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On a Friday morning in April, Fox News talk host Jesse Watters walked onstage to a room stuffed with hundreds of insurance executives and agents. Watters was the featured speaker at a breakfast for the Big “I” Legislative Conference, the signature annual event hosted by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, where he was invited to participate in an interview with the organization’s retiring president, Bob Rusbuldt.
Watters — who Fox News this week promoted to the all-important 8pm hour — began his interview with Rusbuldt at the Renaissance Washington hotel as expected. The gathered audience, which included a healthy contingent of conservatives, was excited to see Watters speak. But matters quickly took a turn, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.
Watters, who has a history of making offensive remarks on Fox News, made a crude comment questioning the gender of Vice President Kamala Harris, the people said. The gross attempt at humor prompted some laughs, but also outrage.
Some executives, many of whom planned to attend a diversity and inclusion luncheon later in the day, squirmed in their seats as a wave of awkwardness washed over the audience. Others walked out of the room and conveyed to the trade association that they were appalled at the behavior exhibited by Watters.
“It was an epic meltdown afterward,” one of the people familiar with the matter told me. “The organization went into damage control.”
The chat between Watters and Rusbuldt, which continued on after the appalling remark, had immediate consequences. Rusbuldt, who was set to officially retire in August, apologized to those gathered at the diversity-focused luncheon later that day. But ultimately it was not enough to quell the outrage. He was later quietly sidelined from most duties at the insurance organization.
John Costello, the chairman of the association, condemned what transpired onstage with Watters: “The association acted quickly and decisively following the incident, and the interview session conducted at our event does not reflect the culture and values of the Big I,” Costello said in a statement.
When asked for comment on Wednesday, a Fox News spokesperson told me that Watters had “no recollection” of the events.
“In fact, the unscripted Q&A he participated in was well received with executives thanking him profusely afterward, enthusiastically taking photos, and presenting him with an award,” the network spokesperson said. “He was told it was one of the best talks they’ve ever held and never received feedback from the organization or his speaking agent after the event.”
Regardless, the circumstances surrounding the event are representative of a larger phenomena occurring in America today.
On Fox News, and in the larger right-wing media universe, the degrading comments Watters was said to have spewed onstage are par for the course. The audience, which has become increasingly desensitized to the incendiary rhetoric in recent years, eats it up.
In fact, that affection for Watters and the brand of conservatism that he represents, is borne out in the numbers. Watters is one of Fox News’ highest-rated and most visible hosts, and largely why he was promoted this week to the prime time perch previously occupied by Tucker Carlson.
Outside the Fox News bubble, however, Watters and the divisive comments that he peddles for a living are far less popular. In fact, to those outside the right-wing media bubble, questioning the gender of the first female and Black vice president is seen as downright inappropriate and utterly reprehensible. And there are consequences for those who make such remarks.
The events that transpired after Watters’ appearance at the insurance breakfast underscores that split in society. “Jesse got promoted,” the person familiar with the matter said. “Bob essentially got fired.”
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