Stewart, O'Reilly 'Debate' On Race: Two Showmen Putting On An Act

Suddenly, the future of race relations in the United States is in the hands of Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, even though their “debate” on the subject last week was a big, phony act. 

Until they began their now-infamous “argument” about “white privilege” (an amorphous topic if there ever was one) on last Wednesday’s “Daily Show,” I was unaware that this particular topic was top of mind with anyone in recent days, or even weeks. 

But apparently, it was on Stewart’s mind, so he brought the subject up a few moments after O’Reilly took a seat as Stewart’s guest.

Specifically, Stewart seemed intent on examining the debate question: Is there such a thing as “white privilege” in the U.S.?  The subject seemed to arrive out of thin air, since there seemed to be no ostensible “hook,” or reason, for it to be raised. Instead, it was a topic shrewdly chosen by Stewart to generate conversation in the aftermath of the show. If that was the goal, then it was a huge success because it was widely talked about in all the usual places -- social media plus all the Web sites out there that “report” on what was said the previous evening on the TV talk shows -- from MSNBC and Fox News to the late-night comedy shows.



This “reportage” almost always amounts to little more than stories that quote briefly from the segments being reported on, and then present the embedded video. Plus, there’s usually a headline that exaggerates the situation -- in this case, headlines such as: “O’Reilly, Stewart Debate on Race Turns Heated” or “Was Anger Real in O’Reilly, Stewart Debate Over Race? You Decide” (the latter phrase playing off the Fox News Channel slogan “We Report, You Decide”).

O’Reilly was booked on “The Daily Show” to promote his latest book titled “Killing Patton,” the latest in the morbid, but best-selling series of books O’Reilly has published in recent years on the deaths of notable figures such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Jesus.

Stewart dutifully mentioned “Killing Patton” at the outset of his sitdown with O’Reilly, but quickly dispensed with it in favor of this “white privilege” debate topic. “You have said, you have stated this: ‘I don’t believe there is a thing called ‘white privilege’,” Stewart said to O’Reilly, although Stewart never specified when, or in what context, O’Reilly said this.

However, O’Reilly was game to play along, probably because he is as shrewd as Stewart, and also because the two probably colluded on this choice of topics in the first place. Like Stewart, O’Reilly was well aware that such a conversation would have an afterlife -- one that he too could exploit on his own show.  He did do that, commenting on it Thursday on “The O’Reilly Factor”. “Stewart and I always have lively debates and there are no hard feelings,” O’Reilly said on Fox News Channel on the day after. 

Basically, O’Reilly was saying what a lot of us already know – that he and Stewart get together occasionally, on each other’s shows and also in various public forums, to put on an act where they debate about something.  And yet, as obvious as this “act” is, the post-debate chatter is all very serious.  In this case, the nation was suddenly debating the issue of “white privilege” as if it was the hot button issue of the day – although it hadn’t been until Stewart and O’Reilly argued about it.

In a nutshell, their two arguments came down to this:  O’Reilly agreed that white people in America once had privileges denied to African-Americans, but in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, those days are long gone; Stewart’s position was that those days are not gone, but very much still here.  That was basically the gist of the whole thing.

Of the two debaters, Stewart worked harder at putting the act across than O’Reilly.  O’Reilly would make a statement, and Stewart would dramatically roll his eyes, push himself back in his rolling chair and flail his arms in feigned disbelief.  For his part, O’Reilly’s debate tools included raising his voice, making faces, shaking his head from side to side and otherwise harrumphing at Stewart’s statements.

It was evidently very entertaining to those in the “Daily Show” studio audience because they hooted and hollered throughout the eight-minute segment (which ballooned to nearly 13 minutes in the version Comedy Central posted on YouTube.

Let the record show that this debate did nothing to advance or promote a greater understanding of race relations in the United States.  But it did generate a great deal of attention for two privileged guys who both happen to be white.

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