The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas Democrat called out Fox News on Fox News. He says he hadn’t planned on it.

A 32-year-old state representative, James Talarico, accused host Pete Hegseth of profiting off ‘lies and conspiracy theories’

The headquarters of the Fox News Channel in New York City. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Something unusual happened during the 7 p.m. hour on Fox News on Tuesday night.

Host Pete Hegseth was pressing Texas state Rep. James Talarico about his decision to flee Austin with dozens of other Democratic lawmakers this week — a procedural gambit intended to block Republicans from passing strict voting laws back home.

The on-screen graphic called the Democrats’ exodus to Washington, D.C., a “stunt,” and Hegseth’s interview with the 32-year-old lawmaker made it clear he agreed.

“We know you met with [Democratic Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi today,” the host told Talarico. “You’ve been told to say you’re protecting democracy, that Republicans are authoritarian and racist. … It kind of seems they’re using you as a prop, or a puppet.”

Talarico tried to argue his case — that former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the November election was rigged against him had inspired Republicans in Texas and other states to launch legislative attacks against voting rights. But all the while, Hegseth smirked, laughed into the camera and constantly interrupted his guest.

It was standard Fox opinion fare — until about six minutes into the interview, when Talarico turned the tables.

“You have made a lot of money personally and you’ve enriched a lot of corporations with advertising by getting on here and spewing lies and conspiracy theories to folks who trust you,” Talarico told Hegseth.

He then gave the host a challenge: “Tell your voters right now that Donald Trump lost the election.”

Hegseth did not. The longtime Fox host had said in November that it was “premature to declare that Joe Biden is the president-elect,” even after his own network had called the race.

Sensing the host’s reluctance, Talarico pounced. “Is this an uncomfortable question for you?” he asked.

Talarico received plaudits from Democrats on social media for his performance, which quickly went viral. A version of the segment shared by Talarico on Twitter had been viewed approximately 700,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon.

Hegseth seemed less pleased. “It’s not your show, sir,” he told Talarico at one point in the interview. “I don’t really feel any obligation to answer anything from you.”

The clash felt like a throwback to a bygone era in cable news — when cross-partisan rumbles were common on Fox opinion shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor,” hosted by flamethrower Bill O’Reilly. They have become less common in recent years, as Democratic politicians have largely steered clear of Fox opinion shows, even while appearing with some regularity on the network’s news programs.

Talarico told The Washington Post he had no intention of clashing with Hegseth when he went into the interview. “I’m a former teacher, so I’m very conflict-averse typically,” he said. “That kind of stuff makes me anxious.”

The Democrat said he initially thought the appearance would be an opportunity to get his message across to constituents who watch Fox — but soon realized that Hegseth had no intention of letting him do so.

“I just kind lost my temper a little bit when I was being interrupted,” he said. “The train jumped the tracks a little bit during the interview. I think I got angry. And I don’t like to get angry. … I didn’t anticipate the level of disruption, interruption and unwillingness to even listen to each other. The aggressiveness is what took me aback.”

Talarico, who brushed up on Hegseth’s background quickly before the interview by watching a video of him on YouTube, said he discerned quickly that the host “was not interested in having a conversation.”

The lawmaker said he was surprised that Hegseth did not acknowledge Biden’s victory, even when asked directly.

“I knew it would make him uncomfortable, but I thought he would just say ‘yes’ and move on,” Talarico said. “The silence surprised me.”

Talarico said he would “love” to return to Fox News as a guest, even if his last experience “was a little traumatic.”

Representatives for the network, however, did not respond when asked about the clash and whether Talarico would be invited back.