Every so often, President Obama grants a one-on-one television interview to a broadcast journalist, and I sit at home cursing the interviewer for going easy on him. Remember the laughable questions Steve Kroft asked on 60 Minutes last winter? Well this year, Bill O'Reilly was the one lobbing softballs. The Fox News host scored a one-on-one interview that aired during the Super Bowl pre-game show. I fervently hoped he would use the opportunity to press for useful information. Few broadcasters are as intent on signaling to others that they're tough.
Instead he conducted a faux-tough interview made up of questions that were virtually guaranteed to elicit nothing of value. "I want to get some things on the record," he began, implying that he would ask something that hasn't previously been answered on the record. "So let's begin with healthcare," he continued. "October 1st it rolls out. Immediately, there are problems with the computers. When did you know that there were going to be problems with those computers?"
First of all, Obama answered that months ago in a nationally broadcast press conference. That he would tell the same banal story was virtually guaranteed. Second, who cares when he knew? The catastrophic launch can never be re-done. At this point, the fix is more important. Obama is never running again for reelection. But there are lots of consequential decisions that he'll make as president, on healthcare and any number of other vital issues. So why focus on when Obama knew that Healthcare.gov had problems? (Because conservatives "know" he lied.)
The next question was a bit better.
"Why didn't you fire Sebelius, the secretary in charge of this? Because I mean she had to know, after all those years and all that money, that it wasn't going to work." O'Reilly said. "I'm sure that the intent is noble, but I'm a taxpayer. And I'm paying Kathleen Sebelius' salary and she screwed up. And you're not holding her accountable." More to the point, Obama doesn't seem to have held anyone accountable. I'd have preferred something like, "Did you hold people in leadership positions accountable for this failure? Tell me: Who specifically was held accountable and how?" And how about, "What have you done to make sure that the next time the government has to undertake an IT project it won't be a disaster?"
At least those questions both have implications for the future.
But O'Reilly focuses on Sebelius. And when Obama says, "I promise you that we hold everybody up and down the line accountable," he doesn't ask for any examples!
He just points about that Sebelius is still there.
That wasn't the only time O'Reilly focused on the wrong thing. "Was it the biggest mistake of your presidency to tell the nation over and over, 'if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance'?" O'Reilly asked. What a strange way to broach that subject. Obama has apologized for his broken pledge. It is a fair matter for inquiry. But why put the emphasis on where Obama ranks it among his mistakes? Who cares where he ranks it (as if he'd ever give a frank ranking)? A policy angle could've worked. "Would you consider amending the law in way x to make good on your promise?" Or O'Reilly could've raised the issue of Obama's credibility. "Why should Americans who didn't get to keep their health insurance believe you when you say that you're not spying on their phone calls?"
Instead he asked a question that Obama was obviously going to evade and that wouldn't have told us much of importance even if Obama had answered it directly. "Sure, Bill, that probably was my biggest mistake." "No, Bill, I've made bigger mistakes."
Who cares what he thinks?
Next up: Benghazi! There are questions a tough interviewer could ask Obama on that subject. Like, "You engaged in a war in Libya without congressional permission, and later, CIA employees died there. Are the two related? Why does America have boots on the ground in Libya? What's our vital interest?" Here's what O'Reilly asked:
Libya, House Armed Services testimony, General Carter Ham, you know, the general? Security in Africa. He testified that on the day that the ambassador was murdered and the three other Americans, all right, he told Secretary Panetta it was a terrorist attack. Shortly after Ham, General Ham, said that, Secretary Panetta came in to you. Did he tell you, Secretary Panetta, it was a terrorist attack? Because I just want to get this on the record... did he tell you it was a terror attack? It's more than that because if Susan Rice goes out and tells the world that it was a spontaneous demonstration off a videotape but your commanders and the secretary of Defense know it's a terror attack ... as an American ...
I'm just confused.
What response could this possibly elicit other than the banal official line that Obama repeated? Said O'Reilly, "Your detractors believe that you did not tell the world it was a terror attack because your campaign didn't want that out." Even if that were true, is Obama really going to appear in a one-on-one with O'Reilly and say, "Well, Bill, I knew it was a terror attack from the beginning but I tried to pretend otherwise for a couple of days because I thought I could get away with it—it was a naked political calculation designed to hide my core softness on terrorism."
Next O'Reilly used an already debunked data point to essentially ask if the White House ordered a Cincinnati IRS office to harass conservatives. If he had any solid evidence for that proposition, it would've been a fine question. Since he had none, it was guaranteed to elicit the same denial we've all heard a dozen times before.
But conservatives just "know" there's something there.
If there was any doubt that the interview questions were chosen to highlight right-wing hobbyhorses, O'Reilly concludes with this one from a viewer: "Mr. President, why do you feel it's necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity and success?" Again, in what world is this ever going to elicit an answer worth hearing? Any number of regular Fox viewers doubtless believe that, were Obama being truthful, he'd answer, "Well, my Kenyan anti-colonial ideology and affinity for both Marx and the Muslim Brotherhood were actually on my mind when I let slip my true plans for fixing this deeply immoral, racist country, but Saul Alinsky warned me not to talk about them."
Even that subset of Fox viewers knows there's no chance of any answer that would satisfy them. But hearing O'Reilly allude to their pet theory still gives them a serotonin boost. And that's what O'Reilly was doing in this interview. He was pandering to the part of America that lives within the Fox News bubble, and believes, all evidence to the contrary, that the liberal media never asks the president about Benghazi or the health care web site or the IRS office in Cincinnati.
O'Reilly covers well-trod ground less sure-footedly than many who've gone before him, trots out a few right-wing theories that even he won't put his name behind, and produces an interview that serves his interests and Obama's interests just fine, but shortchanges everyone who has an interest in more information. Among hard core conservatives, O'Reilly gets to appear as if he has meaningfully probed scandals that would bring down the president if only the truth were known. To everyone else, Obama gets to appear as if those challenging his leadership are nothing but a bunch of uninformed conspiracy theorists.
Little wonder that both men agreed to the interview.
Meanwhile, those who want Obama to face tough questions saw an opportunity squandered, and were bored to tears by stuff we've already heard. For example, the "fundamentally transform" question predictably elicited this yawn-inducing boilerplate:
OBAMA: I think that what we have to do is make sure that here in America, if you work hard, you can get ahead. Bill, you and I benefitted from this incredible country of ours, in part, because there were good jobs out there that paid a good wage, because you had public schools that functioned well, that we could get scholarships if we didn't come from a wealthy family, in order to go to college.
OBAMA: That, you know, if you worked hard, not only did you have a good job, but you also had decent benefits, decent health care and for a lot of folks, we don't have that. We've got to make sure that we're doing everything we can to expand the middle class.
The Fox News approach to journalism doesn't just drive liberals crazy. It's also bad for all who want Obama to be held accountable. It makes conservative opposition to him dumber, less informed and less effective than it would otherwise be, because O'Reilly's whole schtick is based on contrivance more than substance.
Or as Marc Ambinder put it:
If you want to see a broadcast journalist who is much tougher in his questioning of Obama, and elicits much more interesting answers, take a look at Jake Tapper's recent effort. I'd prefer an even more adversarial treatment, but Tapper does so much better than his broadcaster colleagues typically do that he's earned nothing but praise.
O'Reilly's audience won't believe that a CNN interviewer asks tougher questions. But it's true.