As co-host of the sometimes-rowdy daily talk show The Five on Fox News, Jesse Watters is no stranger to making provocative remarks, but his comments on Wednesday's episode have drawn an unusually heated response.
Watters weighed in during a discussion about the backlash to the forthcoming movie Richard Jewell, which portrays a female journalist sleeping with an FBI source to land a big story, a portrayal that her former employer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has protested as inaccurate and offensive. (Warner Bros. has defended the portrayal.)
Watters said that female journalists sleep with sources "all the time." He added, "It happens, a lot," and mentioned by name a female New York Times reporter. "Ali Watkins was a reporter for many, many years, at many distinguished publications," he said. "She slept with one of her sources, allegedly, for four years and broke a lot of scoops, according to this Politico report here. So, it happens a lot, and it happens a lot in movies and TV shows."
Watters' comments quickly lit up social media. A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the remarks, but groups that advocate for female journalists — and television news veterans who do the same — have hit back in comments made to The Hollywood Reporter.
"It is totally beyond the pale," said Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation, in an interview. "It's such a trope, it's so tired, and why is it coming out now? ... I don't think it's any different than any other way that professional women are maligned in any profession, which is that a woman can't possibly do her job well if she's not also using her body to get ahead."
Carolyn McGourty Supple, who co-founded the group Press Forward to advocate for safe and respectful newsroom environments, said, "I think it's an incredibly harmful stereotype and it was irresponsible to say on air. It sounded anecdotal and not based in reality. Saying stuff like that has very harmful effects."
Added McGourty Supple, "In reality, women journalists are more likely to be sexually harassed by their sources and face verbal abuse and threats online. This is what drives female journalists around the world to leave the field when they are already underrepresented in the press."
"These types of misogynistic stereotypes are an insult to female journalists and are part of the reason that women still face disparities across every professional industry,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women.
Tema L. Staig, executive director of the group Women in Media, called Watters a "gaslighting gasbag," adding, "He doesn’t rate, and I wouldn’t give his comments a second thought."
"This statement is absolutely disgraceful," said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist who served as a Fox News contributor (appearing often on The Five) before suing the network for sexual harassment in 2017. "Of course, in his mind, female journalists must resort to feminine wiles to get the scoop, because it can't be possible that women can actually break stories because of their tenacity and brain power. There is a profound cultural shift that is happening in the United States today, where women won't stand for that kind of rhetoric any longer. I'm only sorry that this movement seems to have escaped the notice of some people at 1211 Avenue of the Americas."
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who is working with Roginsky on an anti-NDA effort, said that Watters' remarks show that "Fox continues to reward idiocy and misogyny — over women. This is insane."
During the Wednesday evening segment, Watters' co-host Juan Williams responded: "I do have a problem with what you said. I don't think that most women reporters..." — to which Watters replied, "I don't say most women reporters. Male reporters could do it, too. I'm just saying it happens. I'm saying it's happened many times in the past." (Katie Pavlich then described the discussion as "off the rails.")
Munoz applauded the social media pushback to Watters' comments and praised the AJC's strong protest of the film's depiction of their former reporter, the late Kathy Scruggs.
"I think it has to do with being fed up with journalists being portrayed as anything other as professional and it has to do with the #MeToo movement and female journalists pushing back on these portrayals," she said. "In general, there's much more awareness of how detrimental these kind of comments are and really an attempt to educate individuals."
Shaunna Thomas, executive director of UltraViolet, said that Fox News "should take a cue from their own women journalists and hold Watters accountable for this outrageous and sexist statement."
S.E. Cupp, a conservative anchor for CNN, also took issue with Watters' comments on Twitter. "This is a really disgusting, baseless charge, and one Fox should denounce for the sake of its own female reporters," she said.
Watters has not addressed the backlash, and The Five was pre-empted on Thursday by live congressional impeachment coverage.
Dec. 12, 5:21 p.m. Updated with Toni Van Pelt quote.