Gawker is presently poking Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly for his apparent lack of preparation for his interview with President Obama prior to the Super Bowl. The source of their amusement is the notes O’Reilly put together for the conversation, and which he’s now auctioning off for charity. Written on a piece of stationary, it divides subject matter into two categories, “Live” and “Taped.” Into the former fall, in order, “1) HealthCare website, 2) Libya, 3) IRS, 4) Viewer letter, 5) Football.” And the latter includes “6) Nanny state — Parental Role, 7) Keystone pipeline — income drop, 8) Divise DC — Responsibility [sic], 9) How liberal ? Most liberal prez ?, 10) Fox News !”
It’s easy to mock O’Reilly for having a list of predictable concerns, or not planning to pursue any line of questioning in particular detail. But O’Reilly’s priorities, and his plan to hit on as many as possible subjects in the time allotted to him don’t make him a partisan dummy. They make him a canny journalist.
President Obama is not exactly handing out interviews to Fox or Fox News left right and center. But as is tradition, he was scheduled to sit down with the network hosting the Super Bowl, presenting Fox with an opportunity. O’Reilly also likely knew that he didn’t stand much of a chance of pinning Obama down on any one issue. There’s no question he can ask that Obama hasn’t been served up to Obama at some point. And with Fox News, the president is likely to be particularly on his guard.
So O’Reilly did the one thing that he could do, and that would be good not just for him, but for his network. He got President Obama on the record on as many issues of interest to Fox News Viewers as possible. The functioning of Healthcare.gov is of interest to Americans registering for the exchanges so they can purchase insurance. But the debates over Benghazi, the purported IRS auditing scandal, and a granular measurement of just how liberal President Obama actually is are of particular interest to the viewers O’Reilly needs to serve.
Rather than using the short time allocated to him to try to appeal to a broader audience that likely spent the run-up to the Super Bowl fixing their spreads and popping bottle caps, O’Reilly used the interview to meet Fox News’ needs instead, and put Obama on the record on as many of these subjects as possible. It wasn’t great television in the moment. And of course that task didn’t require a lot of prep, because it mostly involved asking the questions that O’Reilly and his colleagues pose as hypotheticals all the time. But the clips that O’Reilly and company will be able to harvest from the interview will feed the network for many news cycles to come — O’Reilly is already working the interview into shows regularly, like in this segment where he treats the conversation as surprising window into the President’s worldview. It may have been a short list of questions. But O’Reilly’s questions served a long game.