The more I think about it the more I figure that Bill O’Reilly should have passed on the opportunity to interview President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a dog and pony show we could have done without.
I understand why Bill did the interview and what he got out of doing it. First, there’s ego, no small point with O’Reilly or any other TV big star. Bill got to go one-on-one with the most powerful man in the world – on Super Bowl Sunday no less. The president wasn’t behind a podium emblazoned with the seal of his office. They sat on similar chairs facing each other and actually looked like equals, even though everyone knows they’re not.
And the audience was huge. More than 100 million people tuned in to watch the game and while the number who watched the interview (two hours before kickoff) wasn’t as large, it was large enough. So millions and millions of Americans who don’t normally watch Fox, got to see the network’s biggest star. And who knows – maybe some of them would become converts.
That’s what Bill and Fox got out of the interview.
The president got something out of it too. First, he showed his base that he could sit down with Big Bad Bill and come out of it without a scratch. He got to take his usual shots at Fox, which his base also likes. He got to put doubt about Fox’s legitimacy in the minds of everyone whose minds weren’t already made up. And he came off looking like a regular guy — sitting there, smiling, tieless. All that was missing was the beer and chips.
The problem is no news came out of the interview. And it gave the president the opportunity to give his side of the story, virtually unchallenged. That’s not O’Reilly’s fault. It’s a 10-minute interview. Live. You can only interrupt the President of the United States so many times. And in the end, the president can say whatever he wants.
And he did.
On the matter of the IRS targeting conservative opponents of the president, Mr. Obama said there was “not even a smidgeon of corruption” in that supposed scandal.
Maybe. But then why did Lois Lerner, the IRS employee who was at the center of the controversy, exercise her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a House hearing on the scandal? Not a “smidgeon of corruption” and she’s afraid of incriminating herself? Really?
On Benghazi, O’Reilly asked if Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who had just learned that the attack in Benghazi was the work of terrorists, passed that information along to the president. The president dodged a direct answer, so we still don’t know why Susan Rice went on all those Sunday news programs to tell a story about an anti-Muslim video causing the trouble that led to the deaths of four Americans. We still don’t know why the president and others on his team misled the American people for several weeks about how a supposedly spontaneous riot got out of hand. The president told his version of events. No reporter can force anyone, let alone the president, to answer a question he doesn’t want to answer. And eventually, it was time to move on to the next subject.
In other parts of the interview, Mr. Obama made clear that he wanted to look forward – not back. Looking back is something O’Reilly and Fox could do. “I try to focus not on the fumbles, but on the next play,” the president told the anchorman.
As I say, the president got what he needed and Bill got what he needed. And the rest of us didn’t get much.
Mr. Obama went after Bill and Fox twice during the interview, saying a reason people care about Benghazi and the IRS is because, as the president put it, ”these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”
That’s when Bill should have taken his notes and thrown them in the air. (That would have been a very nice TV moment.) He should have looked the president in the eye and said:
“Mr. President, this is the second time during this brief interview that you’ve gone after Fox News. So let’s set the record straight: Fox News isn’t responsible for the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare. Fox News isn’t the cause of the lax security in Benghazi that contributed to the four American deaths. Fox News didn’t tell the IRS to target your political enemies. You and your administration are responsible for all of those things. So, Mr. President, if you have any specific complaints about Fox News coverage of these matters, this would be a good time to share those complaints with the American people.”
Bill told me that there’s value in asking questions even if the president doesn’t really answer them. The people watching can see what’s going on, he said. There’s some truth to that. But I still think there’s not enough upside for any journalist to do the interview. Ten minutes, live, plays into the president’s hands. It’s too easy to run out the clock. And if the reporter jumps in too many times, he looks disrespectful.
Still the interview was a little more interesting than the actual Super Bowl game … but not nearly as entertaining as the Bruno Mars halftime show. But then, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.