After Campbell Brown’s testy RNC exchange with McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds on CNN, the GOP handlers canceled the Arizona senator’s appearance on Larry King Live, perhaps on the assumption that King would subject McCain to a similar grilling, issuing the following statement:
After a relentless refusal by certain on-air reporters to come to terms with John McCain’s selection of Alaska’s sitting governor as our party’s nominee for vice president, we decided John McCain’s time would be better served elsewhere.
The assumption here is that, strategically speaking, a candidate is “better served” when he is interviewed by a sympathetic anchor who won’t ask tough questions or assume a combative stance. But this assumption is wrong.
When Barack Obama appeared on MSNBC’s “Countdown” last week, he was in friendly territory, and Olbermann wanted to talk campaign strategy. “Given the tone that the campaign has taken,” he asked, “do you regret putting the breaks on the 527 groups who would’ve produced or could’ve produced hard hitting ads that would’ve been sharing your sympathies?” And also: “If you were right [referring to Obama’s lukewarm support for the surge in Iraq], why do the Republicans and the conservative media been so effective in suggesting that you were wrong and that you need to atone for that?”
For left-leaning MSNBC viewers, the answers that followed may have been interesting, but in general the interview didn’t advance what the public already knows about Obama. In terms of what “better serves” the Democrats, going on “Countdown” is literally preaching to the choir. That doesn’t help win elections.
But Obama’s interview with O’Reilly not only outperformed in ratings his appearance on “Countdown,” it also pointed to the very reasons why politicians ought to seek out interviews by journalists who challenge their points of view.
O’Reilly, who had been gunning to get Obama in his studio for months, asked short, clear questions like “ $150 billion to alternative energy in the Obama administration over 10 years? To what? What’s it gonna be?” and “Do you believe we’re in the middle of a war on terror? Who’s the enemy?”
It’s true that O’Reilly is no Obama supporter—but so much the better for Obama. In his interview, O’Reilly represented the unpersuaded, skeptical voter, the person that Obama should be having a conversation with. O’Reilly, despite his penchant for contradicting his guests, gave Obama plenty of airtime to present his positions, and explain exactly why the opposite point of view, which O’Reilly represents, was wrong.
“Interviewing with the enemy,” so to speak, is a great opportunity to reach the opposition and possibly gain ground among voters who may have been basing their decisions on rumors rather than solid information.
“I’m an American voter, and I’m sitting there in Bismark, North Dakota, I’m sitting there in Coral Springs, Florida, and I’m seeing Reverend Wright … I’m seeing Bill Ayers … and I’m going, gee, Barack Obama, he’s got some pretty bad friends. Am I wrong?”
That’s a gimme, a perfect opportunity to rebut inaccuracies that were perpetuated by O’Reilly himself and to directly speak to voters who may have reservations about voting for Obama because of those rumors.
And, O’Reilly’s viewers are the very people that Obama needs to reach—not Olbermann’s solidly blue audience. Factor fans are the ones who might look down a candidate for avoiding O’Reilly’s tough interview. O’Reilly’s fuming about a candidate’s reluctance to visit the show may damage the candidate; by appearing, a politician stands to gain ground with O’Reilly’s viewers by appearing confident and unafraid.
Not to mention that tough questions aren’t what they seem: Yes, O’Reilly’s tone might be sarcastic or condescending, but the position he assumes and the questions he asks leave plenty of room for Obama to explain himself and set the record straight.
“The capital gains tax on 250 [thousand], you’re gonna hike to infinity,” O’Reilly said accusingly, leaving plenty of room for the senator to correct the exaggeration.
After watching back-to-back Barack Obama’s interviews with highly sympathetic Keith Olbermann and highly combative Bill O’Reilly, my message is to political media strategists is this: “Run, don’t walk, to get your candidates interviewed by the person who hates them the most.”