On Fox News' "The Five," Jessica Tarlov is redefining the image of the sacrificial liberal

The new lefty face might be one against four on the right-wing channel, but she's winning fans with viral clapbacks

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 16, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Jessica Tarlov attends Fox News' "The Five" at Fox News Studios on June 28, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Jessica Tarlov attends Fox News' "The Five" at Fox News Studios on June 28, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

On Tuesday's episode of "The Five," the panel's lone liberal Jessica Tarlov pulled off a small miracle: she rendered Jeanine Pirro momentarily silent. Tarlov had been asked for her thoughts on the decision by Facebook and Instagram's parent company Meta to temporarily block searches for vaccine information on Threads, its newest platform.

"I think it's really distressing, especially considering the fact that a majority of Gen Z's go to social media for their information," Tarlov replied. "So if they're going, let's say to see when they're eligible for the next vaccine, or something that the government would want them to do, or these social media companies would want them to do, they can't get that information."

Tarlov went on to add that social media companies still need to figure out a system to stop the spread of disinformation, citing the false claims that USC Trojans basketball player Bronny James' recent collapse due to cardiac arrest during a practice was caused by the vaccine.

None of this part of the discussion or the segments preceding it made it into the brief clip tearing across X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Instead, it's what transpires in this 20-second exchange that lit up users. "And we need to find some safe middle ground where people know that the vaccine is safe for you," Tarlov says before being interrupted by Pirro's audibly disdainful "Ugh" at that remark.

"But you don't — what do you mean? You're fine, you're vaccinated," Tarlov tells Pirro as the camera captures her stony expression while Tarlov pushes her to respond. "What are you, 'ugh'-ing?" she asks, interrupting the uncomfortable silence with, "It's your turn."

At this, Pirro tries to quietly pass the ball to co-host Greg Gutfeld for the save with, "It's your, it's your segment."

Gutfeld refuses to help her. "I don't care," he shrugs. "I'm just here for the fun."

That much has been true since 2011, when Gutfeld became one of the Fox News show's inaugural co-hosts. He and Dana Perino are the longest-tenured network personalities on the team, two members of a primary hosting team that also includes Pirro and Jesse Watters.

As for that fifth chair's occupant, that thankless job was long occupied by Juan Williams before he left (or was pushed from) the show in 2021 and supposed moderate Geraldo Rivera rotated into his chair, along with former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. and Tarlov. Rivera was fired from "The Five" in late June, before quitting the network entirely,

Meanwhile, Tarlov's profile has quickly risen. It's easy to see why. She is the embodiment of the type of East Coast progressive Fox viewers have been conditioned to disdain: Tarlov has an undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr with a Ph.D. in Government from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She's also the daughter of the late Mark Tarlov, a film producer whose credits include the John Waters classics "Pecker" and "Cecil B. Demented."

Little of that matters to the people taking joy in Tarlov's viral rebukes of her co-hosts' nonsense, like when she deflated Watters' rant over her objection to Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s anti-vaccination rhetoric.

"It's actually kind of weird that you're so upset about what one Democrat thinks about vaccines!" Watters crows in a segment that aired in July. "You can do whatever you want with your body. You can do whatever you want with your kid's body. Your doctor can decide with you what to do with your body –"

"You're advocating for Roe," she retorts.

Tarlov gives as good as she gets, to the extent that she's able.

These exchanges have enabled Tarlov to do for "The Five" what the turbulent clips of the war between Meghan McCain and Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg did for "The View":  She's made the Fox News weeknight show part of the never-ending spilled tea party enlivening the pop culture commons.

This is not to say that the show has stopped generating bombast claiming that America is careening toward fascism under President Joe Biden and other right-wing lunacy; it wouldn't be a Fox product if that were the case. But Tarlov's representation makes the show more watchable for people who otherwise wouldn't bother to show up.

About that. More Democrats and self-described Independents are regular viewers of "The Five" than Republicans, according to Nielsen MRI Fusion viewership data measured between March 27 and July 30, 2023. 

For the same reasons liberal X enjoys her, Tarlov is the bane of conservative social media's constituency. That part's no surprise, being that she's a woman who comes prepared to each argument, often armed with data-driven notes and other receipts.

But many of those same people might also wonder what in the heck Tarlov, who heads research at Bustle Digital Group, is doing engaging in regular battles of wits with the unarmed, i.e. Pirro — a standard bearer for the Big Lie whose former weekend show's executive producer referred to her "nuts," according to documents related to the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit — along with a couple of alleged humorists who are "just here for the fun" and Perino. That's a lot to put up with, and to what end? Other than exposure and a healthy paycheck, I mean.

