Fox's newest star Jesse Watters boasts a wink, a smirk, and a trail of outrage
Updated July 17, 2023 at 6:44 PM ET
Fox News is counting on a controversial, self-described "political humorist" to revitalize its all-important 8 p.m. weeknight show, which has struggled to regain viewers since the network ousted star Tucker Carlson in April.
Monday marks the 8 p.m. debut of Jesse Watters, a star with a wink and a smirk – that last term from the publisher of his book, How I Saved the World. But his swift ascent is no laughing matter for his critics.
"This is somebody who is that fun guy in high school who stood there and quietly made fun of the nerds and the rest of us stood around and kind of laughed with him," says Julie Roginsky, a former Fox News commentator and guest host. "Most of us outgrew that and decided that was not the right way to go in life."
"He can be very affable," says Joe Muto, who worked with Watters at Fox. But Muto cautions Watters' on-air success has relied upon "punching down," mocking people without much stature. "His comedy has a mean streak to it, kind of a bullying aspect to it."
Over the course of the 26-year history of Fox News, only two people have ever hosted the 8 p.m. weeknight slot Watters will fill: Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson. Both became huge stars on Fox, and both were pushed out amid scandal — six years apart almost to the day.
Roginsky argues that there is a stark contrast between Watters and his primetime predecessors — O'Reilly, Carlson and Sean Hannity, who will follow Watters at 9 p.m.
"I did not agree with most everything that came out of O'Reilly's or Hannity's mouths," Roginsky says. "But they were not there to be clowns. They were there to provide what Fox considered to be serious analysis of the day's news."
A defense of Trump, musings on QAnon
Watters is unlikely to champion Central European leaders with autocratic tendencies, as Carlson did. Yet Watters has surfaced on the air as a defender of former President Donald Trump. He also has twice cited QAnon approvingly on the air, though he subsequently distanced himself from the conspiracy theory in a statement released off the air.
"He's not very sharp, but is very good at telling audiences what he thinks they want to hear," says former Fox commentator Jonah Goldberg, who resigned from the network over Carlson's promotion of discredited conspiracy theories about the January 2021 siege of the U.S. Congress.
Fox has paid nearly $800 million over the past few months to settle two lawsuits in which Carlson featured prominently. The larger one followed rulings by a Delaware judge that Fox had defamed a voting technology company when four hosts, including Carlson, and their guests falsely suggested it had helped cheat Trump of the 2020 election.
More recently, Fox paid $12 million to resolve a suit from a former senior producer for Carlson who alleged a workplace saturated with bigotry and misogyny.
Fox's decision to oust Carlson in April led to a collapse in ratings — down by about a quarter throughout primetime in the second quarter of the year. At times, MSNBC would beat Fox in primetime, a once-rare occurrence.
Fox has responded with a pincer movement — shifting Watters an hour later to 8 p.m. and moving late-night conservative comic Greg Gutfeld an hour earlier to 10 p.m. (Laura Ingraham, a more conventional conservative voice who had held the 10 p.m. post, has been given Watters' old spot at 7 p.m.)
Fox is kicking off the new lineup with a marketing slogan that nods to its politics: "The right voices for the right time."
Through a spokesperson, Watters, Fox News Media chief executive Suzanne Scott and the network's top primetime executive, Meade Cooper, declined to be interviewed for this story. The network also did not respond to specific questions, other than to point to past public statements Watters and Fox have made after his on-air remarks prompted public outcries.
Watters rose to fame through popular — and offensive — satire
Watters, now 45, joined Fox shortly after graduating with a degree in history from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and has never worked anywhere else.
Muto recalls Watters as ambitious, throwing himself into his work, and wearing sharp suits that reflected what male stars wore on the air. When the two were producers on The O'Reilly Factor, Watters knew how to pitch segments that pleased O'Reilly, Muto says. They often involved person-on-the-street interviews. At times they were more like ambush capers of some little-known state official or college professor who had said something that vexed O'Reilly.
"Many of the people and targets he would pick were sort of hapless," Muto says. "They weren't ready to have the glare of this big media juggernaut turned on them."
