As you probably know, your humble correspondent (that’s me) will conduct a live interview with President Obama before Sunday’s Super Bowl. The chat is fraught with danger. Not for the President, but for me.
That’s largely because the rules are different when it comes to interviewing the President of the United States. For example, he is addressed as “Mr. President,” and there is a respect for the office that formalizes the conversation. In other words, this back-and-forth will have little in common with Erin Andrews questioning Richard Sherman after the Seahawks won the NFC title.
Three years ago I also interviewed President Obama prior to the Super Bowl and some critics compared it to an athletic contest, a war of wills. Media analyst Howard Kurtz, then of CNN and now my colleague at Fox News, gave this post-interview analysis: “While the Fox pundit scored a few points, the president emerged the victor.” Truth is, I wasn’t trying to “score points,” I was trying to elicit information that people didn’t already know.
Others took me to task for asking this question: “Does it disturb you that so many people hate you?” It was a legitimate question to ask a president who was, and remains, widely disliked. He handled it well, saying this: “The folks who hate you, they don’t know you. What they hate is whatever funhouse mirror image of you that’s out there … you don’t take it personally.”
On Sunday, I can ask the president the best questions in the world, but he doesn’t have to answer them. He can say what he wants. Barack Obama is a loquacious man and he can easily run out the clock. If I interrupt too much, I look like a Visigoth. If I simply let him pontificate, I look like a sycophant. And because the interview is live, there’s no editing, nowhere to hide if things don’t go well.
Experienced journalists know that any interview with a powerful person is more like a chess match than a football game. Your job is to get information and to deliver something that the audience has not heard. The interviewee may not want to answer certain questions and might even refuse to answer by spinning. With anyone else, I can interrupt in mid-spin. But with the President of the United States, you have to be careful.
So I fully expect to get hammered after the interview is over, maybe even by my pals Howard Kurtz and Bernie Goldberg. Depending on how you feel about the president, the questions will either be too soft or too intrusive. The first time around, the interview benefited both Mr. Obama and me. He looked gracious for coming on a network that he has frequently vilified; I benefitted by reaching viewers who aren’t Factor regulars. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, some people got to see something other than the “funhouse mirror” version of O’Reilly they had heard about.
This is the ultimate challenge for an interviewer, as well as the ultimate opportunity and privilege. I can’t wait to see how it goes, can’t wait to read about the reaction. We’ll have all the highlights and post-interview analysis on The Factor on Monday. Wish me luck.