news from our entertainment shows and our entertainment from our news shows.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:19am

    General Alexander is an honorable man with a distinguished military record. To twist his words like a nose of wax in order to make misleading points is not what I personally would view as journalism (as you say, bloggers are journalists).

    When it comes to the legality of what the NSA has been doing, the fact you proclaim "illegal here, illegal there" does not make it so, and one district court judge's decision seemingly congruent with your opinion does not make it so. Where the heck do you think the FISC members come from? They are likewise district court judges, and, horror or horrors, district, circuit court, and Supreme Court judges have actually been known to disagree. When you sling mud and call Gen. Alexander a liar, it would help if you actually listened to what he says instead of selectively ignoring qualifying statements.

    I noted that Gen. Alexander mentioned your Nobel Peace Prize nominee, or at least the "Gold Standard Whistleblower of the Year". I do not know if what he said is correct or not because I do not have any access to the information he relies upon when saying that Snowden has caused you harm. You, without any access as well, seem not the least bit troubled to declare he is full of it, lying, deceiving, etc. For one who constantly proclaims fealty to facts, publishing articles without having the relevant facts directly in hand seems a bit out of sync.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:35am

      Re:

      "you harm" a typo that should read "significant harm".

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      "General Alexander is an honorable man"

      He hasn't shown much indication of that lately.

      "To twist his words like a nose of wax"

      What words were twisted? It looks to me not like someone is misrepresenting what he's saying, but rather calling out what he's saying as being deceptive. In other wordes, at worst, someone is UNtwisting his words.

      "the fact you proclaim "illegal here, illegal there" does not make it so"

      Personally, I think that if the actions of the NSA are legal (and I think there is reasonable doubt about that), it makes the whole thing even worse.

      "You, without any access as well, seem not the least bit troubled to declare he is full of it, lying, deceiving, etc."

      No such access is needed to know that he's being deceptive. All we have to do is pay attention to the publicly reveal and acknowledged facts, which is what Oliver was doing. For example, the NSA does, in fact, "collect everything". Their denials come down to two arguments -- "we don't do it under this program" and "but we don't look at it". Both of those answers are obfuscations.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:53am

      Re:

      You're seriously asking us why we would question Alexander's honesty?

      A few of the lies that come to mind:

      - "anybody who would tell you that were keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows thats not true.

      - "the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false.

      - There were 54 cases in which these programs helped disrupt terror plots in the U.S. and throughout the world, (actual number turned out to be 1 - and that was just a case of someone sending money to someone in Somalia)

      Yeah, I can see your point. We should take everything he says at face value.

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 11:07am

      Re:

      General Alexander is an honorable man

      I've learned that when someone refers to someone else as "an honorable man" it's generally to argue that you should ignore all of their failings. General Alexander has not shown himself to be honorable in a number of important matters.

      To twist his words like a nose of wax in order to make misleading points

      I will note that, as per usual, you have not actually pointed to any words I twisted. Nor what "misleading" points I've made. Probably because you can't.

      When it comes to the legality of what the NSA has been doing, the fact you proclaim "illegal here, illegal there" does not make it so, and one district court judge's decision seemingly congruent with your opinion does not make it so.

      This is absolutely true. Nor do I deny that. But that doesn't change the fact that his claims that there's no illegality at all is obviously in question -- and many people, including those in power to make that call -- disagree.

      horror or horrors, district, circuit court, and Supreme Court judges have actually been known to disagree.

      Again, I agree. But that's why I find it questionable that General Alexander insists, without question, that his actions were legal. Clearly not everyone agrees with that.

      When you sling mud and call Gen. Alexander a liar, it would help if you actually listened to what he says instead of selectively ignoring qualifying statements.

      I very specifically highlighted where he lied. It wasn't about the "legal/illegal" question, but about his claim that they caught the only abuses. That's simply not true.

      I noted that Gen. Alexander mentioned your Nobel Peace Prize nominee

      I've never made any reference to Snowden and the various nominations he received for the Nobel Peace Prize, because I don't find that to be particularly interesting. Nominations are kind of meaningless, and given past winners of the award, the award itself is somewhat dubious in stature.

