The man replacing a coveted prime-time cable television slot once occupied by right-wing figurehead Tucker Carlson is a longtime Fox News presence who honed his reputation on the network with brash man-on-the-street interviews and derisive commentary attacking Democratic officials and his liberal rivals.
Jesse Watters has been with the network for more than two decades, wearing the influence of a generation of Fox News stars and right-wing radio figures that preceded him.
The changeup follows Carlson’s departure from the network in the aftermath of a pair of lawsuits and a $787.5m settlement reached with a voting machine company that sued Fox and its leadership for defamation.
A rotating lineup of hosts filled the 8pm hour in the weeks that followed. Watters – who helmed the previous hour – will permanently fill that later slot in the network’s schedule with his Jesse Watters Primetime.
“Unlike Carlson, he lacks a well-defined ideological agenda, apart from looking for ways to ‘own the libs’ on whatever the news of the day is,” according to MSNBC columnist Paul Waldman.
“There may be plenty of Fox viewers who will happily tune in to that for an hour each night. But Watters is effectively an internet troll who happens to be on TV,” he wrote. “If you want a detailed breakdown of the latest right-wing obsession, he’s not the one you’d seek out; if on the other hand you merely want someone to smirk while delivering a zinger about Hunter Biden, Watters is your man.”
Like Carlson, Watters comes from a prominent media family and is a product of exclusive East Coast private schooling.
But unlike Carlson, who arrived at Fox after on-air roles at competing networks MSNBC and CNN, Watters is something of a Fox company man, moving up in the ranks over more than 20 years while adopting the hostile posture and talking points of some of its biggest stars, with a self-satisfied grin.
Watters ascribes his political awakening to watching Republican members of Congress on C-SPAN. From there, he devoutly listened to right-wing radio and pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, whose influence is seared into his provocative personality.
By 2011, Watters helmed his own recurring segment on Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor.
His “Watters World” reports would rely on man-on-the-street interviews, quick edits and frequent cutaways to movie clips to ridicule frequent right-wing targets, from college campus culture to people experiencing homelessness.
Those reports and his other statements on the network over the years have drawn widespread criticism and accusations of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and election denialism, including incendiary statements aired days before the attack on the US Capitol.
In one of his segments in 2015, Watters interviewed homeless New Yorkers at Penn Station to accuse them of breaking the law. He would go on to declare homeless people an “invasive species” on his own programme in 2022.
A 2016 “Watters World” segment from Manhattan’s Chinatown was widely derided as a racist and stereotype-driven production that prompted a rare response from Watters. “My man-on-the-street interviews are meant to be taken as tongue-in-cheek and I regret if anyone found offense,” he said.
That same year, it was revealed that he was accused of stalking and harassing journalist Amanda Terkel seven years earlier, an incident that led to an altercation between Watters and another journalist at an afterparty following a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “I was at this party trying to enjoy myself. This guy came up to me. He starts putting it in my face,” Watters later said. “I was friendly at first, and then he started getting a little obnoxious. Things happened, and I regret it happened, and that’s all it is.”
On The Five, the network’s roundtable talk show on which Watters has been a longtime co-host, he claimed without evidence in 2019 that women reporters sleep with sources “all the time” in an apparent reference to the portrayal of a journalist in the film Richard Jewell.
In 2021, Watters encouraged the audience at a conservative political conference to “ambush” Dr Anthony Fauci and deliver a figurative “kill shot” against the nation’s leading infectious disease expert. Fauci, then the chief White House medical adviser, called on Fox to fire Watters. The network defended him in a statement and promoted him a few weeks later.
He also has repeatedly defended Mr Trump, including a warning that “people better be careful” and that “the left” doesn’t “understand what they’re getting themselves into” following news of the former president’s criminal indictment in New York City.
The Independent requested comment from Fox regarding Watters’ statements. A spokesperson for the network provided a network statement announcing the lineup changes.
“FOX News Channel has been America’s destination for news and analysis for more than 21 years and we are thrilled to debut a new lineup. The unique perspectives of Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity, and Greg Gutfeld will ensure our viewers have access to unrivaled coverage from our best-in-class team for years to come,” Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott said in the statement.
Right-wing media watchdog group Media Matters has chronicled Watters’ controversial on-air statements throughout his time at the network.
“Crowning odious Jesse Watters as the new face of Fox News is a reflection of Fox’s dogged commitment to bigotry and deceit as well as an indication of their desperation to regain audience share,” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone said in a statement.
“It won’t work, though. Fox’s audience abandoned the network post-Tucker, and those viewers never returned,” he added. “Jesse Watters’ buffoonish segments of bigotry and culture war vitriol won’t fix that problem for Fox; he’s a liability and a ticking time bomb.