Jesse Watters smirked his way to the top. Fox needs him to stay there.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 17: Host Jesse Watters as "Jesse Watters Primetime" Debuts On Fox News at Fox News Channel Studios on July 17, 2023 in New York City. "Jesse Watters Primetime" takes over Tucker Carlson's former time slot on the Fox News Channel. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

A few years ago, after one self-inflicted controversy or another in Jesse Watters's bumpy rise to stardom on Fox News, Sean Hannity took him aside to offer some advice.

"Watters, the key to success in this business is longevity," the network's long-running conservative star told him, the younger man later recalled. "Don't say or do anything stupid that's going to destroy your brand and make you get out of Dodge before you're ready to leave."

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Or, as Watters processed Hannity's guidance: Just don't get fired.

"He said just keep staying in the game as long as you possibly can," Watters explained during a visit to his colleague Dana Perino's podcast last year. "Pay attention to what gets people fired - and don't do that."

In July, Watters inherited the 8 p.m. time slot that once belonged to Tucker Carlson. Buoyed by high ratings and a kingmaker status in conservative politics, Carlson had skated by a series of controversies - until he was abruptly fired in April.

Hannity had reason to be concerned that Watters could meet a similar fate. Watters, 45, who got his start doing ambush interviews and comic relief, has cultivated a loose, irreverent frat-bro persona - forever dancing on the line of acceptable commentary while occasionally crossing it.

Such as the time he insisted that female journalists sleep with their sources. Or the time he claimed QAnon "uncovered a lot of great stuff." The time he made a lascivious-sounding wisecrack about the way Ivanka Trump held a microphone. Or when he declared that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was not "ripe enough" to be president because she hasn't been married or pregnant.

Yet unlike Carlson, who faced advertiser boycotts for right-wing commentary that tilted toward xenophobia, Watters's controversies have typically died down within days, registering more as juvenile than malign.

"There's so much that Jesse Watters can get away with saying out loud," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, "because there's always this sense that it's couched in that tongue-in-cheek, elbow-in-rib sense of irony."

Which may also explain why there has been relatively little uproar or even much attention paid to a startling turn in some of Watters's recent rhetoric.

"I don't like how people try to differentiate between the Palestinians and Hamas," Watters scoffed last week on "The Five," Fox's early-evening roundtable, where he has been a full-time panelist since 2017. "They all love killing Jews. . . . Every time a Palestinian refugee goes to another country, it doesn't work out so well for the other country and for those Palestinians. No one wants them."

It was perhaps the most inflammatory comment uttered on Fox - which never lacks for overheated right-wing punditry - since the Israel-Gaza conflict had erupted a week earlier. Watters's comments came after the Biden administration tried to draw distinctions between the Palestinian people and the Hamas forces that led a murderous raid on Israel, and after retaliatory Israeli airstrikes had killed thousands of people in Gaza.

Mehdi Hasan, an MSNBC host, called Watters's words "racist" and "beyond sickening/shameful." In response, a Fox News representative pointed to Watters's comments in prime time two days later, when he said that his show "respects and loves all people from all cultures, and [has] no interest in harming the Palestinian people" but that "it is important to scrutinize exactly what we're dealing with here."

But other than a couple of mentions from liberal media watchdogs, Watters's attack on Palestinians didn't generate significant backlash.

Watters has spent nearly his entire career at Fox, rising from the basement film archive. Along the way, he observed some tough truths about the cable news industry, in which on-air stars increasingly need to push boundaries to command the attention of ever-more-distracted viewers - but face permanent banishment if they go too far.

On a single astonishing day in April, two of cable's biggest names abruptly lost their jobs. One was Don Lemon, whose acerbic truth-to-power commentary about the Trump administration made him a resistance favorite on CNN's prime-time lineup - but whose snappish, edgy tone read as sexist in his new role as a morning host. The other, of course, was Carlson, who had once seemed untouchable.

To stay on top, Fox needs to satisfy an increasingly conservative audience enthralled by culture wars and scathing takedowns of the Biden administration - while curbing the kind of conspiratorial loose talk and right-wing wishful thinking that exposed it to defamation lawsuits from voting-technology companies after the 2020 election, one of which settled this year for a record-breaking $787.5 million.

