How Jessica Tarlov of ‘The Five’ became a liberal star on Fox News

A few weeks ago, Jessica Tarlov, the co-host of hit Fox News talk show The Five, saw some social media posts speculating that she was about to be fired.

The 38-year-old commentator had just robustly defended President Biden’s record on the breezy roundtable program, which was watched by an average of 3.4 million daily viewers, the largest audience on cable news. As the most outspoken liberal Democrat and a regular on conservative Fox News, predictions of her death come with the territory.

But Tarlov isn’t going anywhere. The audience for The Five has grown 21% over last year, when she joined as co-host, alternating with the more moderate former Congressman Harold Ford and veteran journalist Geraldo Rivera. The trio replaced longtime Liberal spokesman Juan Williams, who remains a political analyst for the network.

While online criticism from viewers who disagree with Tarlov can be harsh, she believes audiences are increasingly understanding and accepting of her role.

“Big conservative accounts on Twitter aren’t necessarily going to approach me about personal things, they treat what I say as part of the dialogue,” Tarlov said in a recent interview at the network’s Manhattan headquarters. “It’s a change I think is important and obviously better than being told I’m too ugly to be on TV.”

Political debates used to be a staple of cable news, but increasing polarization has made audiences more tribal and less open to opposing views. “The Five,” which launched in 2011, is the last of those shows, pitting a liberal like Tarlov against right-wing regulars Jeanine Pirro, Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, who was criticized last year for his violent rhetoric when he tells a conservative conference how to get Dr. to confront Anthony Fauci.

Jessica Tarlow

Jeanine Pirro, Tarlov, Jesse Watters and Dana Perino on The Five.

(Rodrigo Cid / For the Times)

Tarlov said her background fits the stereotype of an elite liberal that Fox News commentators typically scoff at. Her father, Mark Tarlov, was a student when he wrote speeches for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. He later became a lawyer and worked in business affairs at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, where he met his wife, Judith Roberts. He produced two John Waters films while Roberts had a career as a screenwriter. He later became a winery owner.

The couple bought a former Bazzini Nuts factory in downtown Manhattan’s trendy Tribeca neighborhood and converted it into the 6,000-square-foot home and office where Tarlov and her sister Molly, who is now an actress, grew up. While her parents were making films, they did school homework for a month and spent time on film locations around the world.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Tarlov attended the London School of Economics, where she received her PhD in political science. Upon returning to the United States, Tarlov was hired by political pollster Doug Schoen, a longtime Fox News contributor presenting Democratic viewpoints.

Schoen encouraged Fox News executives to book Tarlov as he believed she would be a good fit as the liberal voice on the network. “She’s always lovely, but she’s also confident,” he said.

Tarlov eventually landed a regular segment on Sean Hannity’s prime-time program, and the host became a fan. “She contributed a lot to the show,” Hannity said. “You’re dealing with someone who’s going to come in with solid arguments on their side, and I love that about her.”

Although he welcomed Tarlov as a guest and introduced her to other producers within the network, Hannity cannot recall when she changed his mind on an issue.

“It’s very hard for people to get me to change my mind,” Hannity said.

Many Fox News fans are similarly hardened in their positions, given a constant diet of segments detailing Democrats’ environmental policies, President Biden’s handling of border crossing and inflation, Hunter Biden’s transgressions, rising crime rates, and educational plans seen as too bright to be blown up. The Five is far from being a balanced forum as 80% of the opinions presented agree with the conservative principles heard on the network throughout the day.

The question arises whether Tarlov’s efforts to present an alternative position on the net can really prevail.

The network points to Nielsen data that says about 20% of The Five audiences identify as Democrat. The show also ranks first on cable news among viewers who identify as independent of their political affiliation.

“We have a larger audience of Democratic viewers than I think anyone would expect,” said Megan Albano, executive producer of The Five.

Still, they ask Tarlov’s like-minded friends and colleagues why their television home is Fox News – a network sued by two voting software and equipment companies for defamation for reporting false claims of former President Trump’s voter fraud. Her response is that she feels responsible for giving Fox viewers what may be her only exposure to what’s going on in Democratic politics that doesn’t come through a conservative lens.

“They don’t spend their time trying to find it elsewhere,” Tarlov said. “It’s hard to tell people things they don’t want to hear. It’s my job to find a way that’s heard, tasty, and maybe even compelling. It’s a four-on-one game, but showing up counts.”

A big fan of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tarlov believes their views represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party. She said she was never told by Fox News executives what to say on the air.

“I can’t be anything other than a tall Jewish girl from Tribeca,” she said. “But motherhood and parenthood brought a new column to the board that made me see the world in a completely different way and definitely didn’t make me more conservative in that regard. I want more opportunities, more opportunities for the next generation, and I’m sure the Democrats are the ones providing that.”

On the day the Supreme Court issued its decision overturning Roe vs. Wade and constitutional abortion rights, The Five producers made sure to give pro-Tarlov a forum. “It was in everyone’s ears, ‘Let her say what she has to say,'” Tarlov said.

When a topic is discussed on The Five, the other co-hosts usually come first, before Tarlov’s turn. She listens while making notes on a legal pad to prepare her answer. A former pollster and current vice president of research and consumer insights at Bustle Digital Group, she confidently packs data and facts into every answer.

Pen in hand, she gestures in the air, making sure she has enough space to get her rebuttals across while the show’s more irreverent co-hosts Gutfeld and Watters try to distract her with a snazzy comment.

Tarlov plays with the breaks, believing them to be part of the program’s appeal.

“The point of the show is that it mimics real life,” Tarlov said. “And when you talk to people in your life, whether it’s family or friends, especially people with different views, all aspects of your personality come into play. I think it’s funny. As long as I can make sure I don’t really get thrown off course and don’t finish my point, I like the back and forth.”

The tone of “The Five” is generally easygoing, but Tarlov will take a firm stand when any of the other co-hosts spread misinformation. (“Screaming it doesn’t make it true,” she said to the brazen Pirro, who insisted former President Trump was cooperating in the investigation of government documents he stashed in Mar-a-Lago.)

The occasional tension doesn’t seem to last and the off-camera interactions are cordial. After Tarlov became a mother for the first time late last year, Pirro brought her baby formula when it ran out on store shelves.

“You can’t have a cast that doesn’t really get along,” Albano said.

Since Tarlov joined The Five, she has seen major changes in her life. During the pandemic, she began a relationship with her neighbor Brian McKenna, a hedge fund manager who soon became her husband and the father of their child.

“When we were looking at the engagement rings, the jeweler told me they’ve never been this busy with people who just met,” she said.

Shortly after their marriage, her father died after a battle with cancer. She had hoped to study with him to earn another PhD at Columbia University. Tarlov’s appearances on Fox News made Mark Tarlov so nervous that her mother had to watch them first before he would watch.

The personal details of “The Five” co-hosts leak into the program — Tarlov’s co-hosts gave her an on-air baby shower — and audiences take notice. Tarlov breaks down in tears as she describes the hand-crocheted blankets viewers sent for her daughter. Some came with notes saying they dislike her politics but expressed complete confidence in her abilities as a mother.

“These are suddenly not Joe Biden voters,” Tarlov said. “I’m not naive enough to think about it. But that’s what makes this job so much fun. I would never meet Dolores from Las Vegas who watches The Five every day and has moved to spend her time knitting this blanket for my future child without speaking to people who don’t see the world that way like i do. And to be part of their daily life like that is a great honor.” How Jessica Tarlov of ‘The Five’ became a liberal star on Fox News

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