After Jon Stewart’s critique of Fox News’s reporting of the White House’s invitation for the rapper Common to participate in a poetry slam, I was happy that Bill O’Reilly invited him to a debate on The O’Reilly Factor. I thought, “Great! Two people with opposing ideologies, sitting down to talk like peers about how and why they reported on a story in a certain way.” I expected media criticism, and this was my first mistake. Problem is, I think Jon Stewart made the same mistake.
In his segment about Fox News and Common, the strongest points of Stewart’s argument had to do with the way Fox News framed the issue. Their pundits spoke about how Common’s invitation was highly controversial, “raising some eyebrows” and generally viewed with distaste, even though there was nothing to suggest that this was, in fact, a mainstream perspective. Stewart criticized Fox for blowing up the issue and manufacturing a scandal in the wake of a major triumph for President Obama. He pointed to Fox’s celebration of musicians like Johnny Cash and Ted Nugent whose work include expressions of, to put it mildly, lawlessness and violence. Stewart is inherently going after their hypocrisy, but he was specifically nailing the hypocrisy in their coverage. The crux of Stewart’s rap at the end of the segment was that Fox made something out of nothing.
And then he accepted Bill O’Reilly’s debate to discuss the matter one-on-one, and I admire both of them for pursuing the dialogue, but ultimately they were discussing two different things and it served neither of them. Stewart started the discussion about Fox News as a whole, and about their editorial slant, but O’Reilly insisted on keeping the focus on himself. This is understandable; just as Stewart correctly asserted that he cannot speak for Common, O’Reilly cannot speak for Sean Hannity or Greta Van Susteren. But in this, Stewart is reduced to a devil’s advocate, as the one who disagrees with O’Reilly on whether Common should have been invited to the White House at all. Instead of debating media, punditry and bias, Stewart and O’Reilly could only rehash the same arguments they both had already made on their own shows. Neither of them had a chance to shine and rise above the fray, which was what interested me about the “debate” in the first place. The chance for what could have been a truly illuminating dialogue was, instead, a fantastic waste of time.
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