Bill O’Reilly has tangled with celebrities and Congressional representatives, usually without apology. But even the Fox News veteran might feel pressure this weekend.
The longtime host of “The O’Reilly Factor” will sit down with President Donald Trump in a taped interview set to run as part of the pre-game proceedings during Fox Broadcasting’s telecast of Super Bowl LI. O’Reilly, who says he won’t carry a set of written questions with him so he can concentrate more directly on the conversation, is gearing up for a challenge.
“I would say it’s the most important interview of my life,” O’Reilly noted during a recent conversation. “There is so much happening and so much controversy and so many things in play. I need to get to the heart of the matter, and I will.”
The Fox News mainstay is no stranger to what is, for TV-news anchors, a strange setting. Snaring a sit-down interview with the President has become a regular segment in the pre-game proceedings each Super Bowl Sunday, but the audience has tuned in largely to get away from the outside world. Even so, expectations are high: Can the correspondent get the Commander-in-Chief off his talking points without getting mouthy in front of an audience noshing on buffalo wings? And can that journalist get the President to make a few headlines that will bring attention to the news organization from which he or she hails? In years past, the interview has been conducted live on camera, adding another tough dimension to the exchange: There are only so many minutes to try to dig for news. He won’t have much more in the taped exchange, but expects some portion of it to air exclusively on his “Factor” the Monday after the big game.
O’Reilly has been here before. He interviewed President Barack Obama on two pre-game occasions – once in 2011 and once in 2014 – and even interrupted when he thought he had to. “He ate up the clock, and that’s why I thought I had to interrupt,” said O’Reilly. Others have navigated this path as well. Last year, CBS’ Gayle King interviewed both President and Mrs. Obama, and the year before, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie talked to President Obama in front of a White House display of Super Bowl treats.
Sometimes, networks have negotiated settings they feel might be more attractive to an audience that may not be the most interested in conversations about national policy. Not this time, O’Reilly said. “We are not going to be doing finger painting,” he said.
O’Reilly says he intends to ask President Trump basic questions. “It’s mostly on the things happening around his executive orders, and how he sees the reaction to that and what he hopes to accomplish with them,” he says. He intends to pivot to some more personal questions about how President Trump is transitioning into the job.
What will he do if he feels he’s not getting a correct answer? When ABC News anchor David Muir interviewed Trump last week about the recent theories about voter fraud he had espoused, the President cited a Pew Research study and Muir countered that he had called the author of the research and gotten a different interpretation than the President’s. “What the President says is what he says, and after that, it will be verified. I’m not a fact-checking machine,” O’Reilly said, noting that he can’t hold up an interview with only a limited time frame. He expects the media will immediately do its own analysis of the session. “My job is to do questions that draw him out into very important areas.”
O’Reilly raised some questions about his job last July, when he told an interviewer from AdWeek that he could consider stepping away from his signature show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” which is arguably the linchpin of Fox News’ primetime lineup. “I don’t want to work this hard much longer,” he said at the time. He is believed to be in the last year of his current contract.
He is still considering what he might do, he said. He has seen his already sizable audience grow in recent weeks, and wants to consider what that means for him. “What I have to deal with is an enormous audience. The audience for the ‘Factor’ is in the stratosphere, and we believe it’s because in a polarizing time, we are not doing the polarizing game,” he said, noting that he feels his show tells viewers what happened and how he feels about it. His show averaged 4 million viewers in January as Fox News Channel marked 15 years as the most-watched U.S. cable-news network. “I haven’t made any decision about anything.”
In his more immediate timeline stands the Super Bowl and an interview with a President who seems to make headlines at every turn.