My Appearance on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (Kind of)

This past Sunday, I received a text from a friend who told me he saw me on John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" show on HBO.

This past Sunday, I received a text from a friend who told me he saw me on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO.

What I am about to say doesn’t apply just to John Oliver’s show, but to the media in general.

As much as I enjoyed seeing my mug on this show and gaining street cred with my kids, the episode highlights the reason why I stopped watching Oliver awhile back. I realized that if I kept watching, I would be intentionally suffering from Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia.

This is how Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park), who coined the term, described it in a speech in 2002:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann [he introduced the concept of quarks as the fundamental building blocks of the strongly interacting particles], and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.) 

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Papers are full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

I stopped watching John Oliver’s show many years ago when he discussed business topics that I understood well. I realized that he settles on a narrative and then finds clips and edits them heavily to deliver his points, while making the audience laugh. However, the truth gets lost in the process. Oliver, like most media figures, is not really interested in the truth. There is very little intellectual honesty and no nuance in what they do. 

This particular show is a case in point. He goes after “big” food delivery companies. Throughout the show, he points out how little money restaurants, drivers, and food delivery companies make in this transaction – delivering a $12 burrito – and how difficult it is for all of them to profitably consummate the transaction. 

A villain is now needed to complete his narrative.  He goes after food delivery companies (which according to him are losing money) for not wanting to turn drivers into employees and pay them benefits and Social Security, and thus would lose even more money. He just argued that these companies are not making money, but once labeled “big,” he wants you to forget that and have them pay their drivers more. He says that because drivers are not employees but contractors, they get fleeced by “big” companies. The reality is that the only people who want the drivers to be employees are politicians (who never have had a real job in their lives) and maybe comedy show hosts, drivers don’t want to be employees.

My son Jonah was a DoorDash driver during college. My favorite story is when Jonah and his girlfriend Molly went to dinner. There was a 40-minute wait at the restaurant. They put their name on the list and then Jonah opened the DoorDash app, saw there was a great demand for drivers, and asked Molly, “Do you want to do a few Door Dashes with me? It’ll pay for dinner.” Molly agreed. It’s very difficult to put a dollar value on this flexibility. 

This show is full of untruths, and I inadvertently appear right in the middle of it. As I mentioned, Oliver argues that food delivery companies don’t make money. This used to be the case, but it is not anymore. They have turned profitable over the last few years. Oliver used a clip from the interview I gave to PBS in 2020 (which also quotes Uber Eats’ CEO), right in the middle of the pandemic. At the time, these businesses – which, to their surprise, had seen a huge jump in demand – were bleeding money. That is not the case today. But by using a four-year-old clip he warps the truth – not that you would know that. I really had to squint for a second at the top-left corner to notice the 2020 time stamp. I guarantee most people missed this detail. 

Shockingly, Crichton pointed out the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect almost a quarter-century ago and things have gotten a lot worse. Unfortunately, today we have to bring along a very large salt shaker and our own ability to do research when we consume media. 

After my 2020 PBS interview, I wrote my thoughts on Uber Eats; you can read them here. You can read my Uber analysis from 2020 (a few times since) here.

Please read the following important disclosure here.

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14 thoughts on “My Appearance on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (Kind of)”

  1. great article, great points, so true, anytime read article I really know about I see is full of ‘mistakes’ if not intentional distortions.

    Reply
  2. I appreciate your comment on the show, but I think you are doing the very same thing that you accuse John Oliver of doing. Your article lacks nuance and the appreciation of feedback that many of us in the hospitality business have with regards to food delivery companies, and their effect on our business and the wider market. Let me mention a few things here, and I am speaking as a Hotel General Manager and owner of a restaurant.

    Running a restaurant is a tough business. While in hotels we have many reasons to justify a food cost budget of 25%, small standalone restaurants often operate with a food cost of anywhere between 35-45%. The cost for the lease, maintenance, and utilities depends on location, but as a rule of thumb, it is anywhere on average around 15%. Employee payroll is ideally not above 25%. Marketing will take some 5%, advertising on IG and FB is a must these days. And lastly, there is tax. So by the end of the day, when you do things correctly and there are no major incidents, you might take something between 5-15% home to the bank. This is a low-margin business with long working hours, lots of dedication, and very little room for a bad day.

    Food delivery companies coming into play have good and bad sides. There is no question that they increase your marketing reach, and open up revenue channels that were previously almost impossible to reach. They also help to manage your headcount and can alleviate the workload for existing teams, as you don’t need to hire drivers or put the job on your existing teams.

    However, joining a food delivery service costs 25-40%, depending on how you set it up and how many “benefits” you want to use. No restaurant can include this cost in existing pricing due to the already low margins, so we need to increase prices for online orders. This is not only not great for our customers, it also directly affects inflation. The drivers themselves might enjoy the freedom that comes with being a freelancer, but it has a serious impact on their livelihoods. Not having social security, health insurance, and not accounting for the depreciation of their assets which they utilize to do the job has a measurable long-term impact that has no benefit for them directly or for the economy as a whole. It helps people in the short run to solve their financial worries while creating a dangerous financial challenge that will haunt them as they get older.

    The lack of foresight on that front and empowering such an economy is irresponsible and has no positive impact on our society whatsoever. The short-term gain of satisfaction from a better food delivery service for those who can afford it comes on the heels of pushing our economies further into a spiral that is designed to drain people who already have very little.

    Now, every disruption is challenging, and I am not saying that it’s all evil. It’s not. Our customers love the opportunity to order online, to discover new places and eateries with such an easy solution as an app on their phones. This part is great. But we have to consider that customer satisfaction alone cannot be the only goal. Making sure that those who perform those jobs don’t get ruined and don’t get pushed into government support programs as they get sick or old must also be a critical consideration – which is currently not the case.

