Column: Rupert Murdoch is sliding into retirement. His malign influence isn’t going anywhere

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch is stepping down from the chairmanship of his media companies. Does that really mean anything?
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Thursday’s announcement that Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chairman of Fox Corp. and News Corp. prompted news organizations the world over to ransack the obituaries they have been keeping in their vaults.

That only raises the question: What will they do when Murdoch, 92, actually dies?

The truth is, of course, that it’s hopelessly premature to declare as dead and done the impact Murdoch has had on newspaper and cable journalism, and on American politics generally. The DNA he injected into the American bloodstream is a hardy virus indeed. Its vectors among Murdoch-owned properties are not only Fox News, but also the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the New York Post.

After all, we are in the entertainment business.

— Rupert Murdoch, unrepentant at publishing the forged Hitler diaries in 1983

Murdoch may be poised to transition in November to the role of “chairman emeritus,” whatever that is, but in a memo to employees he wrote: “For my entire professional life, I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change.” He promised to be “reaching out to you with thoughts, ideas, and advice.”


As for his designated successor, his elder son Lachlan, Rupert assured the employees that Lachlan is “absolutely committed to the cause” of fighting “most of the media,” which is “peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.”

In other words, don’t expect Fox News to change. The signal he transmitted in this memo — that he’ll still be watching over his products and that Lachlan and he are on the same page — reminds one of the old joke about the long-serving politician who announces that he’s retiring, but that won’t affect his plans to run for reelection.

For all that, the announcement of Murdoch’s purported executive transition does offer an opportunity to assess his influence.

The defining characteristic of Murdoch’s journalistic empire isn’t so much its extreme conservatism, but its disengagement from anything resembling ethics or scruples or even the consequences of what have often been outright lies.

For example, Murdoch, whose personal politics are distinctly conservative, always detested Donald Trump.


According to the gossipy forthcoming book about Murdoch by fly-on-the-wall writer Michael Wolff, he didn’t think much of Fox anchor Sean Hannity, either, and was even prepared to sacrifice him as part of a defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. (The settlement ultimately came to $787 million; Hannity’s ouster wasn’t part of it and indeed he’s still on the air.)

But the record shows that Murdoch has always been willing to subject his personal sentiments to the test of whether they would interfere with profits, and profits invariably came first.

A telling illustration of that was provided by the 1983 episode, almost forgotten today, of the purported Hitler diaries. These turned out to be crude forgeries, but even as their authenticity was being questioned, Murdoch purchased the U.S., British and Australian publication rights from their owner, the German magazine Stern, for $1.2 million.

At first, Murdoch relied on the judgment of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a distinguished British historian specializing in the Nazi period, that the diaries were genuine. His plan was to run them in the Sunday Times of London, which he owned. But on the very eve of publication, Trevor-Roper, who had been ennobled as Baron Dacre, called to say he had changed his mind and now felt they were forgeries.

The Sunday Times editors frantically called Murdoch for permission to stop the presses. His reply was succinct. “F— Dacre,” he said. “Publish.”

Later, he defended his decision. “Circulation went up and it stayed up,” he said. “We didn’t lose money or anything like that.” Indeed, the Sunday Times gained 60,000 readers upon the announcement of the then-authenticated diaries, and kept 20,000 readers even after the fakery was exposed. (Stern returned the money.)

Nearly 20 years later, Murdoch told a commission investigating alleged ethical and legal breaches by his British newspaper that the decision to publish was “a massive mistake I made and I will have to live with for the rest of my life.” There’s reason to doubt whether the comment, coming as it did from someone who was adept at expressing opinions and making commitments that benefited him in the short term but were abrogated over time, was sincere.

But his judgment in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, reported by Robert Harris, a chronicler of the episode, was more to the point. “After all,” he said, “we are in the entertainment business.”

For Fox News, Murdoch assembled a troupe of performers with a perfected appeal to low-information voters, feeding them a banquet of culture war rage-bait and Republican partisanship. Fox News became the top-rated news station on cable, an unavoidable feature of cable systems’ basic tiers that subscribers receive whether they want it or despise it.

