Fox News host Bill O’Reilly did his pre-Super Bowl interview with President Obama on Sunday. He aired a follow-up on his Monday night show. He drew Jon Steward of “The Daily Show into an inter-cable fight that dragged on through mid-week. He sent me an e-mail this morning (OK, technically BillOReilly.com) with a transcript of his latest thoughts on the interview, which starts like this: “One of the major positives coming out of the presidential interview is that I learned a lot.”
Like how to extend Super Bowl Week into Bill O’Reilly Week.
A centerpiece of O’Reilly’s post-interview promotion was this bumptious quip: “I’m going to predict that that interview I did is going to go down in journalistic history as what should be done… It takes a certain skill to pose questions in a factual way and be persistent without being disrespectful.” Take away the hyperbole and the showman’s exaggeration, and you have a pretty good point. O’Reilly was indeed assertive and interruptive and never crossed the line into boorishness.
The rap against his interview was that he obsessed over the themes pushed on Fox News’s airwaves over the past year or so: Obamacare, Benghazi and the IRS. On “The Daily Show,” Stewart slighted O’Reilly for dipping into the Fox News “scandal grab bag.” Funny.
Far from harming the public discourse, however, O’Reilly’s preoccupations in his Obama interview were useful, and not only because the clash made for entertaining viewing. No, O’Reilly didn’t extract any news out of the president, and no, not all of his ideologically inspired questions hit the mark. Yet there was value in seeing the president attempt to handle the Fox News host’s aggressive push on the job security of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The failure of the Obamacare rollout last fall was phenomenal, and folks on both sides of the political spectrum have hammered the administration. And so O’Reilly went to town:
O’REILLY: Why didn’t you fire Sebelius, the secretary in charge of this?
O’REILLY: — because I mean she had to know, after all those years and all that money, that it wasn’t going to work?
OBAMA: You know, my main priority right now is making sure that it delivers for the American people. And what we . . .
O’REILLY: You’re not going to answer that?
Sorry, but that’s a justified interruption.
It’s here that ideologically tilted media does its best work — when it’s arrayed head-to-head with its foes. Same thing with MSNBC. When the liberal network gets a strong Republican on the air, good things to happen. Well, check that: Better things happen. What’s corrosive about Fox News and MSNBC is the degree of consent, of agreement, of nodding that goes down on any given day. Shared assumptions and premises tend to get passed back and forth without interdiction. That is, the problems arise when the opposition isn’t there to represent itself.
Plus, anyone complaining about the O’Reilly interview should consider what they’re comparing it against. How about this?