Watters declined to give an interview for this story, and the network did not make his superiors or colleagues available. But it's clear he knows the odds and the stakes.

"I could get fired at any time and have no skills to fall back on to make a living," he wrote in "How I Saved the World," his 2021 memoir. "So, when I see a homeless guy begging for change, I see myself six months after saying the wrong thing on the air."

You don't want to go there, Jesse."

The warning came from Jeanine Pirro, a regular panelist on the "The Five" - a ride-or-die Trump supporter and hardly a paragon of cautious speech herself.

Their Sept. 1 segment had started out safely enough, a discussion of companies like Amazon and Goldman Sachs mandating that employees return to regular office work, a trend that Watters applauded. By working from home, "you're not absorbing life," he declared. "You're not absorbing the environment. You're not absorbing the state or city that you live in."

With thick dark hair and a perpetual tan, Watters exudes a relatively youthful glow among his Fox colleagues - the homecoming king who is also the class clown, cutting his extreme self-confidence with light self-deprecation. But a sharper edge of mischief, or malice, depending how you look at it, is never far from the surface.

"Without returning to the office," Watters added, deadpan, "you have no office romance."

Sensing danger - particularly at a network that has settled numerous lawsuits over alleged sexual improprieties in the workplace - his co-hosts scrambled to jump on the grenade.

"Jesse, let that go," Pirro said. "Stop it. I'm not going to let you get into any trouble."

"Jesse, that's the third rail," said Richard Fowler, the token Democrat on the panel. "Stop while you're ahead."

Watters kept a straight face. "Oh, really? You want me to stop?" he said mock-quizzically, before flashing a knowing grin as Pirro tossed to commercial.

Other Fox hosts, like conservative purists Hannity or Mark Levin, present a firmer ideological consistency. Watters instead telegraphs his beliefs mostly in the form of the things he doesn't like: liberal politicians, the mainstream media, climate change activism, unfettered immigration, diversity and inclusion initiatives run amok. Still, the upshot is a sunnier face of arch-conservative punditry - a departure from Carlson and erstwhile mentor Bill O'Reilly, his scowling, glowering predecessors in the 8 p.m. slot. Some associates say Watters is more interested in making good TV than remaking American society.

"He conveys in a light, comic and, for his audience, amusing way the messages that they very much turn to Fox News to hear," said Syracuse's Thompson. "That's actually something of a tough combination of skill sets."

Watters has also kept a fortuitous distance from Fox's biggest controversies. When reams of internal correspondence were released in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit, many top Fox hosts and executives were embarrassed by what they were revealed to have said in private about Trump, their viewers and each other. But Watters's name barely came up at all. On air, he had largely avoided the bogus, Trump-boosted allegations of election fraud that triggered the suit - and, off-air, managed to avoid the in-house backbiting that spilled out in discovery.

Which doesn't mean he's all charm on the set. "He can be a beast and enjoys playing the bully," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who once had her notes theatrically torn up by Watters on "The Five" to mock Nancy Pelosi's rejection of Trump's 2020 State of the Union address. ("He thought by removing it from my hands, he could stop the arguments.")

"Honestly, I have never enjoyed working with anyone who lacked substance/knowledge on air, but Jesse was always genuinely affable in private," Brazile added. "You always knew where he stood and the axes he had to grind."

Geraldo Rivera, who regularly clashed with Watters from "The Five's" left-leaning chair before leaving Fox this summer, said he can be "a brat" who "has a tendency at times to make his political adversaries caricatures."

"But," he added, "I really believe he is, at heart, a kind and intelligent representative of his generation. Strip away the wisecracking and I really do believe he has the potential to be a terrific host for Fox."

Even some of his professional adversaries have been somewhat disarmed. Dan Pfeiffer, the former Obama White House communications chief turned liberal podcaster, once called Watters "the dumbest man in television." In an interview, he called that a good thing.

"You'd rather have a relatively dim propagandist than a smart one," he said. "Carlson, for all his problems, is quite smart and strategic in terms of how he uses his platform, and Jesse Watters is in it for the LOLs."

