John Oliver, Edward Snowden have a Frost/Nixon moment

John Oliver has said any apparent acts of journalism he commits are solely in pursuit of a joke, but humor seemed to take a backseat in his interview with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, which aired Sunday on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”

The interview, conducted in Russia, was something like a Frost/Nixon moment, proving the comedian can ask a hard-edged question. Oliver pushed hard against Snowden, whom he described as “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history,” with a particular focus on Snowden’s decision to leak unredacted documents.

The comedian asked Snowden if he had read every document he leaked and fired back when Snowden replied that he understands what he turned over. “There’s a difference between understanding what’s in the documents and reading what’s in the documents,” Oliver said.

He also confronted Snowden about the New York Times publishing information heprovided that may have compromised an operation in Iraq. “That is a problem,” Snowden acknowledged.

“You have to own that, then,” Oliver said. “You’re giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there.”

Oliver eventually moved on to somewhat lighter fare, showing man-on-the street reactions by Americans who don’t know who Snowden is and reacting to the news that the NSA is able to collectsome of the naked selfiesAmericans send each other in a database.

For his part, Oliver has said in the past that what he does is not journalism.

“We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke,” he told the New York Times in November. “If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy.’ ”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the National Security Agency.