The Debate You Really Want to Watch: Stewart vs. O'Reilly

On Saturday satire goes toe to toe with punditry when multiple Emmy winner and political comedy guru, Jon Stewart, goes up against Fox's noble newsman, Bill O'Reilly, in a 90 minute debate. The Rumble in the Air-conditioned Auditorium will live stream for $4.95 on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with a portion of proceeds going to charity.

So what is this debate really all about and will it overshadow the "real" political debates airing these weeks?

Let's start by asking what the debate is really all about. Are Stewart and O'Reilly trying to upstage the candidates by actually putting on a good show where issues are actually discussed with some depth? Or is this just more of the ratings race to attract viewers? Can it be both of these at the same time? And more importantly, are we witnessing the final move where political commentary and entertainment are forever entwined?

We can't answer those questions without stopping to point out that there is a big difference between the two players in this performance. Stewart is a satirist with a show on Comedy Central and O'Reilly is billed as a respected news source on Fox, but many consider him one of the loudest voices in bloviating punditry. O'Reilly wants to be taken seriously and he gets agitated when he is accused of being nothing more than a fear-mongering, fact-bending, blowhard. Stewart, in contrast, is first and foremost a satirist, which means that he wants to get his audience to think while giving them comic relief.

The difference between them is crucial since it marks out what's at stake. If Stewart gets viewers to think about politics and understand issues while he entertains them that is just pure gravy. And, of course, Stewart has lately gone more directly at political commentary, at times leaving the comedy a bit on the back burner. And it is that blurriness for Stewart that will make this debate even more entertaining for us all to watch. Over the years we have watched O'Reilly and Stewart develop a real camaraderie, albeit one that involves deep ideological opposition. Stewart's crossing over more and more into direct political commentary, rather than satirical commentary can be seen here in his recent interview on O'Reilly's show when they pitched the debate:

The point is there is no down side for Stewart. He is funny, great. He is smart, even greater. He takes his smart brand of political insight to a broader audience, also great. The Rumble is win-win for Stewart no matter what.

The more perplexing part of the story is O'Reilly's fascination with Stewart and his willingness to take Stewart seriously whether as an adversary or a colleague. Watch how chummy he is with Stewart when he appeared on his show:

O'Reilly has a lot more to lose by matching up with Stewart. He runs the risk of muddying the already blurry line between The O'Reilly Factor's role as noble news coverage and as media spectacle. This mess emerged with clarity when O'Reilly recently interviewed Ted Koppel who claimed that shows like O'Reilly advocated a partisan rhetoric that has led to the U.S. being divided across red and blue lines, has crippled congress, and has made it impossible to build consensus across parties. He singled out O'Reilly as being responsible for the "death of real news." O'Reilly's response to Koppel's accusations? Fox News has too many viewers to not be doing things right. Huh?

O'Reilly's attempt to defend Fox as just too popular to be wrong also builds into recent research that shows that people who watch no news at all score higher on tests about their knowledge of current issues than people who watch Fox. Yes, that's right: you actually get dumber when you tune into Fox. In contrast, viewers of The Daily Show score higher than viewers of The O'Reilly Factor. In fact they score almost as high as those that get news from NPR and The Wall Street Journal.

So O'Reilly may have about twice as many viewers as Stewart, but his viewers know less about current issues. Oh, and they are a lot older. O'Reilly might have more viewers, but Stewart has more twitter followers, and he has a far better following among the 18-34 demographic, a demographic which turned to Comedy Central over Fox even after the RNC. When we look at the debate this way, O'Reilly already has a lot to lose.

O'Reilly might like to refer to Stewart's audience as "stoned-slackers that love Obama" but they are a key lucrative demographic for TV and they know more about current events because they watch shows like Stewart's. Maybe O'Reilly is doing the debate so that he can learn how to be entertaining, appeal to younger viewers, and teach his audience about the world the way Stewart does on his show. Maybe O'Reilly just wants to be more like Stewart.

So one reason to watch the debate is to see what happens to O'Reilly. Is he a switch hitter who wants to play it both ways? One day a hard hitting, no spin, noble newsman who thinks independently. The next an entertaining, popular personality, who basks in his ratings glory and self-promotes shamelessly. There is little doubt that O'Reilly does like occupying these multiple personas. And he enjoys getting a laugh out of his audience too. He did say that one of his motivations for the debate was to get a chance to "make fun of Stewart."

Don't forget that when Stewart exposed the farce of CNN's Crossfire it took the show down. Maybe on Saturday he will rock O'Reilly enough to show him that he needs to stop joking himself into thinking that Fox is actually a news channel. Who knows, maybe O'Reilly will just move his show over to Comedy Central where viewers increasingly turn for "real" political coverage and hosts get to entertain their audiences without apology.

The other reason to watch The Rumble is that like it or not figures like O'Reilly and Stewart are increasingly the sources of information for the U.S. public. It is possible that more young voters will turn out for O'Reilly and Stewart than will watch the candidates. The fiasco of Wednesday's debate showed that even the forum of the political debate is now nothing more than canned sound bites and prescribed performances that endlessly repeat with no real information offered to the audience. It wasn't entertaining and it wasn't informative and it wasn't a helpful forum to promote our democracy. You can bet that O'Reilly and Stewart will do better than that.