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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Jon Stewart vs. Bill O'Reilly: Did O'Reilly win the bout on points?

February 4, 2010 |  1:32 pm

It was the big showdown, the media equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier, Tyson vs. Spinks or Louis vs. Schmeling. Jon Stewart went into Big Poppa Bear's den last night for a media heavyweight bout with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, a brawny meeting of two of our most celebrated media giants that felt so much like a boxing match that at one point, when O'Reilly reached out with one of his long arms, pointing a finger at his adversary, Stewart recoiled, practically curling up in a ball, saying "God, you've got Ali's reach!"

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Most of the time, these much-vaunted clash of the titans feel anti-climactic, so I can't say I entirely agree with Time's James Poniewozik, who writing on his blog this morning, called the exchange "one of the best debates about media and politics in general, and Fox News in particular, that I've seen on TV in a while."

I'm not so sure I'd go that far, since the best debates are usually the ones where the combatants are two men from the same social class who really despise each other (like Bush vs. Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign). Stewart and O'Reilly, truth to tell, actually seem to like each other and each man certainly has a begrudging respect for the other, a respect you wouldn't see if Stewart were going up against Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck. (For a fascinating inside peek at the showdown, check out my colleague Matea Gold's piece, which actually takes us inside the Fox News control room during the show.)

But hey -- if I'm calling this a heavyweight bout, then you just want to know who won, right? I'd have to give the edge to O'Reilly, if for no other reason than when it comes to TV interviews or the NBA finals, home court advantage is everything. When Stewart demolished CNBC nut-job stock booster Jim Cramer last year, "The Daily Show" host had his finger on the button for the entire exchange, putting up damning TV clips at will, leaving Cramer pretty much defenseless. But last night, Stewart was on O'Reilly's playing field, with O'Reilly controlling the tempo of their exchange, repeatedly interrupting Stewart in mid-sentence, throwing him off his comic rhythm.

I'm not saying O'Reilly won on the intellectual force of his arguments, since I'm totally in the Stewart camp when it comes to the insidious lack of fairness and balance on Fox News. But I have to give O'Reilly his props -- he's an old master as an interviewer and, presiding on his own home court, he used it to every advantage. For example, O'Reilly led off the interview with a great right hook, focusing his spotlight right on President Obama by asking Stewart: "How's he doing so far?"

It was a shrewd tactic, putting Stewart on the defensive, since as O'Reilly surely knew from watching "The Daily Show" that Stewart, like a lot of liberals, isn't especially enthusiastic about the president's first-year performance. And Stewart being Stewart, perhaps the most verbally convoluted comic of his generation, he wasn't going to duck the question or offer an easy answer, which immediately made him look as if he were dissembling a bit. In fact, Stewart's comic style, which tends toward elliptical, self-referential humor, didn't play especially well on the O'Reilly format, which rewards short, punchy replies and doesn't have the raucous studio audience that Stewart enjoys on "The Daily Show," which gives his comedy riffs a much-needed extra momentum.

Even though Stewart landed some powerful punches, especially when making clear how intimately connected Fox News is with the Republican Party, for the most part he was out of his element. It was like watching a great athlete playing an unfamiliar sport (like Shaquille O'Neal, for example, trying to hit a baseball). Stewart got in his swings, but he certainly wasn't hitting the ball out of the park like he does on "The Daily Show."

Photo: Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly verbally duke it out on "The O'Reilly Factor." Photo credit: Fox News

If you didn't see the show, here's the first half of last night's exchange: 

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