Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In 1996, Fox News and The Daily Show made politics a spectator sport

(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

On October 6, 2012, Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly entered the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University for a debate billed, with typically ironic self-importance, as The Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium. Streamed live at $4.95 a pop, the much-anticipated event found the two frequent sparring partners engaging in the kind of irascible, F-bomb-laden argument they’d repeatedly trotted out as guests on each other’s respective shows, where their mutual, bickering disdain had long become the basis for a classic sitcom friendship. O’Reilly thundered against “slackers” and Obama’s weaknesses, assisted by visual aids he seemingly had printed at Kinko’s. Stewart proclaimed O’Reilly the “mayor of Bullshit Mountain” and goofed on his height while playing with his podium lift. It was a tale told by two ideological idiots, full of sound bites and faux-fury and—by their own admission—accomplishing nothing.

Still, compared to the snooze of a debate between Mitt Romney and a listless Obama in Denver a week before, the Rumble was the most significant political event of the season at that point. After all, by 2012, at the zenith of Stewart’s and O’Reilly’s respective powers, America wasn’t divided into Democrats and Republicans. It was divided into The Daily Show and Fox News.

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That Stewart and O’Reilly could become the jostling figureheads of American political ideology—and their snarking at each other for a couple of hours could be hailed, even ironically, as a historic occasion—marked the culmination of a journey that had begun in 1996, when The Daily Show launched on July 22, followed by the first Fox News broadcast on October 7. Born mere months apart, their destinies seemed intertwined from the get-go. Everyone needs a rival, after all, a whetstone to sharpen themselves against. As The Daily Show and Fox News grew to loathe—and therefore rely on—each other, their long, drawn-out battle created a new era of politics as spectator sport that altered our very nation. And 20 years of their butting heads later, a concussed America has stumbled, disoriented and prone to fits of rage, into the state of political dementia where we now find ourselves.

Of course, like most fights we’ve seen over the past two decades, Fox News started it. Since the very moment owner Rupert Murdoch plucked Roger Ailes away from CNBC and running Rush Limbaugh’s TV show, Fox News has been the living, basic-cable id of its chairman, right down to the recently revealed—and not at all surprising—history of serial sexual harassment and toxic misogyny that finally deposed him, and the culture of blind loyalty and complicity that kept it a secret. The channel was already built from Ailes’ very DNA. In his decades-long career, Ailes had gone from TV to politics and back again, moving from producing The Mike Douglas Show to helping Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush exploit television’s power to win votes based on emotion and fear. At Fox News, Ailes finally found a 24-hour outlet for those dark talents, and he used it to wage a never-ending political campaign that transcended mere elections to create a sort of Cold Civil War for the American soul.

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Key to that war was the battle over who was telling you the truth. For Murdoch and Ailes, at least, Fox News represented a necessary corrective to the media’s longstanding liberal bias. In a New York Times interview published the day of the network’s launch, Ailes boasted of preaching “Fair And Balanced” as a credo to his staff, saying he told each of them, “When you walk into this newsroom, recognize your position or your bias and be fair to people who don’t share that position.’’ Fairness, respect for opposing viewpoints, and hands-off trust in his reporters to do the right thing, Ailes declared—with what one imagines was the muffled sound of Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton score behind him—would be the prevailing watchwords of Fox, the last, great bastion for truth in television news.

Of course, that was all bullshit. “Fair And Balanced” wasn’t even an original line, for God’s sake. Ailes had rehashed it from his former gig at the very unbalanced Television News Incorporated, where he’d been hired in 1974 by ultra-right-wing beer baron Joseph Coors to oversee the production of outright conservative propaganda for local news broadcasts—an idea that was, in turn, originally hatched under Ailes’ watch at the Nixon Administration, as a plan for doing the exact same thing out of the White House. What’s more, the assertion of being “Fair And Balanced” was itself an obviously biased potshot, implicitly suggesting that everyone else was not.

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As a Fox News mantra, “Fair And Balanced” was soon joined by a litany of others: “The War On Christmas.” “ACORN.” “Anchor babies.” “The Ground Zero Mosque.” “Democratic schools.” “Voter fraud.” “Benghazi.” And, of course, Fox’s favorite catch-all for the myriad ills of America, the “liberal media,” whose refusal to tell you the truth forms the underlying narrative of everything Fox News does: that everyone is plotting against you, and only Fox News can be trusted.

