The OTHER presidential debate: Jon Stewart vs Bill O'Reilly

The "Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium" shows how staid the real thing is, says Nicky Woolf. Also, that Jon Stewart should be helping Obama with debate-prep.

At five minutes to eight last night, Eastern time, the internet imploded. Or at least, that corner of the internet that was attempting to access the live-stream for the promised “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” between Fox News' patriarch Bill O'Reilly and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Under the pressure of “hundreds of thousands” of last-minute users trying to access the live feed (which cost $4.95, with some proceeds for charity), Nox Solutions, which was operating the stream, came under heavy fire from dissatisfied social media users. “Screw you NOX SOLUTIONS”, said one on the event's Facebook page. “This is ridiculous this is PATHETIC – off to Reddit to fix, mock and hopefully find a solution,” said another.

The Wall Street Journal's live-blog of the event was caught in the blackout. The entry for 8:24 reads: “I apologize for this live blog not being able to cover this event so far. We have already contacted the organizers to ask what's going on with their site, which appears to have crashed for lots of other users. Nobody has returned our message yet.”

I managed to find a feed eventually, through a slightly shady web-TV outfit based, as far as I could tell, out of the Ukraine, with a shaky video feed but a solid audio, which was better than a lot of people were doing. The showdown, when I finally got in to it, was a hell of a lot more fun than last Wednesday's presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Bill O'Reilly is probably the most influential media figure on the right. His Fox News show has been top of the ratings for more than ten years now, while more bombastic anchors like Glenn Beck have come and gone. Meanwhile Stewart, despite vehemently denying his show's political influence – “I'm just a comedian,” he likes to say in interviews, slightly disingenuously – is nonetheless without a doubt the most influential media figure on the left, with viewing figures similar to that of O'Reilly, and the Daily Show acts as a stalwart check on the excesses of Fox News. Both command audiences of between two and three million.

Stewart and O'Reilly have already crossed swords on the other's shows several times, and these are always enjoyable conflicts. While there were a lot of lines played just for laughs – Stewart said the Fox News building had the Eye of Sauron on its roof, and raised himself up and down at various intervals on a platform lift behind his podium as part of a running joke about their height difference (Stewart is 5'7”, O'Reilly 6'4”, leading the former to call the latter a “yeti”). O'Reilly came with bizarre placards – one with the words “Iran: not frightened” as well as a cartoon picture of a bomb.

But despite this levity, much of the evening had a serious tone. The biggest applause of the evening came from a line of Stewart's. “Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not go hungry, you’re a moocher?” he demanded. When O'Reilly said that government was good at running things like the military only because it had a “tradition” of doing so, Stewart, leaning back and unsmiling, called it “the silliest thing you've said all evening.”

Stewart scored a crushing blow when the moderator asked who each of them would save, rather surreally, if “America was burning.” “Oprah,” answered O'Reilly. “She's worth a hundred million.” Stewart raised an eyebrow, and said cuttingly: “well, I'd save my family. But listen, Oprah's a great answer too.”

The Daily Show presenter was especially good at courting the online as well as the present audience. “Somebody better be live-tweeting this,” he said at one point. “I don't care if Gerry and the Pacemakers attacked the embassy,” said O'Reilly a bit later, and in answer Stewart waved expansively at the cameras. “This is on the internet, Bill,” he said. “I don't think that's really the reference you want to be making.” “Alright then,” answered O'Reilly dryly but uncertainly. “I don't care if... um, Little Wayne attacked the embassy.”

The most interesting thing really, of course, was what last night said about the debates it emulated: it highlighted the insipid, starchy care with which a Presidential candidate must conduct himself. Last night sparkled with all the ridiculousness and fire that was lacking last Wednesday, because the media pressure on a candidate not to make anything which can be interpreted as a gaffe. Romney's perceived win on Wednesday was because he looked most like Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly did last night: like he was enjoying himself. Facts (arguably) be damned.

Obama looked professorial and staid by comparison, and in an age where the best lines are far more important than the best policies this was fatal. It is Jon Stewart who the President should be running debate-prep with, not John Kerry.

Yeah, this happened. Photo: Getty

Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly at their presidential debate. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder