Sunday’s pregame face-off between Bill O’Reilly and President Obama sparked some different takes on the same interview in recaps by Fox News, The New York Times and other outlets, but overall O’Reilly was declared the winner.

Because this was the kind of manufactured media event from which a winner must emerge and be recognized by a chorus of pundits. And what better occasion than Super Bowl Sunday to stage such a phony showdown?

Obama clearly wasn’t angling to win the hearts and minds of O’Reilly’s loyal following over the course of the 10-minute live performance, skillfully choreographed to look like a frank debate while offering nothing in the way of actual revelation and featuring just enough heat to keep viewers from wandering off in search of the onion dip. Instead, the president opted to go meta on the media, pointing out how Fox News functions to create and manipulate controversies for the sake of ratings while apparently overlooking how he himself was engaged in just that activity at that very moment.

Meanwhile, as The New York Times’ Peter Baker noted (in a piece titled “Obama Is Tackled by O’Reilly in Pre-Game Interview”), the game plan for O’Reilly was about putting the president on the defensive by cornering him about issues conservatives have pegged as scandals shrouded in conspicuous silence — namely the IRS’ treatment of right-wing organizations, Obamacare’s fraught debut and, of course, Benghazi:

Mr. O’Reilly, sitting forward in his chair at the White House, pressed Mr. Obama repeatedly. The president, smiling but seemingly trying to keep his patience, pushed back in kind. At times the two men talked right over each other.

When Mr. O’Reilly asked if the broken promise on keeping health plans was “the biggest mistake of your presidency,” Mr. Obama responded, “Oh, Bill, you’ve got a long list of my mistakes of my presidency.”

When Mr. O’Reilly interrupted an answer to press Mr. Obama on why Susan E. Rice, now the president’s national security adviser, first characterized the Benghazi attack as a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video, Mr. Obama said, “And I’m trying to explain it to you if you want to listen.”

Mr. O’Reilly went on to say that Mr. Obama’s detractors believe the administration tried to mislead the public about what really happened in Benghazi because it was in the middle of his re-election campaign.

“They believe it because folks like you are telling them,” Mr. Obama responded.

True to form, “folks like” O’Reilly at Fox News went on to frame their version of Sunday’s sit-down by playing up the scandal motif (headline: “‘Not even a smidgen of corruption’: Obama downplays IRS, other scandals”), because the more you call something a scandal, the more scandalous it seems — and even denying its scandalousness makes it smack of scandal. To wit:

President Obama, in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, tried to put behind him the scandals that have hung over his second term, suggesting his administration did not mislead the public on the Benghazi attack and going so far as to say the IRS targeting scandal had “not even a smidgen of corruption.”

Obama addressed concerns over Benghazi, the launch of and the IRS, during the interview Sunday before the Super Bowl. He adamantly rejected the suggestion that the IRS was used for political purposes by singling out Tea Party groups seeking tax exemption.

“That’s not what happened,” he said. Rather, he said, IRS officials were confused about how to implement the law governing those kinds of tax-exempt groups.

“There were some bone-headed decisions,” Obama conceded.

See that? He conceded.

For his part, The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky was resoundingly unimpressed with the whole display, adding classical flair to his critique (headline: “The Obama and O’Reilly Interview Was a Super Snore”) by pronouncing it a brazen and plebian play for “bread and circuses” appeal, not to mention ratings:

Well, that was just stupid. The first time, in 2011, the last time Fox had the Super Bowl, it was kind of exciting when Bill O’Reilly interviewed Barack Obama. Obama’s aides, you’ll recall, had been knocking Fox, calling it not a real news station. Roger Ailes & Co. returned fire and then some. The tensions were deep.

Remember how much was at stake in February 2011: The GOP had just started running the House; we all knew huge showdowns were coming; and of course all of it was prelude to 2012. That O’Reilly interview—I remember a definite sense of drama around it—was a sort of Peoria tryout for everything the right would throw at Obama in his reelection campaign.

But Tomasky confounded his own argument from the get-go by declaring that “nothing” was at stake this time and then suggesting, a sentence later, that Sunday’s spectacle had an additional purpose beyond luring eyeballs to screens, which was to “go after Hillary.”

And there it is. Besides seizing the no doubt invigorating opportunity to shout down a well yet again about his biggest political blunders, thus amplifying them in the process, Obama’s interest in letting O’Reilly flex for his fan base likely included another motive beyond protecting his own legacy. In disputing Fox News’ rendition of loaded events like the Benghazi attack and ongoing political battles like health care reform, Obama attempted to make room for those whose future bids for office could be hindered by association to get a word in edgewise. That goes for Democrats seeking congressional seats in 2014 and 2016 — and that definitely goes for his former presidential rival and his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Otherwise, the whole pantomime was about as believable as O’Reilly’s send-off to his special guest: “I know you think maybe we haven’t been fair,” he said, “but I think your heart is in the right place.”

–Posted by Kasia Anderson

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