See update below.
Bill O'Reilly just can't help himself. The Fox News Channel host felt obliged to invite Jon Stewart on his program, then employed what's currently a popular Republican tactic -- the filibuster -- to try and keep Stewart from getting his point across about FNC's commitment to its "narrative."
In a sense, O'Reilly was like a prizefighter, using his longer reach -- and the advantage of some awkward editing -- to keep Stewart from connecting with anything but glancing blows. But Stewart did land one haymaker, when he accused the Fox network of being an operation that has "taken reasonable concerns about this president ... and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao."
O'Reilly didn't really try to answer this, other than to say that it's "only a couple of guys" at FNC who do that -- and insisting, which provoked understandable amazement from Stewart, that Glenn Beck is "an Everyman," not a surrogate for what's admittedly the lunatic wing of the Republican Party.
Stewart also correctly noted that Fox News had managed to "mainstream conservative talkradio," which has long been the key secret of the channel's ratings success. In talkradio, listeners stay tuned longer than they do to newsradio. The fact that FNC viewers plant themselves in front of the set and stay there largely explains why Fox's average audience is so much bigger than that of CNN, which functions more like newsradio. In radio, this defines the difference between average quarter-hour ratings and cumulative audience, or "cume."
The truth, though, is that O'Reilly didn't really want to engage in a debate with Stewart; he just wanted credit for having the ostensible courage to book him. Because O'Reilly's world is increasingly insular -- a place where he relies on "media analysis" from people like Bernard Goldberg, who will simply parrot back his opinions to him. On Tuesday, he chatted with Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and then brought in Dennis Miller after the Stewart interview to help him dissect it. In a rare two-fer even for Miller, he went out of his way not just to kiss O'Reilly's ass, but Stewart's as well.
Frankly, O'Reilly would be better off ignoring Stewart -- and I'm not sure what Stewart hoped to accomplish by venturing into the lion's den, other than perhaps the satisfaction of getting to question Fox's tactics on its own air. The only problem was that O'Reilly kept stepping on his laugh lines, such as when Stewart called him the most reasonable of Fox's heavy hitters, which he likened to being "the thinnest kid at fat camp."
O'Reilly's ego and thin skin make it difficult for him to overlook any criticism, which is why Keith Olbermann's relentless attacks have driven him absolutely bonkers. Still, in the case of Stewart, the only advice I can offer is to echo what O'Reilly said to Stewart himself: "Wise up, man."
Update: OK, so that was the review of Part One. I watched Part Two on Thursday, which was essentially more of the same, though O'Reilly was a little better about letting Stewart finish answers. That said, his preamble and post-interview discussion with Laura Ingraham were pretty much nonsense, and the latter completely misrepresented what Stewart said on Wednesday.
Still, my favorite part, not surprisingly, was when O'Reilly said that the coverage had been mostly fair, except for that by "vile, vile Fox News hater, Brian Lowry, who consistently embarrasses the paper he works for, Variety. I can't believe the guy has a job."
A few points here:
A) Check the record and you'll see that O'Reilly has in the past referred to me as a "fair guy," then a "liberal guy," and finally a "Fox News hater." None of this is based on any change in me, only in O'Reilly's reaction to criticism. As I've said before, I admire O'Reilly's success in building a franchise out of nothing, but ever since the sexual-harassment allegations, he's become a different personality -- one who sees "smear merchants" around every corner and critics as enemies.
B) If Variety hasn't been utterly embarrassed by my ramblings yet -- I mean, seriously, just see the "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" review -- I somehow can't imagine pointing out that O'Reilly is thin-skinned and lives mostly in an echo chamber will put management over the edge. But I'll keep you posted.
C) If someone calls you thin-skinned, and you respond to that by calling them "vile, vile," doesn't that sort of reinforce the notion that you are, you know, "thin-skinned?"
D) Most of those millions of Fox News viewers probably have no idea what Variety is, much less who I am, which is another reason why O'Reilly's jihads against TV critics have always amused me. If criticism upsets you so much, why call attention to it?
FINAL UPDATE: Gawker has gone to the trouble of documenting how many of Stewart's most cogent points were left on the cutting-room floor -- or rather, for the significantly smaller audience likely to go watch the entire interview online. If you have the time and inclination, it's worth exploring the link.