Opinion | Rupert Murdoch: More Puppet than Puppeteer

An article of faith among modern media observers preaches that Rupert Murdoch can manipulate American politics in any direction he wants through the broadcasts of his lucrative media property, the Fox News Channel. This article of faith, which Democrats share with their children to give them nightmares and Republicans share with theirs as a cautionary tale, has given Murdoch king-maker status over the years as he has directed his channel to reward his supplicants and punish his enemies.

But on closer examination, and especially in light of the testimony released in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News for its coverage of the “stolen” presidential election of 2020, Murdoch isn’t always the master puppeteer he’s reputed to be. In Murdoch’s own words, delivered in Dominion suit depositions, he describes himself as frightened by the power Donald Trump holds over the Fox audience. He portrays himself, accurately in this case, as the supreme authority at his network but unable to control his prime-time anchors who endorsed Trump’s lie of a stolen election. And he regrets not interceding — which he says was within his power — to keep stolen-election fabulists like Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell from repeatedly appearing on his shows, even though some Fox executives and anchors were gagging, off-screen, on Giuliani and Powell’s wild-eyed theories.

Far from being a media superpower, as his foes would describe him, Murdoch comes off as trapped by the craven choices he made to serve as Trump’s supplicant and protector. By 2020, Murdoch had been trying to elect a president of his own choosing for decades. He loaded the Fox payroll with presidential aspirants like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Ben Carson. Murdoch gave Trump the keys to popular shows like Fox & Friends both before his run and after he became president, allowing him to phone in and gab at his leisure. All of this squiring of Republican candidates became known as the “Fox Primary,” the implication that the road to the White House led through the Fox green room, an implication that delighted Murdoch. In 2011, Fox host Sean Hannity personalized the selection process by actually labeling his interviews with White House applicants the “Hannity Primary.”

But as I’ve written before, Murdoch has failed again and again to elect a president of his choice. In the 2016 campaign, he opposed Trump, tweeting in July 2015, a month after Trump announced, “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” Trump was so furious at Fox coverage at one point, and with then-host Megyn Kelly, that he retaliated by skipping the Fox primary debate. Moreover, Murdoch opposed Trump’s signature positions on immigrants, the Muslim ban and trade. Only after Trump paved a sure path to the nomination did Murdoch start sucking up to Trump, and he sucked hard.

The Trump-Fox feedback loop benefited both parties as Fox ran interference for Trump throughout his presidency and Trump filled Fox’s schedule with the strong meat of his persona. By July 2019, Trump had given 61 interviews to Fox channels compared to 17 for ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC/CNBC combined. The downside of grabbing a tiger by the tail, as we all know, is how to ungrab the tail as the ride slows or the tiger gets hungry. Murdoch probably thought dismounting would be an easy process once Trump lost the 2020 election and shuffled off to political oblivion.

But it wasn’t that easy. When other news networks called the election for Joe Biden before Fox, Murdoch expressed relief in an email to his son and fellow Fox executive, Lachlan. “We should and could have gone first but at least being second saves us a Trump explosion!” Fox was spared the immediate Trump explosion, but it came eventually as the network did not toe the Trump line on his election lies. He savaged the network on Twitter, writing, “@FoxNews daytime is virtually unwatchable, especially during the weekends. Watch @OANN, @newsmax, or almost anything else.” Viewers defected as instructed to the upstart news channels, which were flooding their schedules with sympathetic coverage to the stolen-election line. Now, in addition to Trump’s fury, Fox was fretting about viewer anger, and inside Fox, all was pandemonium. In testimony, Lachlan Murdoch said the drop of ratings would “keep me awake” at night.

The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, Murdoch and Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott plotted to have prime-time Fox hosts Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham explain Biden’s election to viewers who hadn’t gotten the message. “Privately they are all there,” Scott told Murdoch, according to the court filing, but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.” As the New York Times reports, “No statement of that kind was made on the air.”

Murdoch’s fear of a Trump temper tantrum became palpable after the Capitol Hill riot, as an email exchange between Murdoch and former Republican House Speaker and Fox Corporation board member Paul D. Ryan attests. In it, Murdoch claims that Hannity, a Trump stalwart, had been “privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.” It’s obvious here that Murdoch was mapping his fear of losing viewers onto Hannity, as a single instruction to the host to tell the truth about Trump’s claims would have put things straight.

When a former Fox executive told Murdoch in a Jan. 8, 2021, email that “Fox News needs a course correction” on Trump, Murdoch replied, “Fox News very busy pivoting. … We want to make Trump a non person.” A few days later, Murdoch expanded in another email to his son. The network was “pivoting as fast as possible” away from Trump, but after four years of conditioning its audience to worship the president, Murdoch was aware that the decondition process would be hairy. “We have to lead our viewer which is not as easy as it might seem,” Murdoch wrote.

“Nobody wants Trump as an enemy,” Murdoch said in a deposition, still bruised from his tiger ride. “We all know that Trump has a big following. If he says, ‘Don’t watch Fox News, maybe some don’t.’”

The Fox “pivot” away from Trump did come eventually, all but banning him from the network, even if some of its hosts still put in a good word for him. Trump continues to hector Fox from his social media perch, recently calling it the “RINO network,” but he has yet to go full bore against his former ally. Who among us would preclude a reunion in 2024, with Trump pulling Murdoch’s strings once more if Trump wins the presidential nomination?

Murdoch’s pursuit of power and money, and his deft combination of the two, has always been a naked secret for those who care to inquire. These latest court filings only strip the top layer of epidermis from his hide and expose his venal essence. As late as Jan. 26, 2021, Murdoch was still so fearful of Trump that he had not executed the pivot and was still allowing stolen-election crackpot (and loyal Fox advertiser) Mike “MyPillow” Lindell a platform on the network’s Tucker Carlson Tonight show”,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://archive.org/details/FOXNEWSW_20210127_010000_Tucker_Carlson_Tonight”,”_id”:”00000186-9d10-d9af-a197-df907dcf000c”,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000186-9d10-d9af-a197-df907dcf000d”,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}’>Tucker Carlson Tonight show. Why allow it? Murdoch was asked. Presumably cashing Lindell’s fat checks in his mind’s eye, Murdoch replied, “It is not red or blue, it is green.”


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