Back in 2011, Bill O'Reilly interviewed President Obama before the Super Bowl. After the interview was over, the thing most people seemed to be talking about was not anything Obama said, but rather the fact that O'Reilly kept interrupting him so much.
"Here Are All 48 Times Bill O'Reilly Interrupted President Obama On Sunday," one headline read.
Bill Maher even called O'Reilly "unpatriotic" and "disrespectful" for the way he talked to the president.
Now, O'Reilly is set to interview Obama again on Sunday, and you can bet people will be watching to see how he handles himself. I hope he goes after the president with everything he's got.
Treating politicians with skepticism and letting them know that you're not awed by them is a good thing, not a bad thing. O'Reilly is, admittedly, an extremely, extremely imperfect vessel for that principle, but, on Sunday, he's what we've got. So I'll be happy if he challenges Obama a lot.
Obama is not a child, and he is not a fool. He is a very capable and intelligent adult who can handle tough questions. More importantly, he is not a god. He deserves tough questions from the press corps. If journalists have a responsibility to be tough on everyone, no matter how powerful, than surely that responsibility is heightened when they're talking to the president of the United States. So when people talk about "respecting the office" or get mad at journalists for cutting the president off, I just roll my eyes.
Too often, though, the more powerful you are, the fewer tough questions you get--and vice versa.
I vividly remember watching an episode of "Today" in 2011, and seeing David Gregory aggressively questioning a boat captain involved in the death of actress Natalie Wood. Gregory interrupted him repeatedly; his hostility towards the man was evident from the outset. There was none of the chumminess that all the Sunday hosts tend to display towards their political guests -- none of that air of complicity that telegraphs to viewers that, whatever the questions, everyone's in the same club.
The entire thing struck me as quite distasteful. Where was all of that contempt when people of real influence and importance were the guests?
Instead I'd love to see the American media take some inspiration from its good friend the British press. The UK media is certainly clubby with the political class, but it's way more likely that you can tune into an interview on British television or radio and hear a lot less reverence--and a lot more interrupting.
Take this interview that the BBC's Eddie Mair conducted with London mayor Boris Johnson, one of the most high-profile political figures in the country. Mair brings up embarrassing facts about Johnson's past, cuts him off with statements like "you did lie," and, to sum things up, says, "you're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?"
It's admittedly an extreme example of the form, but watching an interviewer treat a powerful politician like a loathsome worm instead of a man worthy of bowing and scraping to is very refreshing for an American viewer.
I'm not saying that Bill O'Reilly should personally attack Barack Obama, or that he should interrupt him for absolutely no reason, or that he shouldn't be held accountable for the questions he asks. But the more we dispense with the notion that it's a crime to get a little rough with the president of the United States, the better we'll be.