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Stewart and O'Reilly: Taking on Fox News, on Fox News

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Last night we saw one of the best debates about media and politics in general, and Fox News in particular, that I’ve seen on TV in a while. That it was conducted by a professional talk-TV bloviator (Bill O’Reilly) and a late-night comedian (Jon Stewart) is nothing that should make anyone in the rest of the media feel especially good. (I’ll embed a video when and if we can get Fox News’ clips to play nicely with WordPress; in the meantime, you can see part of it at Fox News, or part one and part two at YouTube.)

Jon Stewart went on The O’Reilly Factor last night to talk about Stewart’s critique of Fox News. The stances he and Bill O’Reilly took were not especially surprising: Stewart, that Fox takes political disagreements and blows them up into a “panic attack,” O’Reilly, that Fox is fair and balanced (excepting its many opinion show, like his) and that Stewart’s Daily Show caters to President Obama’s amen chorus.

(Update: One of O’Reilly’s jabs, by the way, that TDS’s audience are stoned slackers, was not just a lazy shot but runs up against surveys that have shown it has one of TV’s best-informed news audiences. For his part, Stewart has smacked The Factor regularly, most recently for O’Reilly’s championing privacy while making sleazy ambush videos.)

There is, predictably, plenty of focus the morning after on who “won” the exchange. But what was refreshing—not unlike Obama’s question-time session with Republicans last week—was that the exchange was spirited but decent, with at least some honest effort to treat complex issues as, well, complex.

O’Reilly kicked off by asking Stewart how he thought President Obama is doing. What I love about how Stewart answers questions like this is that, for a media professional, he answers like someone who has never been coached by a media trainer. You’re supposed to answer questions like this directly, forcefully, succinctly, in bullet points. Instead, Stewart, the comedian, kicked off a serious answer by saying that the question “doesn’t lend itself to an easy answer.”

One thing Stewart likes about Obama is that he is “engaging the regulatory mechanism of government.” One thing he doesn’t like, is that Obama has ceded too much power to Congress, meaning that instead of setting an agenda and forcefully selling it to the public, he has settled for “lobbyist gruel.” Instead of giving Obama a report card—B+ for regulation, D- for health care, whatever—Stewart gave an answer about ideas. And O’Reilly, who probably agrees with him on very little politically, acknowledged that they were both intriguing points. (Especially, though he didn’t say this, compared with what people usually give on The Factor or most other political talk shows.)

Then O’Reilly asked Stewart to justify the Daily Show’s criticism of Fox News. What did he think of the PPP poll finding that Fox is the most trusted news channel? Stewart didn’t say that it’s because Fox has a slavish audience of partisan crazies. Instead, he argued–correctly, I think–that both politics and style, as well as simple messaging competence, are responsible for Fox’s success: “Fox News is the most passionate and sells the clearest narrative of any news organization if that’s–are you still referring to it in that manner?”

This led to the old argument over whether Fox is “fair and balanced” or a conservative news outlet. “Here’s the brilliance of Fox News,” Stewart said: “What you have been able to do–you and [Roger] Ailes–have been able to mainstream conservative talk radio.”

As on the Daily Show, Stewart went beyond simply talking bias–or painting Fox’s politics as extreme–to instead make a functional critique about how Fox works: “Here’s what Fox has done, through their cyclonic perpetual emotion machine that is a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they’ve taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao.”

O’Reilly argued back that shows like The Factor are, as is plain to anyone who watches them for a few seconds, clearly and identifiably opinion shows. I think that’s true as far as it goes, though Stewart made a reasonable counter-case that TV doesn’t work like a newspaper with a marked opinion page: a lot of news delivery goes on through the “opinion” shows, and vice-versa.

One thing I would have liked to see Stewart address more directly is how specifically he believes Fox’s news operation feeds its opinion shows attack lines. The Daily Show has done this before, especially in a detailed takedown of how Fox News injects controversies like the schoolkids-singing-about-Obama videos into the news cycle, providing fodder for its “opinutainment” hosts, which in turn elevates them as “news” (“Some people are saying that…”) to which the news shows must—of course!—pay more attention.

Stewart didn’t do that here, though it’s possible the case was too convoluted to make in the time available—or that he did make it, and it ended up on the cutting room floor. That, by the way, is not to suggest dirty pool on The Factor’s part, necessarily: The Daily Show, like pretty much all taped interview shows, edits interviews. But it is true that this is the single criticism of Fox News that the network is invested in not taking hold. That said, Stewart and O’Reilly did at least get into the question of whether Fox’s opinion shows and news shows can really be separated.

This being The O’Reilly Factor, the interview (a second part airs tonight) was followed up with a guest to praise O’Reilly’s handling of the interview. But Dennis Miller spread the kudos evenly: “The two state-of-the-art shows for information and entertainment in America right now are your show and Jon’s show.” I wouldn’t go that far, but for one night, the Factor deserved some praise.