As Gabriel Sherman reported in his exhaustive, unauthorized 2014 biography, The Loudest Voice In The Room, Ailes liked to call these needling expressions his “kickers”—chewy, repetitive phrases that would cut through the fog of complex facts for the average voter, and get right to the fight-or-flight base of their feelings and deepest insecurities. Ailes schooled Nixon on the power of kickers, and you could hear the effects in his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention, which read like the screenplay for a disaster movie even Roland Emmerich might write off as clichéd.

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“We see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” Nixon said. “We hear sirens in the night.” His apocalyptic imagery spoke directly to the anxious white voters of what Nixon would call his “Great Silent Majority.” And by the campaign’s own admission, it laid the blueprint for Donald Trump’s own RNC speech—his “It’s Morning In America, And Muslims Are Coming To Kill You While You’re Still Groggy” moment, pitched squarely to the bleacher seats of Trump’s Fox News-bred Great Loudmouth Majority.

Much has been made of “The Fox Effect” ever since Ailes’ model of “kickers” and facts replaced by gut feeling became the new political norm. The way it turned politicians angling for the lifeblood of more airtime into mouthpieces for its talking points, and spurred Congress to act on issues the network (and therefore Ailes) decided were worth yelling about. The influence it had, on both opportunistic Republicans and fearful Democrats, in pushing American policy toward the right. How it turned an entire generation of Americans—primarily older white ones, but lately even small children—into hostile, paranoid obsessives who spend the majority of their waking hours agonizing about politics and viewing everything through the bifurcated lens of “conservative vs. liberal,” until they’re wasting all day railing angrily about “libtards” in completely unrelated comments sections and posting “Shillary” memes from behind their Twitter egg avatars. How it allowed Donald Trump, the glowing orange gallstone created by so much relentlessly churning bile, to swell from the attention Fox News gave him for his own “birther” kickers, until he finally became big enough to burst through the hemorrhaging abdomen of America’s political system.

But “The Daily Show Effect,” while usually discussed in less aghast terms by The Lib’rul Media, has proved just as important—and accountable—in shaping American political discourse over the past 20 years, even if it took a few years to get there. Much as Ailes and Murdoch outwardly declared no aspirations toward political influence when Fox News launched, changing the culture wasn’t explicitly on The Daily Show’s mind any more than taking down Fox News was in those early days.

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Back then, host Craig Kilborn presided over a parody newscast built on smirky very-’90s irony like its “This Day In Hasselhoff History” and “Five Questions” segments and cheap laughs at the expense of small-town weirdos. Kilborn’s fratty smarm left no room for genuine points of view. As then-field correspondent Stephen Colbert told The A.V. Club in 2003 of those cheap-laugh-filled times, “You wanted to take your soul off, put it on a wire hanger, and leave it in the closet before you got on the plane to do one of these pieces.”

The Daily Show wouldn’t find its soul—and its voice—until Kilborn left (undone by his own sexual harassment scandal, after he sort-of-joked to Esquire that show creator Lizz Winstead would “blow” him if he wanted) and Jon Stewart took over in 1999. Under Stewart’s reign, The Daily Show finally gained a point of view—and for lack of a better term, it slowly made it cool to be politically aware. TV’s idea of political comedy had long been steeped in shallow cartoonish caricature—Dana Carvey squawking “Nah Gah Dah” or Bill Clinton devouring Big Macs on Saturday Night Live—or the smug rants of Politically Incorrect’s Bill Maher and Dennis Miller (before 9/11 turned him into your blowhard libertarian uncle with a dozen open Wikipedia tabs). The Daily Show With Jon Stewart applied a smarter, more deftly satirical touch to the day-in, day-out absurdities of American governance, making it so you actually wanted to keep up with the news just to understand what it was joking about.

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Its influence, especially on younger viewers, was enormous, and not wholly positive. In a 2006 study published in the American Politics Research journal, The Daily Show was found to have fostered an increase of interest in political participation among its fans—as well as an increase of overall mistrust of politicians, on both sides of the aisle. “Congressman Does His Job” isn’t a very funny story, after all, and The Daily Show relied on politicians’ ignorance and hypocrisy for its comedy. One could see how its viewers might come away with the idea that all of them are a joke.