Records show that back in September 2012, Watters, then an associate producer, gave $500 to then-President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, his only known federal political contribution.
After this article was first posted, Watters told NPR through a spokesperson that the disclosure reflected a work expense: his purchase of a ticket to a campaign concert in Los Angeles featuring Katy Perry for a segment on O'Reilly's show that aired the next month.
(He had given another explanation in 2016 to a Newsday reporter who had asked about the contribution.
"I love Katy Perry," Watters had said. "I think you had to donate to go to the concert."
NPR asked Fox about the differing explanations, and was told there was no distinction.)
Watters' pieces were entertaining, Muto says, and ultimately popular. They were frequent enough that they got their own brand: Watters' World. In 2015, Watters was given his own weekend show of the same name, but kept on working for O'Reilly. (Fox fired Muto for leaking information about the network to the news and gossip site Gawker. He wrote his own book about the experience.)
"They were cherry picking," Muto says now of Watters' segments. "He's not interested in getting the more intelligent, cogent responses. He's interested in getting people who are stammering or stoned, in the case of college students, or barely speak English, in the case of the Chinatown thing."
Bouncing back from accusations of racism and sexism
In 2016, spurred by then-candidate Trump's focus on China as a campaign issue, O'Reilly sent Watters to New York City's Chinatown. His lengthy segment, incorporating old movie clips, played on racial stereotypes, jumbled cultural references from other Asian countries, and mocked elderly residents who appeared not to understand English.
The Asian American Journalists Association and other civic leaders demanded an apology. The Daily Show's Ronny Chieng issued a notable rant: "If you're going to be racist, at least get your stereotypes right!" He also went to Chinatown to conduct thoughtful interviews, and not just in English.
O'Reilly conceded a few elements were "over the line." Watters tweetedthat he regretted if anyone took offense.
The backlash didn't slow him down. The next year, Fox gave Watters a co-host gig on the popular weekday show The Five and his own early-evening weeknight program.
On the air, Watters has asked whether teachers could paddle female students, mocked the homeless, and even made what was uniformly taken to be a crude sexual joke about Ivanka Trump. He made a hand gesture toward his mouth, and said, "So, I don't really get what's going on here, but I really liked how she was speaking into that microphone."
After the ensuing outcry, Watters claimed he had thought she looked like a DJ and abruptly announced he was taking a vacation.
Among Watters' critics has been his liberal family on Long Island. He has featured the loving rebukes of his mother, a child psychologist, on his shows. "She's always telling me two things that are constant in these texts," Watters told The Atlanticin 2019. "One, stop screaming. And two, don't be too much of a Trump supporter. I don't really listen to either."
Fox turns to Watters after an abrupt split with Carlson
Former Fox contributor Roginsky left Fox after filing a lawsuit accusing its former chief executive — the late Roger Ailes — of sexual harassment and other executives of retaliation. She received a reported six-figure settlement. Fox fired Ailes in 2016 and O'Reilly in 2017 after allegations surfaced that each had sexually harassed multiple women at Fox — allegations each denied.
Fox officials say the culture has been transformed.
Yet Roginsky draws a straight line between what she calls the toxic environment she experienced off the air and what Watters says on it.
"Let's call it what it is," she says. "It's audience maintenance." She says Fox can claim he's joking, but Watters serves up what Fox viewers want.
Watters divorced his first wife in late 2019 and soon married a former producer for his show, Watters World. He claimed on the air that he courted his second wife while she was working for him by sabotaging her car, letting the air out of her tires so she would have to ask him for a ride. "It works like a charm," he said when asked by a co-host whether it was a maneuver he had used more than once.
Yet again, Watters said later that was just a joke.
"Fox allows some of their hosts to get away with [it] by saying, 'Oh, he's just joking,' if they crossed the line," Roginsky says. "'That's just Gregory [Gutfield]. That's just Jesse being funny. You shouldn't take these guys seriously or literally because they're here just as the entertainment.'
"And the reality is, of course, that everything they say should be taken seriously and is taken seriously by the millions of viewers who watch them on a daily basis and subscribe to their worldview."
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