    There are too many companies out there these days relying on the idea of privatizing revenues and pushing expenses back into the community. It’s immoral, irresponsible, selfish, and it’s simply not the right thing to do.

    Reply
  3. MSM and Cable have lost all credibility and serve only those in echochambers to reinforce their accepted narrative.
    There is no longer a Fourth Estate; just shills for those in power.
    I learned my lesson decades ago when being interviewed on totally apolitical, innocuous matters, but in areas of my expertise,
    when anything I said/opined was truncated, taken out of context, and distorted in ways to reflect/further the interviewer’s/writer’s narrative.
    Nowadays if I am asked for an interview, I insist that it is on the condition that I must sign off on the final version; if not, I respectfully decline.

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  4. Thank You for Today’s Article, Mr. Katsenelson. Trusting Today’s Media Sources is an Exercise in Futility. Futile to believe the Narrative being spewed by Those who take Their Marching Orders from Those who want to control the Rest of Us… My advice? Stay away from Main Stream Media. Get your News from Sources that aren’t bought and paid for by Woke, Leftist or Socialistic Media Companies like CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, New York Times, etc. etc. Get some Beverages , sit back and watch the Carnage when Trump gets Elected…. The Screaming should be Epic!!!

    Reply
  5. The point revealed in the article, in my opinion, isn’t what happened to Vitaly but rather what goes on in the media today, entertainment or supposedly real news. I read a well regarded newspaper on Sundays when they supposedly have some useful content. I am appalled by the lack of editing and the lack of objective data that supports what they say. They have a good sports page and the editorials are sometimes thought-provoking (although many are deplorably slanted). I can understand data and am far better able to reach rationale conclusions than the immature writers who are given space. I like to see what the issues are and get some sense of what the positions might be, but the obvious slant of the articles is difficult to embrace. I hope all the readers aren’t stupid enough to not see their errors. Give me data. I’m competent to understand. I don’ t need an article that picks one or two sob stories to represent life in America today.

    Reply
  6. Thou protest far too much. In case you have amnesia, you are watching a comedy show. This is not journalism. This is comedy along with some divulging of information that most people have no idea is true in real life. If there are some issues around the edges that aren’t quite right, I agree. Still, we are in a world right now where millions of people believe that Donald Trump actually got more votes than Joe Biden. Amazingly a book has just been published, called “DISPROVEN ,“ which provides all of the accurate data needed to show that Trump lost fair and Square. In fact, the author was paid around $730,000 to do the study at the time of the insurrection. Think 🤔.

    The difference between John Oliver and Donald Trump, is that one has good intentions to make people laugh! The other is intent on harming as many people as he can.

    Reply
  7. Some years ago (late 1970’s) I worked briefly at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Mr. Gell-Mann was a director of the Foundation and I met him (i.e., was introduced to him for 30 seconds). I later tried to (jokingly) convince some of my friends and family that he had coined the term “quarks” in my honor (“Three quarks for Muster Mark”). Unfortunately, nobody bought my story, in part because he had picked the name 15-20 years earlier.
    The tie-in here is that I had independently developed the same understanding about journalists as is apparently known as the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. I later worked in real estate development doing affordable and market rate senior housing on some scale and was interviewed by a Washington Post real estate reporter about some current topic. He provided me with preliminary notes, but when I read the published article it bore virtually no relation to my recollection of our discussion, made no sense, and my reaction was “Boy, do I sound like an idiot”. I quickly developed the same theory–that if a “journalist” screwed up something that I know in depth this badly, why would I necessarily believe anything else that I read or hear in the mainstream media about a topic that I am not that familiar with. Current trends in the mainstream media seem to reinforce that understanding.
    Perhaps recognizing this effect independently of Mr. Gell-Mann means that I am operating at the same intellectual level (or maybe not)?

    Reply
  8. Enjoyed the article today. This “in a way” reminds me of another Michael Crichton theme I live by and that’s the forward to Jurassic Park. Don’t get me wrong I believe the earth’s climate is changing and we all should do our part to look after our resources and each other but in the grand scheme of things mother earth will dispatch us humans at her choosing. Pro tip. Google the reading of the Jurassic Park forward by Charlton Heston. Something about the voice of “Moses” reminding us all of our insignificance is humbling…. Mix of Faith and Science.

    Reply
  9. I watch John Oliver occasionally because I do appreciate biting satire. I don’t take anything he says at face value. I saw his polemic against consultants and specifically McKinsey. He got a great deal wrong about McK and the industry. He did correctly portray McK’s dismissal of conflicts-of-interest. In my career, I dealt with McKinsey but refused to hire them. The episode was funny and directed at the right concern.
    I just watched his episode on Boeing in which he excoriated stock buybacks but missed the use of pension funds to buy Boeing stock. More big misses. Not nearly as funny, but it had moments. The complicated outsourcing arrangements, lack of FAA oversight and willingness to cut corners were all correct. It was funny but not hilarious. Boeing is more personal because I have flown millions of miles in Boeing aircraft. Now I am not so certain.
    On the other hand, I wasn’t quoted in either episode. I would have felt very differently had he misquoted or misrepresented me. Thus, you have every right to to complain.

    Reply
  10. Vitality,
    Yes, you are very smart man and you got sucker punched by that idiot. Unless you control the microphone, your information will be taken out of context. I guess it’s a lesson learned. Your writings on Stoicism tell us that we only can control our thoughts and actions. In this case, it’s like the tail, wagging some other dog if you understand what I’m trying to say.

    Reply

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