Bill O’Reilly asked a very revealing question of President Obama during his pre-Super Bowl interview with the chief executive. But the revelation was about O’Reilly and modern media, and not the subject of the interview.
"Does it disturb you that so many people hate you?" Fox's O’Reilly asked Obama. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
The president chuckled a bit, and responded:
You know, the truth is that the people—and I’m sure previous presidents would say the same thing, whether it was Bush or Clinton or Reagan or anybody—the people who dislike you don’t know you.
That wasn’t enough of a reaction for O’Reilly, who pressed ahead. "But they hate you," the Fox News Channel host said. Again, Obama was characteristically unruffled, responding:
The folks who hate you, they don’t know you. What they hate is whatever fun-house mirror image of you that’s out there, and they don’t know you. And so, you don’t take it personally … I think that by the time you get here, you have to have had a pretty thick skin. If you didn’t, then you wouldn’t have got here.
O’Reilly seemed almost disappointed by the answers—what did he expect, to make Obama cry?—but the exchanges, while saying little about the president’s real or imagined internal angst, said a great deal about the role of the media in exacerbating a hostile political environment. O’Reilly knows that. He is surely aware that people hate him (or more likely, hate what he says and represents), but I doubt it bothers him. You don’t get the high ratings O’Reilly and other combative TV hosts across the political spectrum get unless you are polarizing. And it’s maddening to flame-throwers when their target doesn’t fight fire with more fire. O’Reilly is capable of both graciousness and responsible journalism; he kindly thanked the administration for helping Fox’s correspondents out of a dangerous situation in Cairo, and he asked legitimate questions about healthcare and the future of the Middle East. Yet he had to placate his viewers by presenting the nation as one divided between people who hate the president and those who don’t. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Egypt protests.]
The anonymity of the Internet has allowed a mob of cowards to post nasty comments and inaccurate accusations on websites, naming their victims but hiding behind the safety of screen names. And in moments of sincere frustration or just cynical self-promotion, people go on television or make YouTube videos in which they brutally malign people in public office. The First Amendment, thankfully, allows people to say both brilliant and idiotic things. What’s irresponsible is fueling fights for ratings or Web traffic. Obama’s behavior indicates he is unwilling to engage in petty political food fights, instead choosing to just do his job. The media might consider following suit. [See photos of the Egypt protests.]