In a Different Super Bowl Match, Gayle King Tackles the Obamas

Gayle King doesn’t play professional football for the Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos, but this Sunday she will have as much at stake in Super Bowl 50 as they do.

President Barack Obama will take part in what has become a regular pre-game tradition at this big-audience event – an interview with the news division associated with the network broadcasting the Big Game. In the 4 p.m. hour of CBS’ pre-game broadcast, however, he will be joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, adding a new wrinkle for King, the CBS News correspondent who landed this year’s assignment. While she is on the screen, King will have to try to elicit something newsworthy out of the couple, serve as a promotional conduit of sorts for her regular program, “CBS This Morning,” and entertain millions of Super Bowl party-goers who likely tuned in for something decidedly lighter. All at once. No pressure, right?

“It’s going to be the fastest seven minutes of my life,” said King.

She will be the latest TV correspondent to grapple with a precarious “get.” The pre-game interview with a sitting President carries with it high expectations. Can the correspondent prod the nation’s Commander-in-Chief off talking points and spur a revelation that makes headlines, without appearing to diss the Chief Executive in full view of millions of potential voters?  Will viewers be inspired to tune in for more of the network’s news programs, based on the journalist’s performance? And can he or she get it all wrapped up in under ten minutes?

“It was the toughest interview I’ve ever done, because of the uncertainty and the live element of it. You can’t be fumbling around. You have to be on your game,” said Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News Channel host who has sat down with President Obama twice during Super Bowl preliminaries. “It’s like a prize fight,” he added. “You’re sitting across from him and here we go. The bell rings.”

For years, buffalo-wing-eating Super Bowl viewers have watched the President grilled by everyone from O’Reilly to Scott Pelley to Matt Lauer. This year, they will get a different sight: the Obamas together, the result of a CBS News effort that has been underway since November, when Chris Isham, CBS News’ Washington Bureau chief, and Chris Licht, executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” went to the White House to propose the idea.

The idea, said King, is to give Super Bowl viewers something that is more in line with what they expect at that time of day. On Super Bowl Sunday, “you’re at a party. You’re at a bar. People have had a couple of pops. They are very loose,” she said.” The pre-game talk “always seems to be such an abrupt change, and we are trying to figure out a way that is not so abrupt.”

In 2015, NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie interviewed the President in a White House kitchen, where some home-brewed “honey ale” using honey from the First Lady’s garden was on display. Guthrie had to thread a needle, nodding to the less formal display while lobbing serious questions at the executive as the seconds ticked down. The tete-a-tete was “really tricky,” Guthrie recalled. “You have to remember, this is an interview that takes place in the Super Bowl pre-show. The last thing everyone is thinking about or wanting to talk about is politics.” The assignment, she said, “is striking the right balance, having the right tone for the context of the day, but you want to do an interview that is helpful, asks some important questions.”

The White House seems eager to use the opportunity to give the millions of people tuning in a more personal view of the First Family during President Obama’s last year in office. “Super Bowl Sunday is a unique opportunity to communicate directly with a wide range of viewers from across the country, and for their final Super Bowl in office, the President and First Lady will share in the spirit of Super Bowl Sunday and participate in a joint interview with CBS here at the White House,” said Jennifer Friedman, deputy press secretary White House. “They will engage in a conversation about game day at the White House, some of the First Family’s favorite traditions, reflections of the past seven years and the months ahead.” The President and the First Lady rarely do joint interviews.

The news organizations try to make the most of their access. CBS News has made a request to continue the conversation with the Obamas for use in other programs, said King.  “They have the power to say ‘yea’ and ‘nay,’” King said. “We all believe that is going to happen, but I can’t say that for sure. The White House referred the question to CBS News.  President Obama has in the recent past given longer interviews to Fox News and NBC News right after wrapping the live Sunday session.

Even etiquette is under review during this particular chat. On his Fox News program, O’Reilly would feel quite comfortable cutting someone off cold if he wanted to push back on their line of thinking. Not so during the pre-Super Bowl interview. “You are talking to the most powerful man in the world. You have to respect the office. You can’t call him a pinhead,” he said. O’Reilly did interrupt the President during his session with him, in an attempt to try and get direct answers to some tough questions. “That’s always a challenge,” said Guthrie. “You have these time constraints, and you don’t want to seem disrespectful, but you do sometimes need to direct the conversation. That’s the interviewer’s job, to get to the meat of the issues.”

For her part, CBS’ King wants to try to set up the conversation so Americans get a sense of how the Obamas interact, what life is like in the White House, and how they are viewing their last months in the residence.  She’s hoping she pulls it off. “I’m not blasé about the White House,” she said. “I realize it’s a privilege. I realize it’s an honor. I realize it’s a big frigging deal.”

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