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The Outrage Interview: How Does It Work?

A case study of Bill O’Reilly’s 2014 Super Bowl interview with President Obama

“Was it the biggest mistake of your presidency to tell the nation over and over, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance,” asked O’Reilly. “Oh, Bill, you’ve got a long list of my mistakes of my presidency,” responded President Obama (Fox News).

Tensions ran high Feb. 2, 2014 as host of FOX News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Obama before the most-watched sporting event of the year took place. With the one-year anniversary of the interview approaching, it seems timely and appropriate to use as a venue for further understanding the outrage interview.

The outrage industry has taken off as an immensely popular medium, reaching an aggregate audience of up to 47 million people daily through talk radio, nightly programs and political blogs (Berry and Sobieraj 13). As Berry and Sobieraj make clear in The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, what makes outrage discourse distinct isn’t that it “seeks to evoke emotion in the political arena,” but instead incorporates a set of “tactics used in an effort to provoke emotion” (7).

The O’Reilly Factor is an opinion-based news analysis show airing every weeknight at 8 p.m. Bill O’Reilly joined FOX News in 1996, and the show has remained the most watched cable news show for the past 14 years (FOXnews.com). The O’Reilly Factor is an iconic program in the outrage industry as it embodies the idea through its use of tactics laid out by Berry and Sobieraj: “overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponent” (7).

Under the umbrella of outrage media falls the outrage interview, a place where a prominent figure in the outrage industry conducts an interview with a usually political, prominent figure. It works by using the precedent set in place by the outrage industry, to advance the outrage interview further than a normal news interview could go. O’Reilly’s interview with President Obama didn’t occur during his normal program, yet it still falls under this category and is essential in understanding how an outrage interview works. Although O’Reilly’s overall behavior was more tame than usual during the interview, the setting allows for an in-depth analysis of purely the context of the interview without regard for the financial/advertising perspective that is usually associated with outrage media.

Despite the apparent political controversies between President Obama and conservative O’Reilly, this outrage interview was still mutually beneficial. President Obama was able to capitalize on a moment in time where most Americans are bound together for a collective, cultural event – the Super Bowl. It was an “ideal vehicle to reach audiences who do not normally watch news or current affairs programs” (Lauerbach 1389). Given his ideals and partisanship, Obama doesn’t make a habit of conducting interviews with FOX News Correspondents; therefore, he could use this as an opportunity to reach an inaccessible audience. O’Reilly and FOX News also benefited from this being an outrage interview. O’Reilly was able to get President Obama to make remarks on the most relevant topics to the FOX News viewers, capitalizing on the fragmented nature of his audience provided by the outrage industry. While the questions about Healthcare.gov held a wider interest of Americans, the specific topics of Benghazi, the IRS auditing scandal and President Obama’s liberalness were designed to appeal specifically to The O’Reilly Factor viewers. O’Reilly also went on to use footage from the interview through several of his shows (Rosenberg).

Although the idea of binaries is introduced as an aspect of the discourse of civil society through Alexander’s The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, it seems as though the outrage industry creates the perfect setting for these to be utilized in an outrage interview. The O’Reilly Factor is deeply rooted in a set of binary structures that frame O’Reilly’s whole persona in the form of sacred v. polluted: traditional v. progressive, little guy vs. the system, folks vs. elites, rational vs. ridiculous, American vs. anti-American, open discourse vs. secrecy, facts vs. political spin, fairness vs. media bias, and brave vs. cowardly (Norton 325-327). He uses these binaries in a way that puts President Obama’s ideals on the polluted side, and his, or his viewers’, on the sacred side. For instance, when discussing the Healthcare.gov malfunctions, O’Reilly was quick to tell President Obama he wasn’t holding health Secretary Kathleen E. Sebelius accountable for her involvement, making a distinction that parallels the facts vs. political spin binary. Additionally, when discussing the Benghazi attacks, O’Reilly draws from a collection of rhetoric that references the open discourse vs. secrecy binary. Finally, during his questions about the purported IRS auditing scandal, O’Reilly gives President Obama little room for explanation before he jumps to assumptions resembling the little guy vs. the system binary. Therefore, despite their origins, the use of binaries is apparent in O’Reilly’s rhetoric in the outrage interview, made possible by the fragmentation of outrage media audiences.

Finally, the last way the outrage interview works is through argumentation theory. In a study of The Larry King Live show, Gerda Lauerbach found that surprisingly, “even in the context of a political controversy, the genre of the political celebrity talk show interview is a format which disprefers an attitude of critical doubt. It lends itself to exploitation by the politician who is able, through subtle changes of footing, and with the support of the host, to pursue his political agenda” (1388). While on its surface the interview between O’Reilly and President Obama seems to not at all fit into this category, when taking a closer look, one might find that it actually does. When O’Reilly brings up the issues with Healthcare.gov, President Obama quickly segues to talk about the three million people who’ve signed up and six million people on Medicaid. As O’Reilly continues to try and discuss the failure of Secretary Kathleen E. Sebelius, President Obama continues to point to the many successes of his healthcare plan. Similarly, as O’Reilly brings up the controversy over the Benghazi attacks, President Obama finds a way to steer the conversation in a direction towards polarization as he says, “Democrats and Republicans should be unified in trying to figure out how are we going to protect people” (FOXNews.com Transcript). Finally, when O’Reilly brings up his last point about the possible IRS auditing scandal, President Obama once again finds a way to reconstruct the conversation to his benefit, “I mean these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them” (FOXNews.com Transcript). The outrage interview works, in part, because of the underlying argumentation theory. While O’Reilly uses his outrage tactics to evoke emotional responses, he unknowingly provides a landscape for President Obama to change the dialogue of the conversation. O’Reilly’s argumentative nature is so apparent, that President Obama is able to completely sidestep, or reshape some questions to his benefit without seeming obvious. O’Reilly’s behavior is so obtrusive, that President Obama’s manipulation of many of the questions goes unnoticed by most viewers.

One of the most influential tactics of the outrage industry is currently the outrage interview. It works initially by being mutually beneficial for both parties involved, by using the binaries allowed for through the outrage industry, and finally through the use of argumentation theory fueled by outrage tactics. The outrage interview isn’t just an interview between a member of the outrage industry and a political figure, but rather an interview within the outrage industry that utilizes the tactics, and established precedent set forth by the outrage industry.

The Interview: http://video.foxnews.com/v/3142612336001/bill-oreillys-super-bowl-interview-with-president-obama/?#sp=show-clips

Berry, Jeffrey M, and Sarah Sobieraj. The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility . Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

FOXNews.com. (n.d.). On Air Personalities: Bill O’Reilly. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/personalities/bill-oreilly/bio/#s=m-q

FOXNews.com. (2014). TRANSCRIPT: Bill O’Reilly interviews President Obama. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/02/02/transcript-bill-oreilly-interviews-president-obama/

Lauerbach, G. (2007). Argumentation in political talk show interviews. Journal of Pragmatics, 39, 1388–1419.

Norton, M. (2011). A structural hermeneutics of The O’Reilly Factor. Springer Science Business Media, 40, 315–346.

Rosenberg, A. (2014, February 13). Why Bill O’Reilly’s Super Bowl Interview With President Obama Was Actually Brilliant. Think Progress. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2014/02/13/3286501/oreilly-obama-super-bowl/

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