Bill O'Reilly vs. Obama, Part 2: Is Fox News unfair to president?

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly asked the president: 'Do you think I'm unfair to you?' 'Absolutely,' Obama said. But experts differ on whether partisan news media are cause or symptom of a polarized electorate.

Frank Micelotta/Invsion/AP/File
Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, seen here in New York in October 2012, interviewed President Barack Obama during the Super Bowl pregame show.

Is Fox News unfair to President Obama? This question came up during Part 2 of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s interview of the president, broadcast Monday night on "The O’Reilly Factor."

It happened soon after interviewer and interviewee finished a lengthy discussion about the roots of poverty in America. Mr. O’Reilly wondered why Mr. Obama did not address the fact that 72 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock, greatly increasing their chances of growing up poor. The president said he’d given at least 10 speeches on that issue and offered to send them to O’Reilly, if he hadn’t seen them.

“What’s interesting, when you look at what’s going on right now, you’re starting to see in a lot of white working-class homes, similar problems,” said Obama. “When men can’t find good work ... whether they’re black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter, then that puts pressure as well on the home.”

Then, after a brief and inconclusive run through the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline, O’Reilly abruptly shifted gears.

“Do you think I’m unfair to you?” he said.

“Absolutely. Of course you are, Bill. But I like you anyway,” said Obama.

O’Reilly didn’t let things drop. He asked for specific instances of unfairness. Obama was a bit taken aback but said that in Part 1 of their interview, broadcast Sunday prior to the Super Bowl, O’Reilly had, in essence, asked if the administration was “wholly corrupt” on the IRS targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, the rollout of "Obamacare," and the investigation of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a US ambassador.

These issues “are defined by you guys in a certain way," said Obama, referring to Fox News as a whole.

Then, the president expanded things a bit, saying that any chief executive has to be ready to take a lot of criticism. He wondered what Fox would do after his term was over.

“I’ve been a big moneymaker for you,” he said.

So was President Bill Clinton, of course, and so will ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, unless she declines to run. As O’Reilly noted, Fox was doing pretty well in the ratings prior to Obama’s election. There’s every reason to believe its conservative take on the news will continue to draw ratings after 2012.

The answer to the fairness question depends on where you stand on the partisan spectrum, of course. To many Democrats, Fox asks questions about Obamacare, the IRS, and (especially) Benghazi that have been answered over and over again in many interviews and days of congressional hearings. To many Republicans, Fox is keeping alive issues the mainstream press just wants to drop or that it ignored in the first place.

Obama is saying that “no one would care about four dead Americans in Benghazi and the incompetence that caused it if it weren’t for those darned kids at Fox News, or something,” writes conservative pundit Ed Morrissey at "Hot Air."

But perhaps the deeper question is: Does this matter? More specifically, does the way Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left frames issues actually push voters to take more partisan positions?

Political science doesn’t have a settled answer to this question. But studies so far indicate that partisan news media are less a cause of America’s political polarization than a symptom of it.

“People tune into partisan news because they are partisans. Even without partisan news media, these individuals would likely interpret the world through a partisan lens,” writes Kevin Arceneaux, associate professor of political science and director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University, in a post on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog.

In one experiment, Mr. Arceneaux found that a CBS story on the IRS investigation of conservative groups was just as polarizing as Fox and MSNBC stories on the same subject. Republicans were as likely to call the IRS audits politically motivated after watching the CBS piece as they were after watching its Fox equivalent. For Democrats, the effect was the reverse: They were as likely to call the audits an innocent mistake after watching CBS as they were after watching the more pointed MSNBC story.

“Many studies illustrate that people are capable of cherry-picking the facts they wish to believe from balanced presentations,” writes Arceneaux.

There’s some evidence that polarized news media make already-polarized voters take more extreme positions. But one thing is sure: It’s a profitable business, especially for Fox. There’s no going back to the days when the dulcet tones of mainstream network anchors were the dominant voice of the American news conversation.

“Criticism is criticism. It’s my job to give you a hard time,” O’Reilly told Obama at one point in their discussion.

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