Eight years ago, almost to the day, comedian and ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s commentary program ‘Crossfire.’ The show, which had been on the air since 1982, was at the time hosted by Tucker Carlson, who represented the conservative POV. The liberal chair had a rotating roster, but on that particular day, Clinton administration adviser and Democratic campaign strategist Paul Begala was co-hosting.
No one really remembers what Begala did or didn’t have to say during that taping (in fact, judging by the transcript, he didn’t say much). What everyone does remember is Jon Stewart’s utter evisceration of Carlson and the empty, theatrical nature of ‘Crossfire’; and, most importantly, the fairly moderate audience’s recognition of Stewart’s clear-eyed plea for rational, substantive political debate. Which, as he pointed out, ‘Crossfire’ was not.
Three months later, ‘Crossfire’ was canceled. In the accompanying press conference, CNN/USA’s then-incoming president Jonathan Klein, in reference to Stewart’s influence, said, “I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” Stewart, on his own show, quipped, “I fought the law, and the law lost.”
So when I sat down to watch Jon Stewart go mano a mano with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly this weekend on The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Room, I had the ‘Crossfire’ cancellation in mind. Was it possible to radically affect political discourse again? Was a hope for that sort of affect rational, given that CNN presents itself as an unbiased news media outlet, while Fox News all but openly serves as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party? Stewart – along with Stephen Colbert and many other comedians – had already held a pro-sanity rally in D.C. At the very least, I hoped, the debate might provide some context and reasonable discussion during the media tug o’ war leading up to the election.
The two figureheads, moderated by a largely useless and ignored CNN anchor, ED Hill, addressed a variety of subjects, including the following:
- The murder of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya
- Public funding for PBS
- The Citizens United decision
- The controversial soda ban, recently passed into law in New York City
There were a host of other sociopolitical issues, small and large, some current, some less so. Both were in arguably top form – O’Reilly said he’d been coached by Prof. Bill Irwin, a comedian who influenced Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, while Stewart was coached by former colleague Stephen Colbert.
If you watched the debate hoping for comedy, you probably didn’t get any. If you watched it because you wanted O’Reilly to trounce Stewart, you probably got a little of that. If you watched it to cheer Stewart to a victory that would stand, in loco parentis, for President Obama’s apparent loss to Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate, you may have gotten a little of that too.
Because here’s the problem: no one watching the debate had their minds changed.
If you’re conservative, you probably agreed with O’Reilly’s forceful defense of the free market, or his argument for universal access to but not universal coverage for health insurance. If you’re liberal or independent, you were probably cheering when Stewart stung with one-liners like:
Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break and you’re a corporation, you’re a smart-businessman, but if you take advantage of something that you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher?
Give me my money back, the $800 billion for the Iraq war, and children’s TV is on the house.
There were plenty of moments that made for good entertainment: Stewart, absolutely dwarfed at 5’7″ compared to O’Reilly’s 6’4″, used his motorized lectern to move up and down; during the sit-down portion, when Hill asked why the pair could come together for discussion when Congress couldn’t, Stewart tried to sit in O’Reilly’s lap, who asked, “And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?”
As TIME magazine put it, it was good TV, even if it wasn’t actually on TV.
Jokes aside, though, it was a frustrating face-off. I’m a liberal, I voted for Obama four years ago and, in a month, I’ll be doing it again. Watching Stewart rationally trounce O’Reilly was a confirmation of my perspective on socioeconomics, politics, foreign policy, media biases and the like. Watching Bill O’Reilly say things like “The Fox News Corporation is making a billion dollars a year, we must be doing something right” deepens my frustration with ideology-driven news-speak. Stephen Colbert once summed it up in a single word: truthiness.
What we American conservatives are saying – whether we said it during the PR campaign to justify the war in Iraq, or anything that we send as copy to Fox News – may not necessarily be true, but it feels right. So that’s what we cast as our truth. And if you’re not on board with that, then you don’t deserve to call yourself an American. And you know what? Everyone who thinks that still thinks that. And everyone who never thought that still doesn’t think so. Stewart isn’t a politician (though many would like him to be), and O’Reilly has too great a hold on the other half of the country. They cancel each other out, and we’re just left with viral videos.
As the debate closed, O’Reilly said, “Now I know I’m right.” Stewart: “Bullsh*t Mountain is tall – and deep.” The curtain fell to cheers. And when the curtain falls behind you on Election Day, know that you are lucky enough to exercise the greatest privilege of the free world: voting.
Even Stewart and O’Reilly know that it’s the only real guarantee of change.