Column: Meet the new Tucker Carlson, worse than the old Tucker Carlson?

A man smiling against a blue background
Jesse Watters was named to replace Tucker Carlson in Fox News’ flagship time slot starting July 17.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)
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Jesse Watters didn’t eat the pizza Tuesday night.

Was Watters, the 44-year-old lightweight named a day earlier to replace Tucker Carlson at the helm of Fox News’ flagship prime-time program, recalling that Carlson’s last on-air act at the network was eating a slice of pizza? Even as Carlson masticated that bite back in April, he naively signed off, “And we’ll be back on Monday.” Except he didn’t come back; he was fired.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Whether or not Watters was seeing pizza as a bad omen, he merely held up a limp slice during “Jesse Watters Primetime,” which moves to Carlson’s 8 p.m. time slot July 17. The cheese slid off into a box below. Like Carlson in his pizza episode, Watters was hosting an unknown Everyman, a right-wing activist who’d gone viral on social media for throwing pizza slices at New York’s City Hall to protest new city regulations for coal- and gas-fired pizza ovens.

The segment was typical of Watters’ act. He mocked and mischaracterized a progressive government action (New York isn’t banning the ovens; it’s requiring old ones to install devices to minimize emissions, as new versions do) by way of lampooning Democratic officials’ larger purpose — addressing the existential threat of climate change. And as usual, he featured a white guy to personify the grievance.


There’s worse in Watters’ “journalism” career. With his ever-present smirk, he has trafficked, for laughs, in racist stereotyping and slurs of Asian Americans. Not long after one such episode — featuring Watters’ man-on-the-street encounters in New York’s Chinatown, for former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s show in late 2016 — the network rewarded Watters with a weekly show and a chair at the popular daytime round table “The Five.” The nightly “Jesse Watters Primetime” first aired in 2022.

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Watters has promoted QAnon conspiracies and election deniers. He once urged conservatives to fire a rhetorical “kill shot” at Dr. Anthony Fauci, already a target of death threats for his leadership of the nation’s pandemic response. This year, he chided the bumbling Republican-controlled House “weaponization of government” committee: “Make me feel better, guys. Tell me this is going somewhere. Can I throw someone in prison?”

And he has repeatedly shown a misogynist side. He’s gone after Hillary Clinton (natch), Vice President Kamala Harris (almost daily, it seems) and even former First Daughter Ivanka Trump. He’s dismissed the indictments of former President Trump, with their mountains of evidence, even as he has obsessed about the travails of Hunter Biden. And of course he spreads falsehoods routinely, about everything from pizza ovens to presidential elections.

In short, by promoting Watters to its most coveted seat, Fox News has telegraphed that it learned nothing positive, and regrets nothing, after its humiliating $787.5-million settlement in April of Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit. The company alleged that the network defamed it with false reports of voting fraud that cost Trump reelection.

What Fox does regret, apparently, is that its prime-time ratings have suffered since it fired Carlson, especially in the 8 p.m. time slot he once dominated. The network remained No. 1 for cable news in the second quarter of 2023, but its audience was down 25% from a year ago.

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With Watters’ elevation, Fox seems to have decided it needed a younger version of the noxious Carlson to win back the viewers so angered by his defenestration that they turned to the even-more-deplorable Newsmax in protest.


The parallels between Carlson and Watters are a bit uncanny, from their preppy smarm and good hair to the fact that both graduated as history majors from Trinity College in Connecticut. (Shouldn’t those degrees be rescinded for the men’s regular falsification of the news, the first draft of history?) These guys have elite pedigrees that belie their performative maligning of the nation’s elites. Carlson, pre-Fox, at least had some serious journalism chops; Watters came to Fox straight from college, hired as a production assistant.

He has, therefore, learned his business from the worst, rising by dishing out the toxic mix of racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+ phobias and nut-case conspiracies that Fox News has long given its viewers, and that they crave. It’s a mix that has polluted our politics, the Republican Party in particular.

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For those of us who abhor Watters’ shtick, there’s good company. “WHAT R U TALKING ABOUT!!!???” his mother once texted him.

Perhaps this week she can’t help but be proud of her son’s success. Yet even ratings didn’t save Watters’ predecessors in the flagship hour — O’Reilly from allegations of sexual harassment, and Carlson from the fallout of the Dominion lawsuit and others pending.

Maybe it was a good thing Watters avoided the pizza on Tuesday. It didn’t look at all appetizing anyway. The rest of us, however, are stuck with his poison.