That whoa-just-kidding presentation could explain why Watters hasn't drawn the same kind of organized pushback as firebrand hosts such as Carlson. Watters, like other Fox stars, often portrays himself as a martyr besieged by far-left activists, who want to "physically hurt me, get me fired and break me down," he wrote in his book. In fact, Fox executives have not detected significant pressure campaigns on sponsors or efforts to get his show canceled, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

Despite the outraged headlines he occasionally generates - or perhaps because of them - Fox fans have reacted favorably to Watters at 8 p.m. He can't yet match Carlson's massive ratings, but the 2.45 million viewers he has averaged since his July debut represent a nearly 60 percent increase over the temp hosts who preceded him.

More significantly, he has turned around the advertiser exodus sparked by Carlson's 2018 comments about immigration making America "dirtier" that left the hour reliant on spots from election denier Mike Lindell's MyPillow company. Under Watters, more than 125 new advertisers have bought spots at 8 p.m., according to Fox.

- - -

Watters's rise within Fox News was unusual, even for a network that prides itself on home-brewing its future stars. The other panelists on "The Five" had careers before cable news. (Pirro was a prosecutor and judge, Dana Perino a White House press secretary and Gutfeld a magazine editor.) But Watters's credibility is based entirely on a career at Fox.

Raised mostly in suburban Philadelphia, the son of a school administrator and a psychologist, Watters attended private school before majoring in history at Connecticut's Trinity College. Not yet a tribal conservative, he interned for then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a moderate Democrat at the time.

In his memoir, Watters comedically presents a post-grad period of blithe ineptitude and bungled opportunities. He was fired from a finance job after delivering a mock sales pitch that betrayed his ignorance about the firm's investment strategy. "It turns out you have to have a basic grasp of arithmetic to handle millions of dollars of other people's money," he wrote.

Working as a busboy, he kept dropping plates. Landing another finance gig, he was fired for a third time for making a "risqué joke" and then blabbing about it even after warned not to. But his mother knew an ex-congressman who knew someone at Fox, where he worked nights and weekends for $12 an hour and no health insurance. The following year, he got hired as an associate producer for Bill O'Reilly by lavishly praising the host's new book in the job interview. Warned by an executive producer that he might not understand how to make good television, Watters buckled down, for once - and made it work. "I refused to be fired four times in one year," he wrote.

The skills he learned crafting segments for cable news's biggest star prepared him for his on-air future, some colleagues believe. "He knows what goes into a good segment, what are good topics, what visuals do you need," said one.

Producers normally stayed behind the scenes. But in 2004, when Watters pitched a story about an Alabama judge who had given a sex offender a light sentence, O'Reilly suggested Watters make the trip with a cameraman, according to Watters's account. After initially confronting the wrong guy, Watters got his courthouse showdown.

"Do you have anything you want to say to the [victim's] mother?" Watters demanded. "Do you think you owe her an explanation, judge?"

As an ambush interviewer, Watters flew around the country to lob questions at unsuspecting liberal targets, eventually earning him his own regular segment, "Watters' World." It also established the nervy, prankish persona that would follow him into his career.

Some segments were discomfiting. In 2009, Watters decided to confront liberal blogger Amanda Terkel about a critical story she had written about O'Reilly - and set off with a cameraman to trail her on her out-of-town vacation.

In 2014, he flew to New Mexico to infiltrate a National Organization for Women conference, without getting credentials to cover it. In the segment that aired, he lampooned a female attendee for having a voice lower than his own.

Patricia Ireland, NOW's former president, had found O'Reilly to be a respectful host in her appearances on his show, though they disagreed on most issues. Watters, however, "was not interested in speaking to whoever he was allegedly interviewing," she said. "He was interested in being the center of attention." The trip ended with Watters pledging to leave the building under the threat of being arrested.

He pivoted to man-on-the-street interviews, which were logistically easier and less legally dicey; in a typical segment, he approached college kids on a Florida spring break trip to needle them with current events questions that they predictably bombed.

