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Troubling Beliefs Aren’t a Dealbreaker in the Case of ‘Judge Jeanine’ on Fox (Column)

Variety logo Variety 4/4/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

On the morning of March 25, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Watch @JudgeJeanine on @FoxNews tonight at 9:00 P.M.” Trump’s tweets are usually a bit punchier than this teasing logline, and at first it seemed like perhaps he was promising a guest appearance on the show.

Instead, viewers tuned in to hear a dressing-down for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Jeanine Pirro — host of “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” commentator on several Fox News shows, and celebrity judge-type extraordinaire — began her show by lambasting Ryan: “Speaker Ryan, you come in with all your swagger and experience and you sell ’em a bill of goods, which ends up a complete and total failure.”

“Folks, I want to be clear,” she says, folding her hands on her desk. “This is not on President Trump.”

This praise of the President — while laying the blame for his actions elsewhere — is not surprising from Pirro, a longtime Trump supporter who boosted him throughout the long 2016 election. But it throws into sharp relief what is surprising : Pirro is not just a Fox News commentator but now a broadcast game show host. The primetime show, “You the Jury,” will debut April 7 and present civil cases that the viewing audience can then vote on.

In the first two episodes released to critics, Pirro is not acting as a judge or lawyer on “You the Jury.” Instead she is a host — mediating between the audience and the “court proceedings” on stage, introducing the major players and transitioning between commercial breaks and the show’s different segments . She does not partake in the trial proceedings. The show gives the court-like staging the full Hollywood treatment, with dramatic music, game-show spotlights, and a live audience. Statements from the “prosecution” and “defense” get hoots and applause from the watching crowd.

As terrible as this is, it pales in comparison to how troubling it is that Pirro is about to get a showcase spot on a broadcast network. “Judge Jeanine” embodies every criticism made bothnarrowly about Fox News and more broadly about theconservative media ecosystem of the last 20 years: She is inflammatory, selectively truthful, and jingoistic.

What’s notable about Pirro’s hiring for “You the Jury” is not simply that she was tapped to host a legal show, but that her prior remarks did not immediately disqualify her for a role on the mainstream, broadcast, primetime stage. After all, there are any number of commentators in Hollywood with a legal mind who might have filled the role. Indeed, the legal mind is not even strictly necessary. As evidenced in the first two episodes, Pirro is not “Judge Jeanine” in “You the Jury” — she serves a Ryan Seacrest-like mediator. 

Does Pirro’s hiring indicate that mainstream entertainment is becoming more accepting of celebrities with reactionary views? There are exceptional examples of Pirro’s biases. In January 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Pirro taped a segment that begins with the words “We need to kill them.” After a diatribe about Islamic terrorists, she begins to lay into Muslims of all stripes, using the phrase “Islamic cancer.”

“Muslim groups like CAIR and the Nation of Islam have been integrated into our society. Muslims were even invited to worship at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “They have conquered us through immigration. They have conquered us through interfaith dialogue.”

In the same segment, Pirro asserts that there is a Christian genocide ( true ) that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocents in the Middle East ( not true ) and that there will be American efforts to limit the First Amendment to “comply with Sharia blasphemy laws” (also not true). In that vein, Pirro goes on:  “They can kill us, but we can’t hurt their feelings? I’m surprised there isn’t a new executive order that simply says ‘don’t offend Muslims.’”

As troubling as these statements may be, they have unfortunately become commonplace for commentators on cable news networks. This inflamed rhetoric has fueled ratings. But there’s a distinction between the bubble of cable news and broadcast television; broadcast TV is still held to the standard of serving the public interest, as stations rely on the public airwaves. Giving a voice in an entertainment setting to someone with such a volatile track record seems a questionable choice, at best.

I asked Fox if they were aware of Pirro’s past statements when they agreed to hire her — and how Muslim contestants and participants would be treated on “You the Jury.” Fox declined to comment. It does not appear that there are any Muslim contestants or participants in the first two episodes of “You the Jury,” which Fox released to critics.

The decision to hire Pirro indicates that the network is looking to capitalize on her following and is willing to risk turning off viewers who might be offended by her past statements on Fox News. To be sure, maybe Pirro has promised to be accepting and impartial on “You the Jury.” But on the other hand, that’s not what has made her famous. 

What’s particularly disappointing is that Fox has been one of the networks most committed to inclusive casting for its scripted shows. It has had great success with shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Empire,” both of which prominently feature underrepresented demographics.

“You the Jury” promises viewers that it will take on some of the most controversial issues of the day, like privacy online against internet trolls, and constitutional rights clashing with homophobia. It will also be asking viewers to judge whether or not Pirro is an acceptable host for a primetime show aimed at Americans of all stripes. In that sense, yes: We will have to be the jury.

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