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Murdoch and Fox: Careful What You Wish For

Tue, 12/19/2023 - 14:05
Michael Wolff
Jen Harris

“The Fall”
Michael Wolff
Henry Holt, $29.99

As Rupert Murdoch launched his entry to American television in 1984, a story in Newsweek magazine featured the concerns of top U.S. editors about the Australian-British media magnate's notoriously successful tabloid approach — "the Dirty Digger," London's satiric Private Eye magazine nicknamed him — and the damage it might do here. 

A previously helpful P.R. exec set up private meetings with Murdoch — at the New York Post he'd already bought, at his country home with wife #2 and sons, midair on a flight to Chicago. But after publication the flack never spoke again with the article's author. Me. The boss, or so he presumed, would not be pleased.

After that, viewer ratings wrote the story as Murdoch's Fox channel built its commanding lead in cable news with a devoted, divisive, often aggrieved and angry conservative audience that became the symbolic heart of Donald Trump's winning the White House, then of support for his baseless claims to keep it. 

Electing an American president had long been a Murdoch dream, according to Michael Wolff's latest, gossipy, sometimes obscene, often allusive account of power and politics — "The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty." 

But Murdoch's dream all too soon morphed into nightmare. Not only for the country in the eyes of so many — including, we learn, Murdoch, now a noticeably diminished 92 (see beach photos from Barbados) — but also for relations within his family, for his personal image, his corporate legacy, and for the credibility of all journalism in the current Fox-fed era of alternate truths. A threat even to democracy itself. 

Clearly more here than just a model for TV's "Succession."

Wolff's story is full of juicy revelations. And despite the portents of ultimate tragedy, personal and national, there are strains of farce as well, recalling the famous Marx quote (Karl, not Groucho). But one lesson seems clear: Be careful what you wish for.

Though Trump's manner, morality, and politics offended Murdoch personally ("a fucking idiot," he sneered), the man who ran Fox could not bring himself to forgo profits from the sale of airtime devoted to the monster he had helped create, as ever-over-the-top "reality TV" star Trump — first scripted for NBC's "The Apprentice" — catered to, energized, and expanded the Fox audience. 

After Trump's 2020 defeat and effort to overturn it, Murdoch wanted that airtime cut, initially seeing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the fitting alternative for 2024. "He's a professional."

But, as so often in his later, ever-less-focused and ever-more-mumbling years, the boss never communicated that strongly enough to those below. And the degree of reduction that did take place only threatened Fox ratings and raised Trump's hackles. 

Roger Ailes, we are reminded, was the evil genius who first shaped Fox's manipulative take on TV, a medium that old newspaperman Murdoch never fully mastered. 

A former Republican political operative ("Every Republican president since Nixon," Wolff notes, and Rudy Giuliani's first mayoral campaign), Ailes was unhappy at NBC and delighted to become C.E.O. of Fox News, bringing imperious style and a winning formula: "big blondes and emphasis on talk radio-type broadcasters." Almost by definition from the right.

"The people you know live in this moment, whatever this moment is," Ailes tells Wolff, or someone he quotes. "The people who Fox is for live in . . . 1965 . . . before the Voting Rights Act," meaning before modern understanding of racial justice, responsive government, and progressive momentum.

The pattern Ailes set persisted even when charges of sexual abuse led to his swift ouster from the network as leveraged, Wolff argues, by Murdoch's contending sons. Neither ever quite won their dad's wholehearted approval — nor he theirs, though he longed for it. But their struggles with each other will be key to the fate of a post-Murdoch Fox.

The more capable son, James, now 51, saw Fox as a potential "force for good." But after mixed experiences in various corners of the Murdoch empire, he decides, not with himself at the helm in the meantime.

Lachlan, 52, ultimately becomes number two at Fox News, but mostly remotely, on the waters back in Australia. "Spearfishing." (At least until Rupert formally "retired" last month, yet indicating his continued oversight as head of the controlling Murdoch Family Trust, with a "critical eye . . . thoughts, ideas, and advice.") 

"They are both wannabe little kings, the brothers," Ailes rants. "I think they both really believe they were put on earth to show up their father, rather than the reality, which is that they would be midlevel media executives making a quarter million a year and grateful for it, without their old man. . . ."

"But honestly, even if they were geniuses . . . television is a beast. A fucking beast . . . everybody is insane," he concludes before his death in 2017 at age 77.

