After weeks of heavy promotion on their respective programs, Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart faced off Saturday night in Washington, D.C., at “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.”
Although excitement over the pay-per-view event, which was available for live streaming and download, had been building for weeks, the end result was somewhat less exhilarating than many had hoped; a more apt name might have been the “The Slightly Heated Exchange" rather than "The Rumble."
It didn’t help that many of the users who coughed up $4.95 to watch the debate online Saturday night – including this reporter – attempted to log in and were instead met with error messages. So widespread were the technical difficulties that Roger Ebert tweeted about them, and "The Rumble" organizers issued a statement promising a refund to those unable to watch live. (Half of the net proceeds from the debate will go to a variety of charities selected by Stewart and O'Reilly.)
Then there was moderator E.D. Hill, who struggled in vain to control Stewart and O’Reilly throughout much of the first hour of the debate. “I feel like Jim Lehrer,” she said at one point, articulating what pretty much everyone in the audience was already thinking.
Some of Stewart’s performance felt like a retreading of material from “The Daily Show.” In his opening statement, for instance, Stewart described his opponent as the “mayor of Bull…. Mountain,” borrowing a punch line from a recent segment in which he blasted Fox News’ transparent attempts to positively spin Romney’s “47 %” remarks. Likewise, Stewart’s point that, as taxpayers, we all end up paying for some things we don’t like -- whether the Iraq war or NPR -- is one of his more oft-cited talking points.
Still, there were some standout moments. Stewart appeared to have the audience at the Lisner Auditorium on his side, and several of his lines earned rousing applause. After O’Reilly complained about the supposed ready availability of food stamps under President Obama, Stewart fired back, “Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of getting something so that you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher?” The crowd went nuts. Stewart was also able to play his short stature for big laughs, using a mechanical lift operated by a button to elevate him to the same height as the 6-foot-4 O’Reilly.
The format was less advantageous to O’Reilly, who, in lieu of zingers, relied on slogans such as “Income redistribution = Robin Hood on steroids” and “Bush is gone” he’d written on big pieces of cardboard – like a low-budget version of graphics from his show. A few bons mots, such as a jab at a certain ratings-challenged cable news network – “We’re only as good as our weakest link? We’re only as good as CNN? “ he asked, with feigned outrage – felt very rehearsed.
The men found at least a sliver of common ground. O’Reilly admitted that he thought Obama had done a mostly good job on terrorism and agreed with Stewart that the federal government should not be giving major tax breaks to big oil companies. For his part, Stewart agreed there is a “patina” of liberal bias in the news media but insisted that ABC, CBS, and NBC are not “activist organizations.” And they both are upset by shabby treatment of veterans.
One thing they are unlikely to agree on any time soon is O’Reilly’s longtime TV home, Fox News. He defended the network, saying, “[Fox News] is making a billion dollars a year, so something's going right.”
"Yes, you can't make money selling crap in America," Stewart sarcastically replied.