Fox News Goes Through Dummy Liberals Like Pens. Now It Might Have Met Its Match. (2024)

This is part of Sly as Fox, a short series about the perils of underestimating Fox News in 2024.

If you are familiar with Jessica Tarlov, you’re probably a regular Fox News viewer. That’s a sign that she’s doing what was hired to do pretty well—namely, be a Democrat on television who can bounce off the network’s right-wing stars without stealing the show. If she approached the job differently, she could probably be more famous. But her approach also, more subtly, allows her undermine one of the network’s central delusions in a way that her co-workers may not even be aware of.

Tarlov is, at the moment, the Fox network’s most prominent liberal commentator. She began appearing on the network in 2017, having come to bookers’ attention through a job working for Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster and longtime cable-news pontificator himself. After initially developing a rapport with Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity, she is now most frequently seen on The Five, the network’s 5 p.m. chat show, which attempts to re-create the cacophonous energy of The View with a lineup that is much, much more slanted toward the conservative perspective. (Its other primary co-hosts are Greg Gutfeld, Jesse Watters, Jeanine Pirro, and Dana Perino, all of whom are right-wing.)

Historically, there have been three types of liberal or Democratic Fox guests. There are active politicians who attest to believing in the importance of interacting with the network’s audience of Republicans and nominally persuadable independents. (Some may truly believe this—Bernie Sanders, no fan of interactions he doesn’t consider essential, has gone on Fox. Others may simply enjoy hearing themselves talk. Picture us furtively gesturing toward Gavin Newsom while we say that.) There are “Democrats” who only ever seem to disagree with what the Democratic Party is doing; their purpose on the network seems to be to reassure Fox’s audience that liberals are, in fact, radical and unreasonable. And then there was the late Alan Colmes, Hannity’s original sidekick on the show that was initially called Hannity and Liberal to Be Determined. The mild-mannered Colmes seemed to exist to get steamrolled, serving the same purpose as food dropped into an animal cage in the “large cats” wing of the zoo.

Tarlov does not actually fit in any of these categories—nor, as much as it might be suggested by her chipper social media profile, upscale Manhattan biography, and on-trend glasses, does she seem to be an aspiring influencer or cultural personality in the Meghan McCain mode. As bizarre as it may be to find such a person on Fox News or cable TV more generally, she is basically just a levelheaded liberal who, befitting her background in polling, tends to explain politics (and defend the behavior of Democratic politicians) in practical terms.

Consider, for instance, her commentary from March on The Five regarding Joe Biden’s “star-studded” Radio City Music Hall fundraiser, at which he was joined by figures ranging from Lizzo to former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Tarlov’s co-workers attacked the event as an embodiment of vapid celebrity liberalism and said it showed that there is so little enthusiasm for Biden’s reelection that he can only attract excitement by association. A lesser pundit performing the role of Democrat to Be Determined might have made dubious claims about Biden’s vitality and appeal; there was also the possibility of being sucked into a culture-war argument about the racial overtones of Lizzo discourse. Instead, Tarlov explained that leveraging celebrity support is essentially a financial necessity for candidates on every part of the political spectrum, pointing out that the $26 million Biden netted at Radio City translates into having, for example, 10 field offices in North Carolina. The answer moved the conversation away from less defensible (or at least more hostile) ground and toward territory on which she could point out Trump’s longtime association with Vanilla Ice, which made for good banter.

Tarlov doesn’t catastrophize the decisions of Democratic politicians—which is a great way to make hay as a center- or left-of-center pundit, historically!—or, on the other hand, let herself get wound up and defensive about her co-workers’ attacks thereon. This puts a ceiling on her Q rating, probably. She rarely shows up in viral clips because she doesn’t tend to eviscerate anyone or lose it on air. Panic and gloating go viral; reality-based exposition doesn’t. But it makes for viewing that is entertaining and, of all things to be saying about Fox News programming, informative. By speaking to her colleagues as if they are her social peers—like humans might actually talk to each other, instead of competitors in a contest to see who can be the most provocative—she gets them to actually listen to what she’s saying, and she gains the space to, for example, interject that crime rates have gone “way down”—not down “a little”—in New York City during Biden’s term.

Is this effort accomplishing anything? Surveys do say there are Fox viewers who identify as independent voters. Maybe Tarlov is persuading some of them, or at least lowering the temperature of political discourse by exposing them to less threatening explanations for Democratic positions than they might otherwise see.

In the bigger picture, she takes the air out of Fox’s delusion that it speaks for the average citizen—the way its stars, going back to Bill O’Reilly, have claimed to be representatives of the real America. There’s a temptation for TV Democrats on Fox and elsewhere to insist that they are actually the authentic ones, but Tarlov doesn’t try to out-blue-collar anyone—“I can’t be anything else but a tall Jewish girl from Tribeca,” she once said. By being so genial and non-confrontational, though, she gets her colleagues to let the mask slip a bit. They talk to each other casually and with affection, leaving one with the strong suspicion that they are all, in fact, cosmopolitan television performers who get along well because they have a lot in common. And there’s nothing wrong with that! We can’t all be the living embodiment of a commercial for a five-ton pickup truck. Whether or not she’s helping Joe Biden win the election, getting that message across on Fox News, however implicitly, is a public service.

Fox News Goes Through Dummy Liberals Like Pens. Now It Might Have Met Its Match. (2024)


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