Story by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
Video courtesy of Fox News
Fox News Correspondent Jesse Watters has been accused of relying on racist stereotypes and heavy editing to push a conservative message in the latest segment of his “Watters’ World” series, for which he interviewed people in New York City’s Chinatown. Elected officials and activists protested outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News on Oct. 6, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of many who commented, tweeting that Watters’ behavior was “vile” and “racist.”
I wasn’t surprised. Earlier this year, he came to the University of Oregon to film two videos, one about Bernie Sanders and another about the non-controversy surrounding the removal of a Martin Luther King Junior quote in the EMU. I talked to many of the students in the videos and learned they had complex political opinions that Watters ignored to make a quick joke about uninformed millennials.
For instance, Victoria Blanger, who is politically active and was a Sanders supporter, agreed to an interview because she was excited to talk about a topic she was passionate about. She began to think something was off when he asked, “How are the boys treating you?”
Slightly fazed, Blanger continued the interview, answering what she described as increasingly probing questions about Sanders. She said Watters was aggressive and made fun of her answers. But she didn’t think anything of the interview until a mentor told her she had seen her on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Blanger said a combative interview style, trick questions and editing shaped how she was depicted. After being stumped in the moment about which of Sanders’ policies she supported, the editor inserted a clip of Paul Rudd from “Knocked Up” saying, “Isn’t it weird, though, when you have a kid and all your dreams and hopes just go right out the window?”
She said she looks like she “has no idea what she’s talking about. She doesn’t know anything, and she’s voting. These are the people who are voting for your president.”
The edits and movie clips made students appear uneducated in the Sanders video and obsessed with being overly inclusive in the MLK one. Watching the videos, I understood why many students are skeptical of mainstream media, where they have been represented as privileged liberals who don’t know about the “real world.”
While Blanger said Watters identified himself, other students said they didn’t even know he was from Fox News and, further, didn’t know they were going to be on national television. This was one of Watters’ most questionable tactics. Most students said they wouldn’t have done the video if they had known it was for “The O’Reilly Factor.”
When interviewed about the MLK quote, junior Corbin Couraud said Watters didn’t tell him his name before “shoving a mic in my face.”
Couraud said he became concerned after he said the word “queer,” and Watters interrupted him, telling him it was inappropriate for him to say that. Couraud, who identifies as queer, rebuked Watters, asking if he was queer.
Watters has used this tactic in other videos on LGBTQA+ issues, often to make queer individuals appear like their sexuality and gender preferences shouldn’t be taken seriously. Couraud said he assumed Watters questioned his use of queer because he felt “they were looking for any reason to vilify me.” He said the interview felt like a prank television show segment.
Watters had the same confrontation with junior Zach Lusby, who also identifies as queer. Unlike other students, Lusby said he is proud of his performance, but is frustrated that Watters didn’t seem to care about students or their opinions.
Lusby said he was supporting Sanders because, as a low-income student with two jobs, he believes higher education should be more affordable and taxes should be higher. But after saying that he wanted taxes raised, Watters responded, “Now, if you raise my taxes, how am I going to afford to dress so nicely?”
Senior Alex Mentzel was unclear what the segment was for but saw the Fox News logo on the microphone. Mentzel told Watters he didn’t want his interview used because of his acting career, and he wasn’t in the final video. Mentzel is the only subject who said Watters asked for his consent to be on television.
After finishing his interview, Mentzel wished Watters luck finding people to talk to. He was surprised when Watters responded, “Oh, I won’t need it here.”
“It reveals a deeper sense that he saw the university as just a gold mine of liberal stupidity,” said Mentzel. “In his view, he was going to have no trouble finding people that were naive in his eye, who he could manipulate into giving him the answers that he wanted.”
Mentzel said he knew students in the videos and couldn’t believe how they were portrayed, considering their political savvy.
Sophomore Harley Emery echoed this point. “Seeing the answers that he showed and the different twisting he did on them made me really furious because I know it could have been any of us,” she said. “It could have been me up there being made a fool of.”
Mentzel, Emery and I decided to make a response video that showed that students aren’t politically ignorant and that there is a wide diversity in student opinions.
After the Oregon videos, Watters interviewed Donald Trump, saying he wanted to find out “What’s Donald Trump really like as a person.” Ironically, humanizing his subjects is exactly what many Oregon students said Watters failed to do.
“I’m just my one person, but there are so many other people who I’m sure had incredible, amazing points that they brought up,” said Lusby. “They just got reduced to their one slip-up, and that’s not fair to them. I love U of O. I love the people here, and everyone here has their own story and their own narrative and their own voice that I think it’s great for them to express.”
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a senior majoring in journalism and international studies with an African studies minor at the University of Oregon. In summer 2015, she interned at Today Newspaper in Accra, Ghana, through the Media in Ghana program. She spent the fall 2015 term in Morocco, where she wrote profiles on a visual artist and a political cartoonist. This past summer, she interned in New York City at Empathetic Media, a startup focused in augmented and virtual reality storytelling, and Paper magazine. She is currently managing editor for Ethos magazine, writes for Bitch Media (where she interned in 2014), covers arts and entertainment for Emerald Media, is a coach at the SOJC’s Writing Central and edits Dressed Up Ducks, the university’s style blog. She is also working on her Honors College thesis, which focuses on la SAPE, a social movement of well-dressed men that started in the two Congos.