Just before he retired from hosting in 2015, Jon Stewart acknowledged that even President Obama had personally called him up—then called him out—over turning America’s young people into cynics, a claim Stewart refuted by saying he was more “skeptically idealistic.” It was an argument Stewart made time and again throughout his tenure: He wasn’t out to rile you up, so much as to “Restore Sanity” in a world of others’ fractious, incoherent screaming. As he said in his farewell address, his was not a war against specific politicians nor political parties nor even other pundits, but against the more generalized, insidious forces of “bullshit” conspiring to bury the truth.

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Of course, there was a little bullshit in that as well. Much as Fox’s “Fair And Balanced” credo was a dig at everyone else who wasn’t, Stewart’s war had long marshaled most of its forces squarely at the base of—as he said to O’Reilly in 2012—“Bullshit Mountain.” Throughout his 16-year run, Stewart created enough Fox News “takedowns” to fill years of Salon columns and hours of YouTube compilations, culminating in one last, cathartic “Adios, motherfuckers!” to his archrival that was as narratively necessary to his finale as The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble finally squaring off against the one-armed man.

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Stewart might have successfully brought down CNN’s Crossfire by begging it to “stop hurting America” with its squabbling and partisan ranting, but there had to be a part of him that also felt some small sense of culpability in perpetuating that divisiveness, no matter how often he insisted that he was just a comedian. To many, he was a political voice—and to a surprising majority, “The Most Trusted Man In America.” And long before he took his corner in the ring of the Rumble, he was the de facto captain of the two championship teams vying in the increasingly popular bloodsport of American politics. Stewart may have had the purest of heart and intentions, but he and the show he sculpted in his own image are every bit as responsible as Ailes and Fox News for turning modern politics into visceral entertainment, endlessly mined for punchlines, and kickers.

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And now, even as Stewart and Ailes have stepped down from their respective podiums less than a year apart from each other, their legacy is all around us. The Daily Show under Trevor Noah’s watch may not be as powerful a political player—and Noah’s preemptively stated goal to spend less time harping on Fox News was, for many, a harbinger of its toothlessness—but it’s spawned enough spinoffs that it doesn’t really matter. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and even Stewart’s own upcoming HBO series—all of these carry on The Daily Show’s voice and spirit, many of them mocking politics in a more impassioned and granular fashion than even The Daily Show ever attempted.

Fox News, of course, remains Fox News—recent hand-wringing aside. If Bill O’Reilly can overcome allegations of domestic violence, sexually harassing a producer by fantasizing about rubbing a loofah/falafel on her genitals, and more recently, insisting the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed,” Fox can similarly survive revelations about Roger Ailes behaving like the disgusting lecher that 20 years’ worth of “Leg Cam” shots always suggested he was. As Rick Santorum—a Fox News-created golem if there ever was one—told The New York Times recently, “It makes money. It’s the No. 1 cable channel. Why fix it?”

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Indeed, why fix what’s already broken—and even if you could, what effect would it really have? There’s no going back. Now everything is modeled on Fox News’ snappish punditry, snazzy graphics, and stories forced into overarching narratives. MSNBC—which launched the same year as Fox News and The Daily Show—was the first to surrender to the changing tides and remake itself as a network filled with opinion-based shows and snarky talking heads. And CNN, whose Ted Turner sneered in ’95 that he was looking forward to “crushing Rupert Murdoch like a bug,” may have finally been making good on that threat of late, but it’s only after years of desperately throwing holograms and Piers Morgan at the wall, then shoring up its alarmist “breaking news” coverage with gussied-up reality shows. It’s only going to get louder and emptier from here.

The lines separating news from politics, entertainment from “infotainment” et al. have become so irrevocably blurred that this year’s election has felt like one long season of Big Brother, complete with drawn-out elimination rounds and a designated villain people love to “hate-watch” so much, he might actually win the damn thing. And if Trump does win, he could well stock his cabinet entirely with people sent to him by the Fox News talent booker—especially if the rumors prove to be true, and Roger Ailes ends up running his campaign, as opposed to just making it possible in the first place. Tellingly, already Trump is warning supporters that he may lose because the whole thing is “rigged,” a fact-free, paranoia-stoking emotional ploy straight out of the Ailes playbook.

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And if Trump loses, some speculate that his true end goal will be to take all of this to its logical conclusion and start his own news network—one that could finally give Fox News’ “Fair And Balanced” motto the ring of relative truth, and render all attempts at media satire finally, definitively meaningless. Who knows? In another 20 years, when our pundits are just straight-up punching each other, perhaps we’ll look back fondly on this quaint and far more sporting era, back when Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly respectfully calling each other assholes could still adorably be considered a rumble.

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