Mediaite spoke briefly with the Fox host about what to expect from that interview, as well as his thoughts on his critics, cable news wars, his favorite MSNBC host, and what it’s like being disliked by both extremes of the political spectrum.
Aside from the obvious deal involving Fox carrying the Super Bowl, why do you think President Obama agrees to sit down for an interview with you in particular?
You’d assume there would be five or six of us that could conduct an interview like that in live-time. They choose me to do it because they understand that the last time we did it [Ed. note: O’Reilly also interviewed Obama before 2011’s Super Bowl] we had almost 20 million people watching it. You’re going to get a little bit more bump with a controversial guy like me, and they know that.
Is there also something about your rapport with the president?
I think that I have a respectful relationship with him. I’ve interviewed him twice: once on the campaign and then once at Super Bowl. I really think he believes I give him a fair shake. Now that does not mean we’re in his camp, but we’re not trying to deliberately hurt him. We do want to hear his side.
I think that’s the key thing. I’m genuinely interested in hearing his response to my questions. I’m not trying to make him look good or bad. I think he respects that; I hope he does. I run into him and we’ve always had an amicable relationship.
You’ve also interviewed President Bush. Who is a better interview?
Well, I obviously can’t say. But I will say that I interviewed Bush and Obama the same way. You have to show a certain respect for the office of the presidency. Once a man becomes president, your tone has to change a bit. But for a senator, congressman, you can be much more aggressive.
I’ve interviewed four presidents, and they know how much I respect the office and so they know when they tell me ‘Hey, that’s it,’ I’d move on.
Bush did that, actually. In my final interview with him in the White House, I pushed him on why he wouldn’t confront media people who were distorting his record. “Why not call them out?” I asked. And he gave me a vague answer, like, “Eh, it doesn’t really matter to me.” But I pushed back that it defines you. “That’s my answer,” he sternly told me. [Laughs] And that was it. You can only take it to a certain point.
Let’s talk about the cable news wars. You regularly trounce MSNBC, and you and your colleagues have a lot to say about their politics. But what do you think they do right?
I think their business plan is to make a certain amount of money to supplement the NBC News organization. And in that, they succeed. Their expectations are: We want to make this amount of dollars. And they do that. I think they understand that it’s not like they’re going to win with the presentation they have — 100% left-wing — and I mean, that is the theme of the network, openly. You just can’t win in that kind of niche. But you can make money. I think that’s the business plan.
Now, Fox and CNN are different animals. CNN wants to regain dominance in this field and they’re willing to spend a lot of money to do it. They’re in a bad position now, sure, but the potential to come back is a greater threat. If they can find a formula that Americans can respond to, they have the money and resources to do it. They are not a niche player. CNN is a network you might have to keep an eye on, to see how successful they might become.
Do you admire any particular MSNBC hosts?
Rachel Maddow does a good job. She is honest in her belief system. She doesn’t seem to want to lob personal attacks. I also think the morning show [Morning Joe] has some energy. I don’t find them to be objectionable in any way. The rest of them, well, you have to make a decision as a broadcaster. Certainly I could launch personal attacks and I could get attention and more audience, but I just don’t want to do it. I don’t dislike liberal people or arch-conservative people, as long as they’re sincere and not hurting anyone. I think Maddow is sincere and honestly tries to convince people of her beliefs.
Speaking of personal attacks, what do you make of the series of apologies MSNBC hosts have issued as of late? Alec Baldwin, Martin Bashir, and then Melissa Harris-Perry…
I will say that I’ve been on the air for 18 seasons and I’ve never had to do that. We’ve had controversial stuff — Barney Frank, shoot-outs with Geraldo — but I think what happens is that in the intense scramble for attention and ratings, the shortcut is to be provocative; very provocative. And that is actually okay. But if you’re going to get into that game, walk that wire, then there’s always the risk that you’re going to say something deeply offensive and inappropriate. And that’s what happens.
I think some of those hosts bring it up to a line and maybe they get a little attention but then boom, they’re over. They look back and think ‘How could I have done that?’ Well, listen, if you’re going to swim in those waters, a current may take you. You’ve got to be very careful.
I learned that on talk radio. I write everything I do on TV, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to make an off-the-cuff comment that you’d have to apologize for. But these talk radio guys are on the seat of their pants, sometimes not in a good mood, or someone rubs them the wrong way. It’s not an easy world. You really have to be careful.
This past week you responded to Tom Brokaw’s assertion that you wouldn’t be able to handle a network newscast. One point you made in your response was particularly interesting: Even though cable news gets less viewers than high and mighty networks, people pay a lot more attention to what cable newsers do. Why do you think that is?