      I do not know if what he said is correct or not because I do not have any access to the information he relies upon when saying that Snowden has caused you harm. You, without any access as well, seem not the least bit troubled to declare he is full of it, lying, deceiving, etc.

      I made no statement at all one whether or not harm has been caused. My reference to his lying was about his claims to have caught all the abusers.

      I'm not sure why you're so angry and so desperate to misrepresent me, but considering your long history of doing the same, this does not surprise me. Perhaps -- and this is just a suggestion -- you should do something so bold as to let go of some of this irrational hatred you appear to have towards anything you hold dear. In particular, you have a noticed likelihood of angrily defending "friends" -- either those in the intelligence community or those who have a long history of patent and copyright maximalism. Perhaps you could try letting go of your obvious biases towards a police state and IP maximalism, and recognize that I'm not your enemy.

      For one who constantly proclaims fealty to facts, publishing articles without having the relevant facts directly in hand seems a bit out of sync.

      That's a laugh given your history of lies and mistruths. Try again.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 11:58am

      Re:

      General Alexander belongs in prison at the least. I'd prefer immediate execution by firing squad for treason, but prison will do.

       

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      David, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:24pm

      Re:

      General Alexander is an honorable man with a distinguished military record.
      Good friends, sweet friends, dont let me stir you up to such a sudden mutiny. Those who have done this deed are honorable. I don't know what private grudges they had that made them do it. They're wise and honorable, and will no doubt give you reasons for it.

       

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      Mark Antony, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:57pm

      Re:

      But Brutus is an honorable man...

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 6:28pm

      Re:

      Liar cocksucks a bigger liar. I'm shocked, I tell you! Shocked!

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:22am

    Don't worry, this is temporary. Once the important people with stuff to hide start realizing that the comedians actually ask tougher questions, they'll just stop appearing on those shows.

    As for why this happens, maybe it's because a comedian can afford to be boycotted by politicians, but a news show cannot. A comedian can always just put a bunch of celebrities on the show; that's considered normal. A show like 60 minutes, on the other hand, would be severely impacted if they couldn't get interviews with politicians.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:31am

    Against the Wall

    There will be a time against the wall for all of these criminals. I want 10 of the enemy for every one of ours killed, but at some point you say enough is enough. If they hit us again, so be it, but we don't destroy the country for the benefit of a few dinosaurs who don't know what a world without war is like.

    Our leaders are dinosaurs and the techs that make it possible are just little children with a god complex.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 10:45am

    > "and it's not even from a journalist"

    Not even a journalist? That's a shocker of a statement coming from TechDirt.

    From his numerous interviews on The Daily Show to his interview of the former head of both the NSA and US Cyber Command on his new show, how can you say John Oliver is not a journalist?

    For shame, TechDirt, for shame.

     

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    beech, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 11:00am

    mind = blown

    Just thought about this and blew my own mind. People get passed when a cop breaks a law and only ends up getting fired...but what happens when an NSA employee breaks the law?

    Hypothetically, lets say there is an employee of the nsa who gets caught intentionally abusing their position and grabs a bunch of info about a public figure for black mail via a heretofore unknown nsa program. What happens to them? Theres no way it could go to trial, because that would mean disclosing capabilities or whatever. The entire fact that a no-no happened would have to be classified lest the terrorists realize just how spied on they are.

    I think that the absolute worst thing that could potentially happen is just firing them. Maybe Alexander HAS to lie, or else every nsa employee will realise they have de facto immunity for any abuses.

     

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      Brazenly Anonymous, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 11:29am

      Re: mind = blown

      Except, assuming that all the evidence suggesting a culture of abuse is correct, they would simply interpret his statements as having their back for any abuse. After all, any with sufficient experiences to know that he's just blowing smoke would not be misled, and if the abuse is rampant enough to generate a joking atmosphere around it, most will have that experience.

       

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      David, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 12:31pm

      Re: mind = blown

      but what happens when an NSA employee breaks the law?[...] I think that the absolute worst thing that could potentially happen is just firing them.