But a 2016 segment in New York's Chinatown drew backlash for its offensive stereotypes - interviews with Asian residents intercut with excerpts from old kung-fu movies and scenes of Watters getting a foot massage. Bill de Blasio, the mayor at the time, blasted it as "vile, racist behavior." Watters semi-apologized ("I regret if anyone found offense") and insisted that his work was "meant to be taken as tongue in cheek." Months later, though, he called the controversy "a learning experience."

In 2015, "Watters' World" became a monthly show, and by January 2017, it went weekly, on Saturday nights. Yet while Watters remained a regular on O'Reilly's show, he was typically deployed for lighter-side fodder rather than the hot-button policy talk that was Fox's bread and butter.

Then, in April 2017, O'Reilly was unexpectedly forced out, after the New York Times reported that Fox had settled multiple sexual harassment claims against him for several million dollars. Watters got the phone call telling him he would become a regular on "The Five" as it temporarily moved into O'Reilly's vacant time slot.

"It was kind of a bittersweet moment," Watters recalled during an online book event in 2021. "My whole world kind of turned upside down and sideways at the same time."

Less than a year later, a wave of #MeToo allegations crashed over broadcast news, ending the careers of Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and other prominent men, and Watters briefly found his own life under scrutiny.

Tabloid reports revealed that his wife, Noelle, mother of his twin daughters, was filing for divorce - and that Fox's rising star had been romantically involved with a 25-year-old associate producer. ("Fox News is in sleazy Watters yet again," the New York Daily News quipped.)

But Fox took the relatively unusual step of confirming Watters's new relationship, in a statement revealing that he had volunteered to company officials that "he was in a consensual relationship with a woman on his staff," and that management had transferred her to another show to avoid the potential for conflict.

Watters is now married to the former producer, Emma DiGiovine, and they have two children.

He got his biggest break in January 2022, when he was awarded the 7 p.m. slot that had been converted from a news hour to opinion fare.

Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott saw Watters as "somebody we had been grooming and developing for a long time," according to her deposition in the Dominion case. She had to convince the network's co-founder Rupert Murdoch, who, internal emails show, favored veteran business anchor Maria Bartiromo. "But at the end of the day," Scott said, "I told him I thought it should be Jesse and he agreed."

- - -

Whether Watters has continued to take Hannity's advice to heart in his new seat of power at Fox remains the question.

Just minutes, in fact, after sharing his story about Hannity's words of caution to a conference of young conservative activists in 2021, Watters stepped in it again when he offered his playbook for how to confront Anthony S. Fauci, should he happen to show up on campus.

"You go in for the kill shot," Watters told them.

Specifically, Watters was advising the college activists on how to conduct an on-camera, Watters-style ambush of the man who was then the nation's top infectious-disease expert.

"The kill shot, with an ambush, deadly, because he doesn't see it coming," he went on. "This is when you say, 'Dr. Fauci, you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab, the same lab that sprung this pandemic on the world. You know why people don't trust you, don't you?' Boom! He is dead! He is dead! He's done."

While those in the room likely understood his meaning, Watters's language was strikingly violent - particularly at a time when right-wing furor over covid restrictions was triggering security threats for Fauci. So when resistance poster Ron Filipkowski tweeted an 85-second version that excluded most of the run-up to the "kill shot" comment, the clip went viral.

At the time, a rattled Fauci told an interviewer that Watters should be fired. This summer, he declined to comment. "I really do not want to have anything to do with Watters either directly or indirectly," Fauci wrote to The Post in an email.

Then there was the time Watters endorsed deflating the tires of a would-be love interest so he could offer her a ride. The time he complained that the suspect in the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi was treated too harshly by law enforcement, because, he said, "Paul is married to a powerful woman." The time he said he had a childhood phase where "I thought I was Black for like a year," boasting that "I had all the gear," whatever that meant.

Controversy flared each time but always died down quickly. Fox issued a statement defending Watters's comments about Fauci, and announced his promotion to 7 p.m. just 20 days later.

Sometimes, his own co-hosts ran interference for him.

"We're not letting you finish," Gutfeld told him on "The Five" last year, after Watters suggested that homeowners discourage squatters by burning them alive. "Say you are joking."

They couldn't help him in April, however, when a Watters appearance at an insurance industry conference plunged the organization into chaos.