Well, primetime matters. Yeah, sure, the audience is half what you’d be at 6:00, but everybody picks up what you say — talk radio, newspapers, websites. If you’re successful and well-watched on cable news, then whatever you say people are going to talk about it.
For instance, Megyn Kelly says Santa is white. If she’d been on at 3:00 pm, or on with, say, Ellen [Degeneres], it wouldn’t have mattered so much. But because it was said in the context of a primetime news program? Bang.
So you think Brokaw is bothered by the success of cable news?
What’s rankling Tom Brokaw? It’s the power of it. He doesn’t like that a punk like me has all this power and money. It goes against his sensibilities. It’s as simple as that. Brokaw’s a good journalist and an icon and he had his way and he left on his own accord. He should be happy there are voices succeeding in new ways.
Let’s talk politics. You’ve always defined yourself as an independent. What do you think sets you apart from your more conservative counterparts?
The people who try to lump me in are trying to marginalize me. If you say O’Reilly is like the other committed conservative individuals, people might not watch, wouldn’t sample. It’s not the folks who say I’m one extreme or the other.
I take every situation on its merits. We find out the facts, and then reach conclusions based on what’s good for the country, not what’s good for an ideology. It’s worked very well for me. Our show has been on top for 14 years. When there’s a big story, they know they will get the truth from me. I’m not trying to preach anyone to anything; just going to do an honest broadcast.
What stunned me and what defines our 18-year experience was the Boston Marathon bombing. When we went on the air live, I was carried by FNC and Fox broadcast, and we won. We beat ’em all. By a lot. Americans had a choice: They could watch all three big networks, or us. We beat them all, and all their main anchors were on. When I saw those overnight ratings come in, I said, “You know what, they trust us.” They trust that we’re going to tell them the truth. You had a commentator who beat the hard news guys.
During the winter months, you take a lot of criticism (from this very site even) suggesting you and Fox are perhaps overblowing the so-called “War on Christmas.” What do you say to that?
Hey, they’re entitled to their opinion. But they’re wrong. We don’t make up stuff. We tell our audience: Here’s what’s happening in Wisconsin, in Alabama, and there’s a common thread among the stories. The people who deny it usually do it for ideological reasons — liberal, secular reasons. You don’t get conservative, traditional people criticizing us.
I just tell my critics: Remember when companies like Kmart ordered people, in writing, not to say “Merry Christmas”? This wasn’t some little company or small town, it was Kmart. And once we picked up on it, it stopped. That’s a fact. But when you present that fact to someone like Jon Stewart, they don’t have an answer. They can’t answer. It’s this big hollow silence. We’re comfortable with what we put out there.
You’ve also garnered some criticism from the right. During the shutdown and the gay marriage debate, in particular, you’ve been shunned by talk radio hosts and conservative commentators as not being conservative enough.
I’ve been criticized by very conservative talk radio guys for 10 years now. Look, they’ve never liked me. But how can I be a “RINO” if I’m an independent? They’ve always whipped up that stuff, that I’m somehow not worthy of not being listened to because I don’t agree with them.
The left says I’m not worthy because I’m too conservative; the right says I’m not worthy of listening to because I’m not conservative enough. Good place to be.
And, look, if they say I had my facts wrong, then that matters. I go, “Okay, where did we go wrong?” But I’ve got to tell you: I very rarely get that.
And on an issue like gay marriage, I am a traditional guy. I think that the family unit should be encouraged on all levels, and as long as the society acknowledges that heterosexual marriage is the “norm,” then it doesn’t bother me if other people come into the tent. We are a country that’s supposed to give people an equal shot at happiness. If it makes gay people happy to be recognized, I really don’t have a problem. As long as society upholds the traditional as, look, if you can get this, this is a strength.
I’m not coming at it from a liberal point-of-view. My personal religious beliefs don’t bleed into policy.
You mentioned Jon Stewart. Despite your disagreements, you two seem to genuinely have fun together. Why is that?
I enjoy jousting with him. And it’s worthwhile for the country to see that we can have fun but disagree. That’s an important message.
I also won Letterman over, I thought it was good that I won him over. You can say whatever you want about me, but he admitted he had me all wrong. That’s a good demonstration to the county that you can find common ground. This is healthy. I’m pleased about all of that. I’m proud that we get invited onto shows like that, the Today Show, The View.
I’m happy about where we are on The Factor, how we’re we perceived in more intelligent precincts. People know what we do.
I am really pleased the president thinks enough of me to invite me into the White House, that the Kennedy Center thinks enough of me to let me pay tribute to Herbie Hancock, a fine American.
I believe it’s all because we conduct ourselves in a manner that’s honest.
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