Why it’s wrong of Jon Stewart to debate Bill O’Reilly

There’s that moment in just about every episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” when the comedic tone of the show fades away and the deeply serious outrage that fuels its humor is plainly heard in Stewart’s voice. 

Perhaps no target is on the receiving end of that outrage than Fox News Channel, and Wednesday’s episode was no exception. As Stewart brilliantly pilloried the network’s bizarre attempt to take down the incumbent president with what’s been called the Obama “race” video, his indignation over a “bullshit video” made plainly clear that deep down he felt there was nothing funny about it.

To fans of “Daily,” Stewart’s outrage is no surprise. The Emmy-winning show and its companion “The Colbert Report” spend so much airtime counterspinning Fox News that Comedy Central is arguably just as much of an arch rival to the right-wing news network than the ostensibly left-leaning MSNBC. Fox News is no mere foil to Stewart; ridiculing the network is clearly a moral imperative.

But as both searing and hilarious as Stewart’s takedown was on Oct. 3, I felt it strange when just moments later he segued into a segment that plugged his pay-per-view debate Saturday with Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly. For just $4.95, fans of both on-air personalities can watch these TV titans duke it out in an online stunt dubbed “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.”

Something clicked in my head by watching the juxtaposition of these “Daily” segments: Stewart feels Fox News is reprehensible, but not so bad that he can’t team up with the network’s star attraction to make a little money on the side? He has no business being in business with O’Reilly, who didn’t make me feel any less queasy when he stopped by “Daily” the following night to plug his new book and the debate.

Yes, half the proceeds of the “Rumble” are going to charity, but the other half makes clear this is a business venture plain and simple. So when Stewart justifies this production, as he did recently in an interview with The Huffington Post thusly, “This idea that somehow people whose viewpoints you can’t quite wrap your head around are not worthy of engagement strikes me as bizarre”–it rings a tad hollow.

Don’t get me wrong, my objection isn’t about Stewart stooping to dignify a
viewpoint he doesn’t share. To the contrary, there’s something
commendable about two guys on either side of the aisle sitting down at
the same table even just to squabble in this polarized political

But you can’t spend night after night saying Fox News is evil and then turn around and capitalize on that evil.

It’s one thing to offer a counterargument to an idea you disagree with, but quite another when you partner up with the source of those ideas to make money or market yourself. In that sense, “Rumble” isn’t an isolated incident, but more the culmination of a cozy cross-promotional relationship Stewart and O’Reilly have long enjoyed that includes appearances on each other’s shows.

That symbiosis seemed OK from the distance of each other’s anchor desks,
when one defined himself in opposition to the other. But it crosses the
line when Stewart goes halfsies with O’Reilly. Don’t be in cahoots with someone you hold in contempt.

The “Rumble” is also beneath Stewart because it plays like a rather cynical marketing ploy. As in gangsta rap or pro wrestling, there’s nothing like a good rivalry
to give enemies a mutual interest. But Stewart might want to hold himself to
a higher standard than 50 Cent or Triple H.

Or maybe Stewart is no different than those luminaries; he might argue he’s just an entertainer or a comedian. But that’s as bullshit as the Obama “race” video. The essence of Stewart’s humor is derived from his ability to hold himself above others. It undercuts his comedy when the moral high ground doesn’t seem so high after all.

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  1. John says:

    Your reference to the “race video” being bizarre and BS is because you only address what you assume to be the complaint from the “ostensibly” the racist right wing. The left’s response to the tape was that conservatives must think he showed some unacceptable level of blackness. That was not the issue, nor did anyone say it was (yes, yes, I know it was the subliminal message) although it was evidence of him being a kind of phony.
    The outrageousness of the tape was how divisive he was being, pitting people against each other – which he has made into an art these last four years – and not only that, but lying blatantly in order to accomplish this.
    Obama said the Stafford Act was waived in New York and Florida because the people there were considered to be “part of the American family.” But the people in New Orleans, “they don’t care about as much.”
    Less than two weeks before that speech, the Senate had voted to waive the Stafford Act for New Orleans. More federal money was spent rebuilding New Orleans than was spent in New York after 9/11 and in Florida after hurricane Andrew, combined.
    Barack Obama voted against waiving the Stafford Act for New Orleans.
    It’s about lying and dividing, not race. Keep beating up those straw men though!

  2. Wills says:

    Jon Stewart is so right to engage with O’Reilly in this way. He is very astute in appealing to O’Reilly’s vanity (and pocket) in making the offer. It is one opportunity of getting directly to O’Reilly’s audience. And if one member of O’Reilly’s audience watches with a more questioning attitude in future – or learns one FACT because of the Rumble, it’s worth it.
    Also, Jon knocked it out of the park.

  3. nota says:

    Your description of Fox as “the right-wing news network” and MSNBC as “the ostensibly left-leaning” network–in the same sentence, of course, to ensure that even the least intelligent among your readership can’t miss the distinction–is a perfect example of the kind of patronizing propagation of the Democratic Party line that has permeated much of the media this election season.
    Fox is obviously a right-wing network, and MSNBC is just as obviously a left-wing network. Period. The only way you could qualify MSNBC as “ostensibly left-leaning” is if you’d never actually watched the network. “Left-leaning” would be an appropriate description for ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, HBO, et al.–oh yeah, and Variety–but the list of undeniably “left-wing” news and entertainment organizations is long as well, stretching from MSNBC to the New York Times to the offerings of the erstwhile comedians Stewart, Colbert, and Maher.
    By the way, special mention in the “left-wing” category has to go to the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences for denying Kelsey Grammer and “Boss” nominations in this year’s Emmys, and for patently transparent reasons. At the same time, they’ve have seen fit to reward Jon Stewart with “Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Series” 10 years in a row for his unwavering consistency in supporting the left-wing cause.
    I also take serious issue with your assertion that the debate is “wrong” for Stewart. Among your declared reasons–apart from the fact that Stewart enjoys making money–is that he holds the “moral high ground” (which, presumably, is threatened by his sharing the stage with O’Reilly) and, even more startlingly, has a demonstrated “ability to hold himself above others.” What others? I can’t think why Jon Stewart would be “above” me, or O’Reilly, or even you (except, no doubt, in terms of personal wealth). But you must believe such things, and propagate them, or the whole illusion of the movement comes crashing down.
    I’ll watch the debate because I agree with Stewart that avoiding engagement is bizarre, and does nothing to advance an informed electorate. Both sides spend far too much time protecting their base and exposing their heroes only to adoring audiences. We need more debate, not less. And we need fewer writers and editors who spend time thinking up ways to sneak loaded phrases into their work, hoping they don’t get caught.

  4. Kinrowan says:

    Let the mock outrage begin….
    “But you can’t spend night after night saying Fox News is evil and then turn around and capitalize on that evil.”
    Two points here. One, Stewart doesn’t say Fox is evil. Empty-headed people do. Second, why not get paid for performing? You do know that Stewart gets paid for his work on the “Daily Show,” right?
    “Don’t be in cahoots with someone you hold in contempt.”
    Obviously, Stewart doesn’t hold O’Reilly in contempt. His ideas, perhaps, but not the man.
    “when one defined himself in opposition to the other.”
    This is so wrong, I’m not sure how to respond. You must be thinking of Colbert.
    Honestly, this post strikes me as coming from a person who hates Fox News (you know, the kind of person to write “Faux News” whenever he/she can) and refuses to allow anyone else to think about it in terms other than “evil” and “contempt.”

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