The Fox News Disconnect

Bill O'Reilly played straight to the conservative base when interviewing Obama.

This Oct. 13, 2012 file photo shows Fox News commentator and author Bill O'Reilly at the Comedy Central "Night Of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together For Autism Programs" at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

Bill O'Reilly missed an opportunity to appeal to a wider audience.

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The most gripping showdown on Super Bowl Sunday came two hours before kickoff, when President Obama sat down for an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. The ten-minute tete-a-tete shed little light on the challenges facing Obama, but it revealed a great deal about the ones facing Fox News and, by extension, the conservative movement.

Here was a chance for O’Reilly not only to grill the president but also to reach out to a much broader audience than his weeknight broadcast (the highest-rated program on Fox News). Yet O’Reilly didn’t speak to that new audience. Instead, he conducted the interview in a conservative patois that rendered it unintelligible to non-Fox viewers.

The problem was apparent from the outset, when O’Reilly announced he wanted to get Obama “on the record” on a number of issues – a standard more suitable for a deposition than a television interview. O’Reilly wasn’t there to cover new ground, but to re-litigate the past.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

And re-litigate it he did, from Benghazi to the IRS to Obama’s 2008 remark that his election would play a role in “fundamentally transforming” America. And while hearing the president quizzed on these topics may send the right into raptures, it does very little for anyone else. When it comes to foreign policy, Americans are far more concerned about Syria or Iran than whether it took two days or 10 to fully assess the attack in Libya. When it comes to government overreach, Americans want to know about the NSA and surveillance, not revisit a debunked tale of conservative persecution by the IRS. And if given the chance to ask the president one question, not a single person outside the conservative media bubble would ask about a throwaway line from the 2008 campaign.

Why does this disconnect matter? Because as bad as Obama’s poll numbers are, there’s one metric in which he routinely trounces his opposition: empathy. Nearly 60 percent of Americans still believe the president “cares about people like me.” Exit polls during the 2012 election showed the majority of voters thought the economy was bad and the country was on the wrong track, but when asked which candidate “cares about people like me,” Obama routed Romney 81 percent to 18 percent.

The O’Reilly interview helps explain, in part, why that empathy gap exists. Increasingly isolated in their own media bubble, conservatives are losing the ability to speak to a broader public. Given a prime spot in the build-up to the most-watched television event in history, O’Reilly emphasized niche concerns and hoary disputes that only ardent Fox-philes care about. The right might complain that these issues would be front-and-center were it not for a deeply biased liberal media. But that grievance does little to convince other Americans that conservatives understand what matters to them.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Benghazi.]

What’s so baffling about O’Reilly’s choice of topics on Sunday is that the rest of the interview, which aired on the O’Reilly Factor on Monday night (you can watch it here), was far more compelling and relatable. O’Reilly posed a question about the relationship between poverty and the dissolution of the family, to which Obama responded with a nuanced discussion of responsibility and the need for more economic opportunities. O’Reilly asked Obama whether he was “the most liberal president in history.” (Obama: “Probably not.”) The question led Obama to note – rightly – that he was to the right of Richard Nixon on a number of issues.

It’s fascinating stuff, but most Americans won’t see it. Instead they’ll be left with Sunday’s straight-from-the-Hannity-show Benghazi/IRS rehash. Which is a real problem for conservatives, because it shows they still don’t fully appreciate the dangers of speaking only to themselves.