On Monday night, Stephen Colbert, like each of his late-night colleagues, opened “The Late Show” with a serious and heartfelt response to the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.
Then he welcomed his first guest, Bill O’Reilly.
It seemed, at first, a tone-deaf juxtaposition. O’Reilly is a staunch conservative commentator whose take-no-prisoners approach on Fox News has most certainly helped create the hyperbolic culture war that swirled around the shooting and various reactions to it.
He had been booked as a guest long before the Orlando tragedy, but far from simply making the best of a potentially awkward situation, their conversation quickly built a bridge between ideologies that too often, and on both sides, rely more on interpretation than information, on competitive posturing more than actual dialogue.
Between the two of them, they achieved something like the old-school gravitas once required of, and revered in, the major network news anchors.
Remember them? The men, and eventually women, who had the star power and the professional stature to help calmly guide a nation through complications and crisis?
Increasingly we have sought a different type of guidance, one that favors brand over reputation, good marketing over due diligence until we’ve arrived at the point where a civil conversation between a conservative pundit and a liberal satirist stands out for its ability to address complicated issues without whipping anyone into a frenzy.
The dwindling status of the national news anchor in recent years has plagued the networks for myriad reasons, most of them bottom-line adjacent. The faces that deliver the news night after night are called “anchors” for a reason; teams are assembled around them, networks identified by them and, at least in the past, millions of American viewers relied on them, especially in times of crisis.
There are many fine, hardworking journalists who investigate and deliver the news, but the iconic news anchor is a thing of the past. Figures like Walter Cronkite, Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer (to name a few) no longer roam the television landscape, in part because that landscape doesn’t exist any more either.
In recent years, television news, like much of the country and the culture, has been redistricted in all manner of ways, including and especially politically.
The rise and success of Fox News, a network directed specifically at those viewers who felt the media were overwhelmingly liberal, combined with the increased popularity of personal narrative and influence of pop culture to blow up the traditional order of news television.
Increasingly, anchors are no longer personalities defined by their ability to do their job, their job is defined by their ability to cultivate their personalities, which includes, at times, their politics.
For years, many non-fans viewed the conservative bent of Fox News simply as an outrageous distortion of journalistic ethics. Jon Stewart’s career, and by extension, the careers of Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were built by their ability to point that out with a signature hilarious fury.
But when dismissal and outrage didn’t work, other cable networks fought back with their own partisan commentators.
Social media, meanwhile, muddied the lines even further. First person, once verboten, became de rigueur for even serious journalists, who were increasingly identified by their non-news personalities and non-news ventures, be they morning or afternoon chat shows or late-night brag sessions. Anderson Cooper went zeitgeist pin-up, Brian Williams took exaggeration to career-maiming lengths and Katie Couric went to Yahoo (her Epix documentary “Under the Gun” was recently criticized of an anti-gun-owner slant and at least one case of manipulative editing.) Lester Holt is currently on the opposite track, fighting his way back from all those “they seemed like the perfect couple” “Dateline” intros.
Meanwhile, as has been reported ad nauseam, a new generation increasingly turned to late night for their news and commentary. The digital revolution made Stewart and “The Daily Show,” Colbert and “The Colbert Report,” even David Letterman, with his Midwestern credentials and clear-eyed crankiness, at least as influential as the average news anchor, none of whom ever went viral the way the satirists did.
So when Americans say they don’t trust “the media,” it’s difficult to gauge what they’re talking about, but less difficult to realize it’s a huge problem.
The real dangers of the news anchor vacuum threaten the audience more than any network. As the political rhetoric of the presidential campaign became more heated and bizarre, as Donald Trump makes statements and suggestions that increasingly seem at odds with democracy, the lack of a national news figure whom a majority of Americans like and trust has become painfully obvious.
When a presidential candidate feels he can pull the credentials of news organizations, including the venerable Washington Post, and no national news figure has the clout to explain to Trump supporters why this not in America’s best interest, we have a problem.
Which is why the sight of Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert engaged in a genuine give and take over gun control, terrorism and political culture offered a bizarre but undeniable flicker of hope.
For years, these two men have sustained one of the odder working relationships in television history. Colbert’s character on “The Colbert Report” was, of course, a stinging satire of O’Reilly, yet O’Reilly has regularly appeared with Colbert, both on “The Colbert Report” and “The Late Show.” On “The Colbert Report” especially, the men treated each other with mutual, if usually good-humored, disrespect, but still these meetings offered, if only temporarily, a truly crossover audience.
The only way die-hard O’Reilly fans are going to watch any show with the name Stephen Colbert in the title is if Bill O’Reilly is a guest and vice versa.
On Monday night, the two were uncharacteristically sober, abstaining from their signature zingers in favor of actual debate — Colbert pushed O’Reilly on assault weapons, and O’Reilly conceded that there should be a conversation about banning them, just as O’Reilly pushed Colbert to acknowledge Trump’s post-Orlando shooting tweets as effective politics.
Some of the subdued tenor was due, no doubt, to the horrific nature of the event that sparked the dialogue. But each man also appeared to understand that the fact of this conversation, between two people who have all but defined themselves in opposition to each other, was as important as its content.
It may not have produced the stunning power of Edward R. Murrow taking on the McCarthy hearings or Walter Cronkite denouncing the Vietnam War, but it was something.
If Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert can find some middle ground, maybe the rest of us can too.