Eventually the sons go along with selling much of Murdoch's 20th Century Fox and other entertainment properties to Disney for an escalated price of $71.3 billion, which gave the brothers and their two sisters $2 billion each and left mainly TV and print properties over which to squabble.

Standing apart in earlier years, and the most professionally and socially successful of the siblings, is Elizabeth Murdoch, 55. Initially wild and rebellious, later thrice married with four children, she also enjoyed power and profit from investments ranging from Shine, among Europe's biggest independent TV production companies, to Koko, "the hottest club in London" circa 2022. Rupert sometimes imagines she could buy her brothers out and take charge.

And when the Covid pandemic has him settle in London with the celebrity model Jerry Hall (wife #4), Murdoch is on the phone with Liz at least daily, grumbling about woes both professional and personal. So she becomes the family mediator, willing and able to talk with him, both brothers, and sister Prudence, 65, back in Australia and even more detached from Fox concerns — though with one of the four family votes that will determine its future when Dad dies.

Until that inevitable transition, most readers and viewers will be more interested in Wolff's dissection of Fox stars now or formerly. Among them "hard-drinking, caustic" Liz Trotta, previously with NBC and CBS, "sexually forward" Kimberly Guilfoyle, previously the liberal wife of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (and now fiancée of Donald Trump Jr.), and ratings laggard Laura Ingraham, derided around misogynistic Fox, he reports, as "a hopeless drunk, a bad drunk, a puke-spewing drunk [who] had thrown herself, drunk or not, at every man in the conservative movement."

More important, and in greater detail, Wolff dishes on the network's two biggest stars since the firing of Bill O'Reilly in 2017, also following sexual misconduct charges. Oh, Fox!

Likely most secure is Sean Hannity, 61, far more wealthy than his Common Man mien might suggest. "A crackpot," Murdoch calls him. But Hannity remains a loyal follower of the Ailes approach to TV news and begins advising Trump in the White House. "You can't say all those years of fellating POTUS on air didn't pay off for Sean," Wolff quotes "a Trump inner circle staffer," using the acronym for the president of the United States.

Tucker Carlson, 54, drew higher ratings than Hannity, and Murdoch rather liked his WASPy ways and on-air point of view, though not what some savored as racist views, nor his Lindbergh-like isolationist opposition to aid for Ukraine (now more widely shared as war there grinds on). 

More perplexing were signs that Carlson, surprisingly paranoid about his future at Fox, wanted to try his hand elsewhere, even toying with plans to become Trump's next V.P. or run for the White House himself.

It was "a job that, for the past few years, he had been running for, at least in the privacy of his own mind," Wolff writes. "If you looked at the field as it was shaping up, there was pretty clearly an opening for him . . . [another] television persona might realistically become a true MAGA (Make America Great Again) Trump alternative." 

All of that certainly figured in the decision to take Tucker off-air in what Wolff spotlights as an unwritten coda to Fox's record $787.5 million libel settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. Massive pretrial disclosure of emails had made clear that he and many Fox hosts knew there was no truth to charges they aired of Dominion-related election fraud in 2020. 

To avoid paying the full billion dollars Dominion demanded, or simply apologizing, Fox would at least dull its edge by sacrificing its most popular opinion leader. And Carlson, after taking his act to Twitter (now X), this month launched his own subscription-supported livestream "network."

Whether or not he also takes the presidential plunge, Wolff suggests, Election 2024 may be a test of Trump's continued control of his constituency without a full-fledged presence on Fox — if Murdoch and his minions or heirs actually can make that happen. It may also test Fox's power and profitability without Trump as a ubiquitous if unpaid hallmark. 

Of course, Wolff notes, all of cable faces a problematic future in the current age of cord-cutting to get direct-from-the-internet news and entertainment, which TV has mashed ever more closely together. 

The question will be what advantages and disadvantages the Murdoch heirs see in staying in that game, maybe trying to reshape content for a changing Fox News audience, or taking as much as they can get by divesting their dynasty from the most profitable and politically powerful platform in modern mass media, as well as from the fame — and shame — that have come with it.

Michael Wolff's 10 previous books include the Trump trilogy: "Fire and Fury," "Siege," and "Landslide." He has a house in Amagansett. 

David M. Alpern reported, wrote, or edited at The New York Post (before Murdoch), U.P.I., and Newsweek, where he also ran the weekly "Newsweek On Air" radio broadcast, later independent as "For Your Ears Only." At home in Sag Harbor, he reviews books and presents programs for local libraries.

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