      Firing an NSA employee for breaking the law would be like firing a baker for breaking an egg. The one's who are actually getting fired are the other ones.

       

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        Beech, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 1:49pm

        Re: Re: mind = blown

        well obviously all the NSA is breaking all the laws all the time, but i mean, imagine Alexander and Clapper walking up behind a random NSA office drone who doesn't know they're there. What this guy is doing is so SO bad Clapper looks at Alexander and says, "Damn, this shit's messed up." What happens to the drone? He's caught redhanded doing something SO foul, even the most privacy hating bastards on the planet think he's taken it too far. What's the worst that could happen to him? Prosecuting would mean admiting that 1) the NSA has capabilities to do such hypothetical surveillance and 2) even though "we don't look" apparently some of them "do look"

         

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    Baron von Robber, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 11:33am

    When a comedian...

    ...asks harder questions than professional journalists, you know who the joke is on. :(

     

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    Personanongrata, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 1:46pm

    I'm disappointed that Last Week Tonight didn't flash a disclaimer across the screen to warn their viewers during the interview every time Keith Alexander opened his gaping maw to spew forth more lies about NSA eavesdropping.

    A disclaimer along the lines of:

    Lying Scum

     

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    Applesauce, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 1:55pm

    Goodbye John Oliver

    So, when is John Oliver's deportation hearing?

     

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    JBDragon, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 2:08pm

    The press has been asleap since Obama threw his hat in the ring!!!! They went after Sara Palen like Crazy. Digging through Trash, asking real questions. finding anything and everything about her and she was just running for Vis-President!!!

    Obama? Snooze. Softball questions. Hell anything about his Harvard Grades or how he could have ever afforded to go their in the first place?? Nothing!!!! To this day, it's been one cover up after another. Huge Obama screw ups and yet the mainstream news is quite. Something Minor on a republican and it's plastered all over the place multi-times. It's really laughable. Unbiased news, I mean really? Most all of these Reporters in indoctrinated in in these Progressive schools.

    Comedians used to go after anyone and everyone especially the Presidents!!! With Obama, where are they. Most are pretty quite when it comes to Obama, everyone else, pretty much fair game. Most of these news Agency's have just been sucking up to this Administration big time!!!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 2:51pm

    I just realized something... we have reverted all the way back to the middle ages. The only ones who can criticize and make fun of the king(s), are the court jesters.

     

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    AC720 (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 3:22pm

    It's two things

    This happens for two reasons: First, journalists for the big networks either don't have the freedom to go off and ask tough questions or they play to a crowd which has already made up its mind so the reporters don't need to break anything new. They just have to keep the old folks happy.

    And two, people suspect journalist's motives anyway and don't believe them. Every big network reporter has an hidden agenda, you know. Even the ones working for networks strongly identified with one side or another are often accused of being a plant from the other side. Nobody trust anyone.

    When a comedian comes along and does this kind of interview, you KNOW what his hidden agenda is, which is to make the subject look like an idiot and makes jokes. To do that, they need to ask the questions regular reports won't touch or can't touch, or didn't think about. It takes more brains to do comedy than it does to do regular reporting so automatically you are likely to be dealing with a much smarter interviewer than usual. Regular airhead reporters could not possibly DO comedy, other than to be the punchline.

    So that's how this happens. And yes, it's sad.

     

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    OldGeezer (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 7:24pm

    John Oliver, Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart are following in the tradition of Will Rogers. In the 30's he also used to humor to expose the hypocrisy of our government. One of my favorite quotes is: "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts."

     

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    tracyanne, Apr 28th, 2014 @ 7:42pm

    If that's the toughest interview

    Keith Alexander has nothing to worry about, ever.

     

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      OldGeezer (profile), Apr 28th, 2014 @ 8:36pm

      Re: If that's the toughest interview

      It's at least better than the softballs thrown by reporters while kissing his ass. In case you didn't see past the humor John basically called him a liar several times and Alexander had little to say to refute it. His bullshit NSA talking points only served to make him look more dishonest and foolish.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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