BOB GARFIELD: On Super Bowl Sunday, right before kickoff, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly sat down with President Obama for a one-on-one interview. As expected, O’Reilly covered the issues that have been at the core of his cable channel’s unrelenting critique of the Obama presidency, the rocky Obamacare rollout, the attack in Benghazi and the alleged targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. In general, the questions centered on the scandals that, after repeated official inquiry by Congress and Inspectors General, turned out to be mere screw-ups, with no evidence of White House fingerprints or cover-up. The President had little difficulty deflecting the implicit accusations. The question is, in this rare opportunity for a live one-on-one, what did O’Reilly accomplish?
Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for The Atlantic, thinks the answer is - not much at all.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: Well, I’m someone who writes a lot about the NSA and the United States having a lethal targeting program abroad. I would have loved to hear the President help to account on those issues, in the way that he hasn’t been. You know, we all have our hobby horses, but I would say that Bill O'Reilly didn't really advance public knowledge on any issue, whether it’s my issue or your issue, or someone out there in the audience. We don’t know anything more than we did before the interview.
For me, one telling moment was when Bill O'Reilly brought up the issue of healthcare.gov and the Healthcare Reform Bill, and that framing is very telling. Bill O’Reilly was trying to embarrass Obama, rather than eliciting information from him. And he could have asked a question that actually reflected badly on President Obama and elicited information. He could have pointed out that President Obama hasn't done anything of substance to make sure that the federal government can have a good rollout of a website in the future. President Obama has basically said that we have this broken system and you can’t blame it entirely on us, and that’s a fair point. What has he done to make the next federal website launch successful?
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s tape which gets to the question of whether a politically motivated or incentivized IRS was targeting conservative groups with undue attention.
BILL O’REILLY: What some people are saying is that the IRS was used –
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
BILL O’REILLY:- at a, at a s - local level in Cincinnati, and maybe other places, to go after…
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely wrong.
BILL O’REILLY: But how do you know that, because we, we still don't know what happened there?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bill, we do -- that's not what happened. They - folks have, again, had multiple hearings on this. I mean, these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them.
BILL O’REILLY: But don't...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But, but what…
[BOTH AT ONCE/OVERLAP]
BILL O'REILLY: - you think there are unanswered questions?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bill, when you actually look at this stuff, there have been multiple hearings on it.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: The frustrating thing there is that if Bill O’Reilly had an inkling of evidence tying President Obama to a campaign to use the IRS politically, we would hear about every day on Fox News. It’s unthinkable that President Obama, in the face of no evidence, would come on and say, well, actually, Bill, there is a secret conspiracy that I’ve been involved in.
Just, in no world would that possibly elicit a useful answer.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to take some issue with your thinking on this, because while everything you say would make sense if we were talking about a prosecution, journalism isn’t necessarily meant to be a “gotcha” enterprise. Sometimes it's just important to hear the public official’s response on a controversial issue.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: Absolutely. The problem is that all of these things where Bill O’Reilly says, I just want to you on the record here, Mr. President, we’ve had countless press conferences in which a White House official or President Obama, specifically, has been asked about the IRS scandal. We’ve had congressional hearings. The work of getting President Obama on the record about these issues happened long ago.
BOB GARFIELD: You write that while the interview was unsatisfying and unproductive, that it probably served the purposes of both the President and Bill O'Reilly. What do you mean?
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: For Bill O'Reilly, the Fox audience wants someone to stand up and to flay Obama and to kind of suggest that he is illegitimate, somehow, and that there is a looming scandal, and he accomplished that. President Obama, on the other hand, was able to take what were really very weak critiques of his presidency, and to hit the softballs out of the park, basically. He was also able to appear as if he’s willing to go before a tough interviewer. In fact, there are plenty of interviewers that President Obama [LAUGHS] could have gone against that would be much tougher. But instead, he chose Bill O'Reilly, and they both got something out of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if there’s one exchange that supports your notion of the schtickization of the presidential interview, [LAUGHS] it was in the second part of the interview that aired Monday night on O’Reilly’s program. Here’s what it sounded like.
BILL O’REILLY: I, I can’t speak for Fox News, all right, but I’m, I’m, you know, the table-setter here at 8 o’clock.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
BILL O’REILLY: Do you think I’m unfair to you? Do you think I’ve been giving you -
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely, of course you are. Bill! But, I like you anyway, though.
BILL O’REILLY: Okay, but give me, give me how I’m unfair.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It’s, it’s — but, look.
BILL O’REILLY: Give me how I’m unfair, c’mon!
You can’t make that accusation without telling me.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bill, we just went through an interview in which you asked about health - healthcare not working, IRS, was - were we wholly corrupt, Benghazi –
BILL O’REILLY: Right.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right? So the list of issues that you talk about, by –
BILL O’REILLY: But these are unanswered questions!
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But, but they’re defined [LAUGHS] by you guys in a certain way. But, the — look, this is okay. This, this is –
BILL O’REILLY: You know –
PRESIDENT OBAMA: If, if you want to, if you want to be President of the United States, then you know that you’re gonna be subject to criticism –
BOB GARFIELD: Amazing. It had a kind of “enough about me, what do you think of me” [LAUGHS] quality to it. How do you spend your precious moments with the President of the United States talking about what he really thinks of me?
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: Yes, it is nice to hear President Obama be frank in that way in the interview, to acknowledge that there is this dynamic between his presidency and Fox News and to just kind of lay it on the table. At the same time, President Obama is playing a role in elevating Fox and Bill O’Reilly by granting them this interview. There are any number of journalists, generally, if he wanted to subject himself to an interview by someone who’s been critical of him, and he chose Bill O’Reilly. To the extent there’s a problem, he is a little bit of a part of it. I compared it to a WWE match, where you have two people that appear to be hitting each other over the heads with folding chairs but, in fact, they're entertaining the audience. And, and that’s what this was.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s a pretty good one, too. Conor, thanks very much.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Conor Friedersdorf, who spoke to us from Los Angeles, writes for The Atlantic.