By Angela Millan Epstein
The “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” debate was politainment at its best, delivered by two of the most influential political personalities of our times: conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and liberal comedian Jon Stewart. The anticipated event held at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium on Oct. 6 brought together people from both sides of the spectrum of today’s politically polarized America. It attracted audience from news and political junkies to experts, as well as those skeptical about the political debate.
The heavily promoted event, modeled after a mock presidential debate with 60 minutes of conversation and a 30-minute period of questions from the audience, had a civilized, candid, and even congenial tone. The interest generated by these high profile cable frienemies was very high, causing the servers streaming the event to crash. This is more than what any of the actual candidates can claim; who would have thought!
The Rumble 2012 that had more the tone of a boxing match event than the association with a political debate (remember 1974’s boxing match “The Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali?) was a very fun clash of ideas that sat complete ideologically opposite audiences next to each other, listening and laughing their behinds out. But in the process, the pundits took on issues like social security, national debt, the economy, income redistribution, the middle east, health care, immigration, and even the pill and Big Bird; issues that have Americans not only polarized but that also keep them awake at night, and have the country divided.
Although there were no surprises and both men defended their trenchers, both sides had their fair share of punch lines. When talking about Iraq’s war expenditure, Stewart asked O’Reilly, who had been criticizing the $140 million allocated to Public Television, “give me back the 800 billion dollars the war has cost and PBS is on the house.” Likewise, O’Reilly, who came armed with flash cards, asked Stewart to stop blaming Bush on the illness of the country because it was “boring, gone, adios, sayonara”
The “debate” made me think that there is room for civilized conversation about issues we vehemently disagree. It was interesting to see O’Reilly agree on “liberal” labeled issues like the war in Iraq: “we should have not gone there” or Stewart accepting there is “patina” of liberal bias in the news media.
Both men were asked what’s the biggest problem in the public discourse? Stewart: We’ve lost the inability to problem solve. Our conversation shouldn’t be about one part of the country carrying the freedom and the other undermining it. It should be about how to improve government. O’Reilly: Capitalism is the biggest problem with our discourse. If you’re a hater, you can make a lot of money. You can be paid if you’re a hater. People get paid a lot of money for ripping things up and hating. That has blown it up. There are no rules on the Internet. Not getting better, we have to live with it. Freedom of speech.
The entertaining and comedic approach is perhaps a sign that, after all, things are not as bad as we sometimes panic they are. If two of the most ideologically arch enemies are able to discuss real issues while having a good laughter, and show respect for each other, I think there is hope. But I am, of course, an eternal optimist.
Angela Millan Epstein is a former News Correspondent and Anchor for Univision and NBC’s Canal de Noticias’, has published in several sites in the Americas and worked in content and technology with IBM and ScreamingMedia.