This has long been the position of the Fox News Liberal, that class pundit who convinces themselves or anybody who asks that the only way to bridge the partisan divide is to walk across to the other side's territory. But the planks on that bridge fell into disrepair long ago, rotted out by time, corrosive dishonesty and abuse. The list of people who have put on the sacrificial liberal mantle over the years contains enough prestigious entries to make you pause, stare into the distance, and feel the kind of sharp sorrow that dragged "Star Wars" leader Mon Mothma into a moment of silence as she observed, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information."

They include Democratic strategists James Carville and Donna Brazile. Carville's 2014 hire as a Fox contributor was met with a Washington Post headline that read, "Pundit James Carville prepares for further torture as Fox News contributor."

In 2019 Brazile explained her decision to journey into the heart of darkness to a skeptical New Yorker writer by insisting, "If you want to help the country, if you want to try to improve democracy, you have to go into places where you are uncomfortable and try to stir things up." Brazile lasted at the network for two years. Carville lasted less than one.

The loneliness of the all-purpose Fox liberal is challenging, a role Tarlov has played since 2017, cutting her teeth on the likes of "Hannity." But to play one on "The Five" is its own knot since, for the Democrat-friendly representative at the table, it's really Four Against One. This is a continuation of the model Roger Ailes set up at the network's launch – conservatives always outnumber liberals in any screaming match.

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"The Five " evolved from the ancient formulation that yielded "Hannity & Colmes," a one-to-one matchup in name only. Al Franken's 2003 book "Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them" made a running joke out of printing the late Alan Colmes' name in a tinier font than every other word in the book, demonstrating his weakness as a bulwark against dishonesty.

Ailes rigged the match in Sean Hannity's favor from the start – the show's working title back in 1996 was ''Hannity and LTBD," which stood for Liberal to Be Determined.

Nearly three decades later, and 14 years after Hannity became a solo act, "The Five" is Fox's top-rated show, which also makes it the top-rated program in cable news. Its four conservative hosts, each of whom helms (or in Pirro's case, helmed) popular programs at the network, are constants for the audience; Tarlov and Ford cycle into the chair on various days.

But Tarlov is better at making her minutes on the board count more than Ford, who's content to play the classic common-sense (read: boring) moderate. She gives as good as she gets, to the extent that she's able, and mixes with her co-hosts instead of exuding an air of tolerance or settling for being tolerated. 

The Fox Liberal can only do so much with the limited space they're allotted, and they're always outnumbered.

When Gutfeld sets up the COVID segment by asking her, "Jessica, why are you liberals trying to take our rights away? Whether it's guns or it's speech or it's private property, you see our rights as malleable, temporary, or up for grabs. What say you, you horrible, horrible person?"

She gamely replies, with a smile, "Happy Birthday." (It was, in fact, his birthday that day.)

Striking this comity with co-hosts who have built audiences with race-baiting, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia and peddling election conspiracy theories makes "The Five" more watchable than more openly hostile shows air the network. This is precisely why its success is unsettling. Regardless of the amount of factual corrective Tarlov manages to inject into these conversations she's still depicted as being in the minority, which is the image the network has long propped up as its personalities mainstream all the formerly fringe "-isms" listed above and more. 

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Any content-savvy consumer knows that a minute-long viral clapback doesn't tell the full story what happens on these shows. That viral clip that made the rounds this week is proof. Contrary to many characterizations of their exchange, Tarlov did not shut down Pirro entirely.

It was more a like speed bump, slowing down her co-host before Pirro tore into an alarmist rant that launched with, "The left, the Democrats, are like – they're like fascists at this point. They do not want us talking about COVID. They don't want us having a discourse on it," before ripping into Biden, the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General. She based this accusation on the Sept. 8 US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found the Biden administration may have violated the First Amendment in its efforts to curb the dissemination of COVID-19 disinformation on social media.

Federal courts block administrations from overstepping the law as a matter of course; it's their job. The previous presidential administration faced its share of injunctions against anti-democratic efforts including those related to the travel ban targeting Muslims and policies designed to thwart asylum seekers and the transgender military ban. Tarlov never had a chance to point out that Pirro didn't find those actions to be fascist, because Gutfeld threw the matter to Perino.

The Fox Liberal can only do so much with the limited space they're allotted, and they're always outnumbered. So the question isn't really what Tarlov believes she can achieve at Fox but what use Fox has for her. 

According to Tarlov's report in a Los Angeles Times profile published a year ago, a number of the show's viewers have been quite kind to her despite disagreeing with her politics. She probably won't change many minds, but she may at least speak for the 22 percent of the audience for "The Five" that Nielsen data indicates identifies as Democratic — which comes out to about one in five viewers. Those odds are about as fair as any Fox News liberal figure can expect.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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