A few weeks ago Jessica Tarlov, the co-host of the hit Fox News talk show “The Five,” saw some social media posts speculating that she would soon be fired.
The 38-year-old commentator had just given a robust defense of President Biden’s record on the breezy roundtable program watched by an average of 3.4 million viewers daily, the largest audience in cable news. As the most outspoken liberal Democrat regularly seen on the conservative Fox News, predictions of her demise 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 a co-host, alternating with the more moderate former congressman Harold Ford and veteran journalist Geraldo Rivera. The trio replaced longtime liberal voice Juan Williams, who remains a political analyst to the network.
While online critiques from viewers who disagree with Tarlov can be harsh, she believes the audience increasingly understands and accepts her role.
“Big conservative accounts on Twitter won't necessarily come at me about personal things, but are treating what I'm saying as part of the dialogue,” Tarlov said in a recent interview at the network’s Manhattan headquarters. “It’s a shift that I think is important, and obviously preferable to being told that I’m too ugly to be on television.”
Political debate used to be a staple of cable news, but increased polarization has made the audience more tribal and less open to listening to opposing views. “The Five,” launched in 2011, is the last of such shows, with a liberal such as Tarlov facing off against right-leaning regulars Jeanine Pirro, Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, who was criticized last year for using violent rhetoric when telling a conservative conference how to confront Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Tarlov said her background fits the stereotype of an elite liberal that Fox News commentators typically deride. Her father, Mark Tarlov, was a college student when he wrote speeches for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. He later became an attorney working in business affairs at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, where he met his wife, Judith Roberts. He went on to produce two John Waters movies while Roberts had a career as a screenwriter. Later in life, he became a vineyard owner.
The couple bought a former Bazzini Nuts factory in the trendy downtown Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca and converted it into a 6,000-square-foot home and office, where Tarlov and her sister, Molly, now an actress, grew up. As their parents made films, they would take a month’s worth of homework assignments from school and spend time on film shoot locations around the world.
A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Tarlov attended the London School of Economics where she earned a PhD in political science. After returning to the U.S., Tarlov was hired by political pollster Doug Schoen, who was a longtime Fox News contributor presenting Democratic viewpoints.
Schoen encouraged Fox News executives to book Tarlov, believing she would be a good fit as a liberal voice on the network. "She’s always gracious but she’s also assertive," he said.
Tarlov eventually landed a regular segment on Sean Hannity’s prime time program and the host became a fan. “She brought a lot to the show," Hannity said. "You’re dealing with someone who is going to come in with solid arguments on their side and I love that about her.”
Even though he welcomed Tarlov as a guest and touted her to other producers within the network, Hannity can’t recall a time when she altered his opinion 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 as they get a steady diet of segments blasting the Democrats’ environmental policy, President Biden’s handling of border crossings and inflation, Hunter Biden’s transgressions, rising crime rates and education curricula seen as too woke. “The Five” is far from being a balanced forum, as 80% of the opinions presented are in line with the conservative tenets heard on the network throughout the day.
It raises the question of whether Tarlov’s efforts to present an alternative position on the network can really cut through.
The network points to Nielsen data that says about 20% of "The Five" audience identifies as Democratic. The show also ranks first in cable news among viewers who describe their political affiliation as independent.
"We have a larger audience of Democratic viewers than I think anyone would expect," said Megan Albano, executive producer of "The Five."
Still, Tarlov’s like-minded friends and colleagues ask her why Fox News is her TV home — a network being sued for defamation by two voting software and equipment companies over its reporting on former President Trump’s bogus voter fraud claims. Her answer is she feels a responsibility to give Fox viewers what may be their only exposure to what’s going on in Democratic politics that isn’t through a conservative lens.
"They're not spending their time finding it elsewhere,” Tarlov said. “It's hard to tell people things they don't want to hear. It is my job and figuring out a way to do it that will be listened to, palatable and maybe even persuasive. It's four-on-one, but showing up matters,”
A big fan of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tarlov believes her views represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party. She said she has never been told by Fox News executives what to say on the air.
"I can't be anything else but a tall Jewish girl from Tribeca," she said. "But motherhood and parenting has put a new column on the board that has made me see the world completely differently and definitely has not made me more conservative in that view whatsoever. I want more possibilities, more opportunities for the next generation, and I'm sure of the fact that Democrats are the ones that offer that."
On the day the Supreme Court issued its decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion, "The Five" producers made sure the pro-choice Tarlov was given a forum. "It got in everyone's ear, 'Let her say whatever she has to say,'" Tarlov said.
When an issue is discussed on “The Five,” the other co-hosts typically weigh in first before Tarlov gets her turn. She listens while jotting down notes on a legal pad to prepare her response. As a former pollster and currently vice president of research and consumer insights at the Bustle Digital Group, she confidently packs data and facts into every response.
With pen in hand, she’ll gesticulate in the air, making sure she has the space to get her rebuttals across while the show’s more irreverent co-hosts Gutfeld and Watters try to distract her with a smart-ass comment.
Tarlov rolls with the interruptions and believes they are part of the program's appeal.
“The point of the show is that it mimics real life,” Tarlov said. “And when you're talking to people in your life, whether it's family or it's friends, especially people with different points of views, all aspects of your personality are heaped into it. I find it funny. As long as I can ensure that I am not actually thrown off and don't get to finish my point, I like the back-and-forth."
The tone of “The Five” is generally light, but Tarlov will take a firm stand when one of the other co-hosts spouts misinformation. (“Yelling it doesn't make it true,” she said to the brash Pirro, who insisted former President Trump was cooperating with the investigation into the government documents he stowed away at Mar-a-Lago.)
The occasional tension apparently doesn’t linger and off-camera interactions are cordial. After Tarlov became a mother for the first time late last year, Pirro brought her baby formula when it was in short supply on store shelves.
"You can't have a cast that doesn't genuinely get along," Albano said.
Since joining “The Five,” Tarlov has experienced major changes in her life. During the pandemic, she began a relationship with her next door neighbor, Brian McKenna, a hedge fund executive who soon became her husband and the father of her child.
"When we went to look at engagement rings, the jeweler told me they've never been so busy with people who have just met," she said.
Soon after their wedding, her father died after a battle with cancer. She had been hoping 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 view them first before he would watch.
The personal details of “The Five” co-hosts seep into the program — Tarlov’s co-hosts gave her an on-air baby shower — and the audience notices. Tarlov tears up as she describes the hand-crocheted blankets viewers have sent for her daughter. Some came with notes saying they don’t like her politics, but expressed full confidence in her ability as a mom.
“Those aren't Joe Biden voters suddenly,” Tarlov said. “I'm not naïve enough to think of that. But that's why this job is so fun. I would never know Dolores from Las Vegas, who watches ‘The Five’ every day, and was moved to spend her time knitting this blanket for my to-be child, without speaking to people who don't see the world the way that I do. And to be part of their daily life like that is a huge honor.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.