President Obama doesn’t sit down for many cable-news interviews, so Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was the beneficiary of a rare opportunity: a one-on-one White House interview with the president to be aired shortly before the Super Bowl. If mainstream viewers tuned in, hoping to see Obama’s answers on the major issues of the day, they were probably disappointed.
Literally a few seconds into the interview, O’Reilly told the president, “I want to get some things on the record.” And so he did – over the course of 10 minutes, O’Reilly, in this order, pushed for Kathleen Sebelius’ ouster, talked up the 2012 attack in Benghazi, spent on the non-existent IRS controversy, and read a question from a viewer: “Mr. President, why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity and success?”
And then the host asked for a Super Bowl prediction.
This, however, was the part that stood out most, at least for me.
O’REILLY: I’ve got to get to the IRS –OBAMA: Yes.O’REILLY: – because I don’t know what happened there and I’m hoping maybe you can tell us. Douglas Shulman, former IRS chief, he was cleared into the White House 157 times, more than any of your cabinet members, more than any other IRS guy in the history, by far. OK, why was Douglas Shulman here 157 times? Why?
This is what happens when someone gets stuck in an impenetrable bubble.
The IRS story came and went quite a while ago, so let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane for those who may not remember why the question was so misguided.
On May 30, 2013, O’Reilly told his viewers that there may be a “smoking gun” in the IRS controversy: former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, the host said, visited the White House 157 times between 2009 and 2012. This proved … something nefarious. O’Reilly didn’t say what, exactly, the problem was, but the statistic was supposed to damning of evidence of something.
A day later, The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta discovered that the “smoking gun” was shooting blanks: Shulman had been cleared for a series of routine White House gatherings, but only attended 11 events over the course of four years. The “157 times” story wasn’t all that interesting on its own, and upon closer inspection, it wasn’t true, either.
And at the time, it seemed like a mild embarrassment for O’Reilly, but these things happen. He reported a claim on May 30, which was debunked on May 31, which meant the Fox News host would have to simply move on to something else.
Except, he didn’t. Even after the “157 times” story had been discredited, O’Reilly kept repeating it, over and over again, apparently unaware of the fact that it’s wrong.
Let’s say O’Reilly deserved the benefit of the doubt. He pushed a bogus claim in May, but let’s say he made an honest mistake and didn’t realize it was wrong at the time. Let’s also say O’Reilly and his staff were really busy in May and June, and missed the reports fact-checking the story when they continued to push it days later.
If we take this overly generous approach, it might excuse O’Reilly’s mistaken reporting from last summer. But how then does one explain why the Fox News host is still making the exact same error – in pre-written questions prepared for a pre-Super Bowl interview from the White House – seven months later?
After a lengthy series of misguided questions about manufactured controversies, Obama eventually told the host, “These kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”
In light of the Doug Shulman flub, Obama had a point.