Jon Stewart showed up alone for his showdown Wednesday afternoon with Bill O’Reilly.
“Stewart, S-T-E-W-A-R-T,” he told the security guard in the lobby of Fox News’ midtown Manhattan headquarters. “I’m here to get crushed by O’Reilly.”
In fact, what unfolded over the next 40 minutes was a vigorous, policy-laden debate between two of television’s most popular figures who hail from increasingly polarized political worlds. Their discussion careened between talk of tort reform, global warming and the trials of the 9/11 terrorists.
But most of all, Stewart used his second appearance ever on “The O’Reilly Factor” to levy a robust critique of Fox News and its coverage of President Obama.
“Here’s what Fox has done, through their cyclonic perpetual emotional machine that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: They have taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao,” the comedian told his host.
“I think some people do that, but most people don’t,” O’Reilly responded, calling it “the narrative of a couple of guys.”
Media criticism is nothing new for Stewart, who engages in it every night on “The Daily Show,” gleefully splicing together news footage in bracing send-ups of media outlets, particularly Fox News. His mockery of CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire” helped persuade executives to cancel that program. And last year he jousted fiercely with CNBC host Jim Cramer, accusing him of overstating the health of the stock market.
But when Stewart lodged his case against Fox News on the network’s own air, directly to its top-rated host, it made for a rare and remarkable television exchange.
Executives at the cable network said they were unfazed by the critiques made during his interview; excerpts aired on Wednesday editions of “The O’Reilly Factor” and more will air on Thursday. (The full, unedited sit-down will be posted Thursday night on FoxNews.com.)
“Jon is entitled to his criticisms,” said Bill Shine, executive vice president for programming. “We both make our living off the 1st Amendment. We invited him on, and what other place would allow him to do that? That’s what makes us No. 1. We invite our critics on and let them criticize us to our face.”
Plus, Shine said, “It’s good TV. I thought it was fun.”
The “Daily Show” host delivered his message in an somber tone, occasionally fading into a look of exasperation as the two men wrangled. O’Reilly challenged his arguments, but with equanimity. The result was a forceful but amiable exchange.
“All I hear on your network is tyranny and socialism,” Stewart said, adding: “How is Barack Obama a socialist? As far as I can see, the majority of the billions of dollars he’s given, he’s given to banks. So if he’s a socialist, he’s dyslexic.”
“He does believe in redistribution of income, and that is a socialist tenet,” O’Reilly countered.
In an interview afterward, O’Reilly said he was struck by Stewart’s mood.
“It was more serious than I expected him to be,” the commentator said. “He wanted to make some points about Fox News, and he made them. I let him make them. And I told him, I’m not offended that he believes that or sees it that way. I’m not. But I think if he would sit down and watch Bret Baier, Shepard Smith, the way our hard news guys cover the White House and Congress and the Supreme Court, he would not see a rooting interest in the GOP.”
The last time Stewart was a guest on O’Reilly’s program, in 2004, the host referred derisively to the “stoned slackers” who watch “The Daily Show” and Stewart sarcastically endorsed O’Reilly’s call for a boycott of France. Since then, the Fox News commentator has made three appearances on “The Daily Show.”
On Wednesday, O’Reilly brought up the “stoned slackers” again and repeatedly challenged Stewart’s editing of Fox News clips on “The Daily Show.” The comedian, in turn, charged that “the Tea Party movement has been notarized, signed, sealed and delivered by Fox News.”
“I don’t buy that,” O’Reilly scoffed. “We just covered it. What do you think, we have mailings in here?”
Still, there were plenty of jokes that triggered laughter in the control room, where a visiting reporter watched the proceedings.
“Here’s what I don’t understand: You’re the top-rated show on the top-rated network,” Stewart said as he settled in across the table from O’Reilly. “I like Staples as much as the next guy. But can a brother get a soft chair?”
“No,” the host responded sternly. “You’re lucky you’re not hanging from your thumbs.”
They exchanged many barbs in between policy discussions.
The comedian asserted that O’Reilly has become “the voice of sanity” at Fox News, which he equated to “being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”
For his part, O’Reilly expressed dismay at the notion that Stewart has become an important cultural figure.
“Do you understand the implication of you being important in any context?” he asked witheringly.
“Well, I think my family loves me,” Stewart replied modestly.
Later, the comedian confronted his host: “Here’s your problem and I’m going to tell you this right now: You like me. You don’t know what to do with yourself right now because you like me.”
So is it true?
“I like Stewart,” O’Reilly admitted after the show. “It’s a character flaw of mine.”