The Big "I" legislative conference, held every year in Washington, D.C., had regularly booked media commentators to hold forth for its audience of independent agents and brokers. But as first reported by CNN, some attendees were alarmed by Watters's line of rhetoric, which ran heavily on culture-war tropes about gender and diversity, including a wisecrack about Vice President Harris. (Attendees differ on what exactly he said.)

"He kept talking about 'trans' being a fad," one offended participant, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships, told The Post. "He just spews culture wars. That's what he was doing. It had nothing to do with insurance at all." (A Fox spokesperson said that Watters had "no recollection" of the comments in question and that he had received nothing but positive feedback.)

The incident provided a stark reminder of the country's increasingly siloed and polarized media landscape. Watters's comments shocked a sector of the audience that was unfamiliar with his work on Fox, and they generated such a backlash within the organization that its outgoing president, who had booked Watters and chatted with him onstage, relinquished his duties ahead of schedule. Several members resigned from its diversity council in protest, and leaders agreed to create a formal process for selecting future speakers.

But not everyone was offended. Other attendees laughed and applauded Watters's comments. Said another person in the room: "He didn't really say anything that he doesn't say on TV."

- - -

In the wake of the Chinatown controversy back in 2016, Watters made a point of describing himself as a political humorist. But that label now seems to be slipping - along with the just kidding persona that eased him through the rough patches on his path to prime time.

Since his move to evenings, Watters increasingly traffics in darker and more conspiracy-minded commentary. It didn't sound like he was joking when he claimed that federal prosecutors committed "political war crimes" to indict Donald Trump in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, nor when he referred to the Department of Justice and CIA as "Democrat Stormtroopers," what seemed to be an allusion to Nazi soldiers. Watters has alleged that the FBI installed President Biden as "an intelligence op" and "probably" planted evidence at Mar-a-Lago to frame Trump.

He's called homeless people "an invasive species," said that climate change is a hoax "psy-op against the American people by big business and the Democratic Party," and theorized that the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was some kind of EPA racial-justice scheme, "spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people."

"His problem is going to be saying stuff that just is so controversial that people are going to be up in arms about it," a longtime former Fox News producer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

On his prime-time show, Watters now channels the doomsday style that made Carlson the biggest draw in conservative media - "American civilization is on the brink," he proclaimed on a recent broadcast - while still clinging to a lighter shtick that harks back to "Watters' World."

To one former Fox News prime-time producer, it seems like Watters's new show is "trying to be like a PG-13 version of Tucker."

The producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships at the network, said Fox clearly wants to retain some of Carlson's fan base but that "they know they can't go too far, as Tucker did. . . . They're really cognizant of that. They're not going to go over the line."

In recent years, Carlson had dabbled in a racist conspiracy theory known as the "great replacement," holding that liberal elite were encouraging southern-border immigration in a diabolic plot to remake the electorate. Watters's rhetoric on immigration is less overtly paranoid, but it carries an echo. "It's been raining illegals for two-and-a-half-years straight," he warned last month, "And it's by design: to turn Texas blue." During another show, he spoke ominously about a "major shift in our population and culture" wrought by immigration: "The West is radically changing, and our leaders are the ones pulling the levers."

But Rivera, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, defended his former colleague. "I never felt a vibe from Jesse that was racist, misogynistic or far out radical."

Several associates told The Post that Watters seems to understand where the line is - and will protect his perch at Fox by staying on the right side of it. Watters acknowledged as much in his book: "The value of risk reduction is something that comes with age."

One particular liberal is also hoping that he keeps himself in check. She is Anne Bailey Watters - his mother.

The child psychologist regularly texts her son with suggestions and critiques, which he then reads on television for laughs. "Where is your moral compass?" she asked in one message. In others, she implored him to maintain some distance from the former president. ("We all know you are a Trumpet. You need not scream it.")

She called into the program the night he debuted at 8 p.m. and offered some earnest advice that was not unlike Hannity's counsel years earlier.

"We are so proud of you and your accomplishments, and you've worked so hard," she said. "Now let's aim to have you keep your job. Do not tumble into any conspiracy rabbit holes. We do not want to lose you, and we want no lawsuits."

Fox News undoubtedly agrees.

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