Perhaps inevitably, the channel’s stars came to believe that they were the indispensable factors in its popularity. Murdoch went along with their misconception, until his cost-benefit calculation moved against them.

For one reason or another, Fox sent packing such onetime icons as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and, perhaps most shockingly, Tucker Carlson.

All thought they made Fox News, when in fact it was Fox News that made them. None retained their audience or their public influence after their defenestration. Fox’s audience fell in April after the network fired Carlson, but it has since gained back many viewers with a rejiggered lineup that includes the Carlson clone Jesse Watters.

It’s hard to assess with any precision the effects of Murdoch’s Fox News on American politics, except that it has been, on the whole, dire.

Fox News was launched in 1996 under the leadership of Roger Ailes, a onetime producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” who had become an advisor to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, for which he managed the optics of Nixon’s television appearances. His role arguably started the modern trend of American politics as performance art.

Ailes had moved on to become a Republican media advisor and later ran cable programs such as CNBC and America’s Talking, a precursor of MSNBC, when he was tapped by Murdoch to create a conservative news channel. He was the guiding force in the growth of Fox News until 2016, when he was forced to resign amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Fox News has been losing advertisers, but because it makes a profit from cable carriage fees, even viewers who hate it must pay for it.

April 17, 2023

The influence of Fox News derived in large part from its stature as the lone cable channel offering right-wing commentary and a conservative news slant. By contrast, middle-of-the-road and progressive sources were fragmented.

That gave the Fox audience the appearance of being larger and more weighty than it might actually be, but there can be no question that it forced American politicians to take its audience’s viewpoint seriously.

The chief beneficiary of Fox’s concentrated audience was Trump, whose appearances on the channel were unrelenting and whose lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from him was repeated uncritically by the channel’s on-air commentators. That led to the defamation lawsuit by Dominion, which Trump’s allies falsely accused of complicity in the claimed theft, and then to the $787-million settlement.

In the course of pre-settlement wrangling, memos and emails from Fox insiders, including its anchors, were made public, demonstrating that they privately dismissed Trump’s claim even while they promoted it on the air. But those disclosures haven’t seemed to shake the Fox audience’s devotion to the channel.

The announcement of Murdoch’s quasi-retirement has already triggered speculation about the Murdoch empire’s destiny. Lachlan may share his father’s conservative politics, but there’s reason to doubt that he possesses his father’s unquestioned skill at deal-making.

That skill enabled Rupert to create an empire that has included the British newspapers the Times and Sunday Times, the British satellite network BSkyB, 21st Century Fox, the Fox television network and Dow Jones & Co. (owner of the Wall Street Journal).

His empire has been ever-changing as he buys, sells and trades properties. In 2019, for example, he sold most of 21st Century Fox to Walt Disney Co. for more than $71 billion. The deal included the Fox film and TV studios, the FX networks and Fox’s 30% holding in the streaming service Hulu.

Looking ahead, conflict among Rupert’s oldest children — including Lachlan and his younger son, James, who is said to find the empire’s right-wing bent distasteful, and his eldest daughter, Elisabeth — beckons.

Although Lachlan is Rupert’s designated business heir, he and his siblings will share control of the family trust, which in turn controls 40% of the voting shares of Fox and News Corp., after Rupert’s death.

That points to a future of managerial instability at best. But anyone believing that Rupert’s “retirement” will lead to lasting change in Fox News, especially a shift in its partisan viewpoint, is more likely than not to be proved wrong.

In his memo to employees, Murdoch issued a manifesto for Fox News going forward, at least through the current election cycle.

“Self-serving bureaucracies are seeking to silence those who would question their provenance and purpose. Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class.”

(As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse observes, “If you’re one of the richest men in the entire world and the head of a media empire that has impacted the course of global events, you don’t get to sneer at other people as ‘elites.’ ”)

“Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.

“In my new role, I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas.”

In other words, for those who hope to see reason and honesty to become the watchwords of Fox, it’s too early to break out the Champagne.