We finally met Bill O'Reilly's stalker-producer Jesse Watters on Saturday. It was a fleeting and civil encounter—jovial, even—but ultimately unsatisfying. We asked him some questions about his stalking, and then he drove away, because he's a coward.
We arrived at Watters' house, nestled on a lovely suburban cul-de-sac deep among the winding byways of Huntington, N.Y., bright and early at 6 a.m. Your blogger was accompanied by Gawker video editor Richard Blakeley and P.J. Vogt, a producer for WNYC's "On the Media" who had asked to shadow us for a segment the show is preparing about ambush interviews. We'd traded in the beat-up 1998 Saturn station wagon festooned with Obama bumper stickers that we'd driven on our previous outings for a rental SUV with tinted windows, which was less likely to attract attention in Watters' neighborhood. We parked in a spot down the street from Watters' house with a good vantage point, and waited.
At about 8:45 a.m., Watters walked out on to his driveway with his wife, Noelle, and we hopped out to talk to him. When Watters ambushes people, he rushes at them in a deliberate attempt to rattle them, and asks hostile questions. Not being complete dicks, we decided to approach it differently. We introduced ourselves, said hello, and calmly approached him. He got in his car and drove away. We could have engaged some of the tactics that Fox has used in these situations—by say, running to meet him at his car and positioning ourselves so that he couldn't close the door—but we didn't want to, because we weren't trying to engineer a confrontation. We were trying to engineer an interview.
Even though Jesse didn't submit to that interview, we did get one answer: His hurried departure leaves no doubt in our minds that his ambush tactics have nothing to do with the answers he claims to be seeking from O'Reilly's enemies and everything to do with the theater of humiliation that Fox News thrives on and the us-against-them "culture war" that his boss believes he is waging. If Watters honestly believed that people like ThinkProgress blogger Amanda Terkel and the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg—two targets that he ambushed without even inviting them on O'Reilly's show first—have an obligation to answer for the things they do and say in the name of journalism, he would have recognized that obligation in himself. If he honestly believed that people ought to defend themselves to his cameras, he would have been happy to defend himself. And if he honestly believed that stalking and ambushing is a noble pursuit, he would have treated his own ambushers with professional courtesy and let us use his bathroom. (OK, we wouldn't have let us use the bathroom either.)
But Watters doesn't believe that—he believes the people he stalks are the enemy, to be attacked or evaded as necessary. His segments are just partisan shitfights and grist for Fox's enraged audience. Watters is unconcerned about the accusation that he can dish out ambushes but can't take them, because he knows perfectly well that his ambushes are assaults and not, as Fox's bullshit PR would have it, attempts to get answers. And why would he just sit there and let himself be attacked? So he drove away, like a coward.
We'd been trying to talk to Watters for two months, because we wanted to ask him some questions about his job. Watters stalks and sneaks up on unsuspecting enemies of Bill O'Reilly and peppers them with questions so that his boss can air footage of them appearing to be flustered and confused. He did it to Terkel, a who wrote something O'Reilly didn't like, after tailing her for two hours on a weekend getaway. He did it to Bill Arkin, an NBC News analyst and Washingtonpost.com columnist who wrote something that O'Reilly didn't like, in front of his children after following him for 90 minutes across state lines. And he did it to Hertzberg by laying in wait outside his New York apartment.
Watters has applied the same technique of leaping out of nowhere with a camera, a microphone, and a barrage of tendentious questions to dozens of others, from mayors to judges to governors to members of Congress, all of whom have crossed O'Reilly in word or in deed. When he caught Mike Nifong, the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case, in his bathrobe and slippers outside his home, he later said he thought it was funny. When Watters ambushed Meyera Oberndorf, the mayor of Virginia Beach, Va., at her home and her husband tried to grab his mic, he thought it would make "great TV."
Watters and O'Reilly justify these tactics by saying that because their targets won't submit to interviews, they have no choice but to seek them out: "If they don't come to us," Watters has written, "we'll go to them." That is, as we've noted before, a lie: Neither Terkel nor Hertzberg ever received an invitation to appear on O'Reilly's program.
In April, the New York Times ran a story on Fox's penchant for ambush interviews. Watters declined to be interviewed for it. We found his refusal cowardly beyond measure, given that his job is to force people who don't want to be interviewed to submit to his questions. We called him up to see if he'd talk to us, and he again refused. We decided that if he wouldn't come to us, we'd go to him. So we drove out to Long Island a couple times to pay him a visit, but because we were a) gentlemen enough to give him fair warning of our intentions and b) fairly incompetent when it comes to stalking people, we whiffed. But we met some of his neighbors, who despite calling the cops on us were very friendly. We also met some representatives of local law enforcement, who despite pointing their service weapons at us were very friendly, and who wished us luck when we told them why we were there.
Though we'd still love to actually ask Jesse questions about why he does what he does, and how he does it, we're done with the 4 a.m. wake-up calls to drive out to Long Island and sit on his house. We've made our point. But that doesn't mean Jesse shouldn't have to answer for what he does. So if you ever happen to run into him—maybe on the streets of downtown Huntington, N.Y., or on the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan from Huntington, or around the News Corp. building at Sixth Avenue and 48th St. in Manhattan, or near his parents' summer home in Pemaquid, Maine—don't be afraid to politely and calmly walk up to him and ask him why he stalks people.
Let us know what he says.