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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