Obama v. O’Reilly: The Press at its Best

By Beacon Staff

When it comes to the presidential race, everybody hates the press right now. The left is disgusted with the media for failing to reveal untruths in recent McCain ads and the fawning attention over V.P. pick Sarah Palin. On the right, the media’s disrespect toward Palin is apparently such that she is exempt from doing a press conference. At a time like this, it’s up to Bill O’Reilly to demonstrate, through his interview with Obama, the best of what the media can provide. I’m serious.

If you haven’t seen Bill O’Reilly’s four-part, lengthy, one-on-one interview with the Democratic presidential candidate, take a few minutes, suffer through the deodorant ads before each video segment, and watch it. The exchanges are heated, the questions are pointed and pressing, and I learned more about Obama’s policies than I did from his convention speech.

O’Reilly asked the questions of Obama that are probably foremost in the minds of many conservatives, if not most Americans in general. Where Obama waffles, O’Reilly tries to pin him down, particularly on tax policy. It was the kind of argument you might hear in a bar between a Democrat and a Republican, only these guys had much nicer suits.

And it was funny. When Obama notes that O’Reilly’s “buddies” on Fox News made fun of his speech in Berlin – in a discussion of why Germany won’t join the war effort in Afghanistan – O’Reilly replies, totally deadpan, “I don’t have any buddies.”

In discussing foreign policy regarding Russian’s aggression toward Georgia, O’Reilly offered this nuanced character study of the Russian prime minister:

“Putin’s a nasty little guy, number one. Would you agree with that assessment?” O’Reilly asked.

“I’ll agree with the assessment that I wouldn’t look into his soul and think I know him,” Obama replied, taking a (pretty good) shot at President Bush.

“Yeah, I’d put a cowboy hat on the guy,” O’Reilly said, apropos of nothing. Obama didn’t know what to say, and the interview moved on.

But what I think was so good about the interview was that if you watched it and decided you don’t like Barack Obama, you had a pretty good sense why. If you came away from it and you support Obama, you probably only had that notion reinforced by his answers to O’Reilly’s tough questions. Isn’t that what the press, when it’s at its best, is supposed to do for you?

If you can’t bear to watch O’Reilly because he’s such a blowhard, that’s understandable. But while he may badger some guests in ways that seem ungallant, his tone with Obama was pretty perfect: respectful, but skeptical. And you can’t say that interview wasn’t fascinating. As a study in contrast, check out the ridiculous softballs Keith Olbermann lobbed at Obama when he got his chance to waste Obama’s and the viewers’ time. I dare you to watch it for longer than three minutes without turning it off or falling asleep. (O’Reilly also crushed Olbermann in the ratings, comparing the two interviews).

All of which should serve as a study for politicians why they should agree to tough interviews, with journalists who may rigorously, but respectfully disagree with them. Facing those questions allows the public, whether they like your answers or not, to learn more about their aspiring leaders. I think both O’Reilly and Obama came away from the interview looking better. And when the “lipstick on a pig” flap occurred this week, O’Reilly came to Obama’s defense, proving what a benefit politicians can enjoy by agreeing to such interviews.

Sarah Palin would benefit from a similar exercise.