Fox News host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows earlier this year when he declared that he may not be interested in hosting his ratings juggernaut “The O’Reilly Factor” for much longer.
When the cable news heavyweight eventually decides to retire, a piece of his legacy will live on in a protegee groomed for Fox News stardom: Jesse Watters.
“I think he’s either living vicariously through me, or he’s reliving things he did back in the day,” Watters said of O’Reilly.
Over the past decade, Watters’ segments — dubbed “Watters World” by O’Reilly himself — have become an integral part of the broadcast, bookending “The O’Reilly Factor” twice a week.
Ranging several minutes, “Watters World” finds the Fox correspondent interviewing and poking fun at average people on the street in primarily liberal enclaves, often college campuses or various neighborhoods in New York City. Recent episodes showed Watters interviewing Canadians about President-elect Donald Trump, and interviewing veterans at Hampshire College protesting the school’s decision to take down the flag following Trump’s election.
Watters also serves as an extension of O’Reilly during ambush interview segments, unafraid to get into his interview subject’s face with aggressive questions, and unrelenting particularly when his questions are unwelcome.
“When the cause is just and there’s been injustice, then it’s easy to kind of galvanize your emotions and confront a guy. And it’s intense and there’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but those usually make a big splash,” Watters told Business Insider in an interview in December.
O’Reilly will often tease the segments, which are stacked at the back of the program “because people stick around for it.”
According to Watters, O’Reilly generates many of the ideas for the segments himself, and often has visuals and locations in mind.
“Usually he’ll say, like, ‘This is kind of how I want you to approach it,’ and then he’ll give me one line, and then I have to fill in the rest,” Watters said. “Bill is very understanding of the backdrop of the segment. I think because he was a field guy for so many years, he’s very interested in aesthetics behind the Watters World, where it’s being shot, why it’s being shot there.”
But while 2016 was what Watters described as a banner year for the show, racking up high ratings and scoring interviews with high-profile guests like then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Watters has also found his brand of man-on-the-street and ambush interviews under greater scrutiny.
In October, Watters ignited a firestorm of criticism over a man-on-the-street segment he shot in New York’s Chinatown.
Ostensibly dispatched to discuss China’s role in the 2016 presidential election, Watters instead engaged in what critics suggested were derogatory, dated racial stereotypes of Asian-Americans. He quizzed people about whether it was the “year of the dragon,” inquired about karate lessons, and asked whether he was supposed to bow to Asian passerbys he saw on the street.
Though he offered a fairly restrained apology in October, Watters characterized the segment as a mistake and a learning experience.
“I was surprised, at the time, with the blowback,” Watters told Business Insider. “I didn’t see it coming, and that’s on me. I understand I did offend a lot of people, and I’m very sorry for that. People took issue with some of the statements I made, and some of the reaction to the Chinatown segment and I understand that. And it’s a learning experience, I definitely learned a lot from it. But it’s a new day and we are moving forward with it.”
He added: “It’s a controversial segment, Watters World. There’s controversy around it. There’s controversy around Fox, I understand that. But I listen to people, and I never want to intentionally cause anybody to be upset. I was never my intention to hurt people’s feelings. And I regret that I did hurt people’s feelings.”
Asked if he would have conducted himself differently, Watters paused.
“I would, but I don’t want to dissect this segment, I think it’s been dissected,” he replied.
It wasn’t the first time this year critics targeted Watters, whose ambush-style interviews have not always sat well with some media critics and journalists — at one point, the Fox News correspondent found himself in a brief physical altercation with Huffington Post editor Ryan Grim over Watters’ years-old ambush of Huffington Post editor Amanda Terkel.
More recently, Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple admonished Watters for eschewing a traditional sit-down or phone interview in favor of an ambush. Wemple took issue with Watters’ decision to stick his foot into the president of Hampshire College’s private residence during an ambush interview about the college’s decision not to fly the American flag.
Asked about the criticism, Watters indicated he did not know who Wemple was, and noted that just days after the segment aired, Hampshire reversed course.
“I’ll let that speak for itself,” Watters said.
Watters added: “I don’t pay attention to a lot of that stuff that they write. It doesn’t really bother me that much. I stand by my work, especially the confrontations. There are heroes and villains out there in the media landscape, in the news landscape, in the political landscape. People sometimes get called out, they react how they react. And I’m proud of what I do.”
Viewers of “The O’Reilly Factor” and Fox News itself have been equally unshaken by critics, teeing up Watters for perhaps one of his biggest career years.
The correspondent will reprise his role as anchor during Fox’s New Year’s Eve special, and is set to make his debut on O’Reilly’s nationwide comedy tour. Watters has also been able to maintain the ratings dominance of “The O’Reilly Factor” when filling in for the bombastic host, easily besting CNN and MSNBC when anchoring the show in December.
Watters himself hinted at a potentially larger role at the network in the coming year.
“Whatever Fox wants me to do, I’ll do,” Watters said. “I’m just going to keep working hard, keep my head down. There may be a few surprises coming up in the new year, you’ll have to stay tuned for that. You may be seeing a little bit more of me.”
For the moment, Watters is anticipating how the incoming administration’s politics will affect many of his man-on-the-street segments, which have often revolved around questioning liberal dogma and Obama administration policies.
Though he said that poking fun at the left “never gets old,” he acknowledged that he was “getting a little tired” of soliciting responses to Obama administration practices.
“I think it’s time for a change, Watters said. “I think Donald Trump is going to make Waters World great again. Because it’s going to be a new dynamic on the streets. and that’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s definitely going to turn the whole thing upside down, and that’ll be a new challenge.”
Disclosure: This reporter briefly worked as a fellow at The Huffington Post.