Bill O'Reilly Just Unwittingly Proved Obama Right

The president complained that the Fox anchor prompts his audience to believe in certain White House scandals. Watch him get caught red-handed.
Justin Hoch/Flickr

Earlier this week, I complained about Bill O'Reilly's interview with President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday, in which the Fox News host failed to ask any difficult questions, break any news, or elicit any valuable information from his subject. 

So I couldn't help but shake my head and laugh when I saw that the Harvard-graduate-student-turned-cable-news-entertainer said, on Geraldo Rivera's show, "I'm going to predict that that interview I did is going to go down in journalistic history as what should be done," adding, "because it takes a certain skill to pose questions in a factual way and be persistent without being disrespectful."

What's funniest isn't that he claims his very bad interview will go down in history, but that when he thinks of the qualities that would make an interview "go down in history," the hilariously low bar he settles on is factual, persistent, and not disrespectful. In fairness, he does seem to find it very difficult to be not disrespectful, and the full trifecta is only occasionally achieved by Fox News interviewers.

I'd have kept all these musings to myself, except that an alert reader sent me the "Talking Points Memo" that O'Reilly read Thursday on his show. If you want to fully understand how it exposes O'Reilly's intellectual dishonesty, a bit of context is necessary. In the Super Bowl interview, Obama and O'Reilly tussled over whether the latter is a fair interviewer. O'Reilly would ask Obama if he had done something scandalous. Obama would say no, that's just factually wrong. O'Reilly would defend himself, saying he was just asking questions about what many believe. Obama would insist that they only believe it because Fox News treats it as fact. And O'Reilly would insist that he isn't behind it, he's just asking questions.

A perfect illustration comes during the portion of the interview on the Benghazi attack:

O'REILLY:  I just want to say that they're—your detractors believe that you did not tell the world it was a terror attack because your campaign didn't want that out.

OBAMA:  Bill, think about ...

O'REILLY:  That's what they believe.

OBAMA:  —and they believe it because folks like you are telling them that.

O'REILLY:  No, I'm not telling them that.

Okay, now you're prepared for what O'Reilly told his audience on Thursday in that "Talking Points Memo" segment. I'm going to start at the beginning, because the setup is a masterful display of how to talk to the Fox News audience in a way that makes you seem especially intellectually honest. O'Reilly is the master at it:

Why Democrats and President Obama do not believe the Benghazi story is all that important. That is the subject of this evening's Talking Points Memo. One of the major positives coming out of the presidential interview is that I learned a lot. Over the years I talked with the president three times on television and a number of times off camera, but I really don't know him. And it was the intense Q&A this time around that taught me a few lessons. The far right is making a huge mistake thinking Mr. Obama is actively trying to harm the nation.

He is not.

Look how fair he is! After five years and multiple sit down interviews, O'Reilly somehow gleaned from that Super Bowl sit-down that Obama isn't trying to harm America! 

This next part veers into actual reasonableness. In some ways it gives Obama too much credit:

His overriding concern can be summed up in two words: social justice. It all comes back to that. The president sincerely believes the deck is stacked against minority Americans and many working poor people. And he is trying to right that perceived wrong. So accepting that premise that social justice is the president's primary goal, you begin to understand his posture on almost every other issue. 

Then the next line:

Let's take Benghazi.

Huh? What does that have to do with social justice?

The president flat out said that he did not mislead the nation and he believes the issue is trumped up by the Fox News Channel and others. But even more importantly, more importantly, the president doesn't see Benghazi or the IRS situation or the Obamacare screw-ups as important in the long run. He sees them as mistakes and believes we should all move on and support his goal of social justice.

Well, okay, that's a questionable rhetorical transition, but it's true enough that Obama sees Benghazi as a screw-up from which we should move on and pass his agenda. Now we get to the framing that makes Fox News so special:

It's the same thing that happened in the beginning of the Watergate situation when supporters of Richard Nixon attacked his critics, saying it was "a third-rate burglary." 

Yep, exactly the same thing. I can't even think of one difference.

It's the same thing as President Clinton's supporters who said over and over and over, "It is just about sex." To Nixon and Clinton themselves, their troubles were rather inconsequential, because those men believed that what they were doing for this country was far more important. 

Are we all getting this?

If you suspend morality for a moment, this framing is genius. It's so perfectly pitched to its audience's undying belief that Benghazi is every bit as scandalous as anything that Nixon ever did. And its core dishonesty is so well hidden: It slyly elides the fact that Obama has been proved guilty of nothing, unlike Clinton and Nixon. It's as if I were to say, "just like Adolf Hitler and Bull Connor, Bill O'Reilly believes that his public statements about minorities do not discredit him, and that Americans should focus on his arguments and policy suggestions."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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