The Ludicrous Agony of Rupert Murdoch

It’s nice to know that Fox News, which has so deranged America while making Rupert Murdoch ungodly sums of money, has in the end made Murdoch miserable, at least if the journalist Michael Wolff is to be believed. But the consolation is a small one.

Murdoch’s unhappiness and befuddlement is the throughline of Wolff’s amusingly vicious and very well-timed book, “The Fall: The End of Fox News,” which is to hit shelves next week, days after Murdoch, 92, announced his retirement from the Fox Corporation and News Corporation boards. Wolff paints Fox’s owner as embarrassed by the channel’s vulgarity and horrified by its ultimate political creation, Donald Trump. Murdoch apparently very much wants to thwart the ex-president, just not at the price of losing a single point in the ratings.

In his tortured enabling of Trump, Murdoch seems the ultimate symbol of a feckless and craven conservative establishment, overmatched by the jingoist forces it encouraged and either capitulating to the ex-president or shuffling pitifully off the public stage. “Murdoch was as passionate in his Trump revulsion as any helpless liberal,” writes Wolff. The difference is that Murdoch’s helplessness was a choice.

Few people bear more responsibility for Trump than Murdoch. Fox News gave Trump a regular platform for his racist lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace. It immersed its audience in a febrile fantasy world in which all mainstream sources of information are suspect, a precondition for Trump’s rise. (Many people have described losing loved ones to Fox’s all-consuming alternative reality.) After Trump lost in 2020, Fox helped spread the defeated president’s falsehoods about a stolen election, which both contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection and cost Fox nearly $800 million in its settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. (It was as part of that settlement, Wolff writes, that Fox fired its biggest star, the demagogic troll Tucker Carlson.)

In Wolff’s telling, Murdoch is a sort of hapless Frankenstein, abominating the monster he set loose on the world but unsure how to fight him. This waffling, however, is a product of the same venality that has always undergirded Murdoch’s old-fashioned right-wing politics. In his farewell letter, Murdoch, the Oxford-educated son of a wealthy Australian media executive, poses as a populist, decrying a media that’s in “cahoots” with elites, “peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.” This is pure projection: Fox exists to peddle self-serving political narratives, deceiving its audience under the guise of respecting it. In “The Fall” — a book that isn’t for anyone who doesn’t want to encounter casual slurs — Murdoch says of the celebrity anchor Sean Hannity, “He’s retarded, like most Americans.” The last thing Murdoch wants to do is risk lower ratings by leveling with the audience he looks down on.

Yes, Trump was briefly banished from Fox’s airwaves, and Murdoch championed Trump’s putative rival, Ron DeSantis. But with DeSantis’s star falling, Fox has slavishly defended Trump each time he’s been indicted, while ignoring or minimizing news putting Trump in a bad light. As of May 4, the liberal group Media Matters found, Fox had devoted a mere 13 minutes of airtime to Trump’s civil trial on charges of sexually assaulting the writer E. Jean Carroll. “It was clear how much antipathy Murdoch had personally built up toward Trump,” writes Wolff. “But at the same time there was no change in his expectations as the owner of the country’s ratings-leading news channel.”

Though “The Fall” is peppered with references to HBO’s “Succession,” Murdoch comes off as the anti-Logan Roy, desperate for the approval of his mostly liberal children, with the hateful Fox News standing between them. “He just wants his kids to love him,” Roger Ailes is quoted saying. “And they don’t.” In a chapter set in the winter of 2022, Wolff describes Murdoch fantasizing about giving up Fox, which his friends urge him to do. They emphasize “how much better his relationship with his children would be without the curse of Fox News.”

But breaking that curse would have meant turning Fox over to his son James, who feels the stain of Fox especially acutely and longs to remake it into a “force for good,” a phrase Wolff repeats with contempt. “James had become the avenging Murdoch — avenging what his family had wrought,” writes Wolff. “It was not enough to save himself and his family and the Murdoch brand from Fox. He had to save the nation.” Wolff sneers at James’s grandiosity, but if Rupert Murdoch truly wanted a redemptive final act, his younger son was probably the only one who could have given it to him.

Instead, Murdoch has done the predictable thing and handed Fox to his son Lachlan, chief executive of the Fox Corporation, widely seen as the only true conservative among the Murdoch heirs. Wolff challenges the common perception of Lachlan as a right-wing ideologue, painting him instead as essentially apolitical and mostly interested in spear fishing. Nevertheless, of the Murdoch children, Lachlan is the one most likely to let Fox continue in its current groove. The network may keep boosting Trump’s Republican primary opponents, but once the primaries are over, we can expect it to once again be the lucrative propaganda arm of Trump’s presidential campaign.

As long as Murdoch is alive, the future of Fox is unwritten. Once he dies, his four oldest children will determine who controls it, and James may yet prevail. But Murdoch’s legacy is decided. We are hurling toward another government shutdown, egged on by Hannity. The electorate that Fox helped shape, and the politicians it indulges, have made this country ungovernable. An unbound Trump may well become president again, bringing liberal democracy in America to a grotesque end. If so, it will be in large part Murdoch’s fault. “The Murdochs feel bad, about Tucker, about Trump, about themselves,” writes Wolff. Just not bad enough.

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