The New York Times Magazine’s recently published forensic examination of the power and influence of the Murdoch media empire is both a testament to what journalism can accomplish and an indictment of what it has, in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and his two sons, increasingly become. The 16,000-word investigation should quiet anyone who thinks that the survival of that often-infuriating newspaper is of no particular consequence to the future of American democracy. It should also lay to rest any remaining arguments that the Murdochs are engaged in anything but a power-seeking charade: pretending to be in the news profession while subverting it at every turn.
The piece, titled “Planet Fox,” by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, has not received the attention it deserves, in part because it does not contain any blockbuster scoops that could easily fit into a CNN or MSNBC chyron or pithy tweet. What it does contain is a history of how one family has been able to use the power of the press to subvert democratic norms, misinform citizens, undermine governments, and fill our national debates with lies, misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism while calling it news.
Murdoch watchers have long argued over whether Rupert Murdoch is motivated more by money or power. The answer, almost always, is “yes.” That’s the man’s genius: In his case, the two travel in tandem. But should they conflict, it is the money that matters. Take the most interesting fact I found related to Fox News’s horrific treatment of the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. You may recall Sean Hannity’s and FoxNews.com’s obsessive promotion of a bizarre conspiracy theory that, with the Trump White House’s encouragement, sought to tie Rich’s 2016 killing to allegedly nefarious doings of the committee, though it was always hard to understand exactly how. Rich’s family sued, and the site quietly withdrew the story. It was a rare example of Murdoch caving in to any form of moral public pressure, or so we thought. (The family’s lawsuit was eventually dismissed.)
It turns out it was all business. The Murdochs were in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful fight to try to win over British regulators for their proposed takeover of the Sky satellite network. Their first attempt to do so collapsed under the weight of the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World, which ultimately forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid and endure a humiliating parliamentary hearing (along with a pie in the face). Now they were trying again.
Finding himself in this position was unusual for Murdoch. In the United States, especially with Trump in office, he gets what he wants. That’s why Fox’s sale of its non-news assets to Disney last month went so smoothly, despite the red flags it raised vis-à-vis Disney’s potential monopoly power. It is also the likely reason that the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Murdoch competitor, found itself stymied in its attempt to buy up most of Tribune Media’s television outlets. But in the UK, Fox News faced accusations of promoting “unfair and inaccurate content,” and in another investigation, British regulators ruled that Fox’s Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson breached impartiality standards. To help smooth these bumps, Murdoch was willing to pull the channel off the air in the UK—though, even then, his bid for Sky Broadcasting failed.
Australia, meanwhile, has become a veritable Murdoch playpen. Viewers of Fox News’ prime-time lineup in the United States would no doubt recognize the constant warnings populating the Murdochs’ Sky News Australia channel about the alleged “suicidal self-hatred” of the West and the dangers of Muslim immigrants; no less familiar would be the ranting of guests with views just this side of Adolf Eichmann’s. What they may not know is that, working with politicians, the Murdochs managed to facilitate the replacement of the relatively moderate government of Malcolm Turnbull with the more rabid one of Scott Morrison. The Murdochs never made their intentions explicit. Rather, as the Times authors observe, they tend to “convey their desires indirectly, maybe with a tweet…or a question, the subtleties of which are rarely lost on their like-minded news executives.”
In the United States, Trump’s rise complicated the story a bit. Murdoch initially resisted supporting a man he regularly termed a “fucking idiot,” whose policies on immigration he disliked, and whose vulgarity he disdained. But here, again, money talked. Nothing goosed Fox News’ ratings like Trump’s Nuremberg-style rallies, and with Megyn Kelly and other Fox News personalities criticizing him, Breitbart was winning over the network’s once-loyal audience. Of course, Trump’s success was Fox News’ Frankenstein monster: a product of the channel’s 20-year war on truth.
With the accused sexual predator Roger Ailes ousted (and dead), Trump has become Fox News’ de facto chief programmer. Until recently, Ailes’s aide-de-camp and, according to many, enabler of his sexual misconduct, Bill Shine, was double-dipping, with generous severance payments from Fox in addition to his White House communications chief’s salary. Demonstrating that those roles were actually one job, Shine appears to have arranged for special access for Hannity at Trump press events, as well as an appearance onstage with Trump during a 2018 rally. He also could be found issuing instructions to Fox News producers: for instance, demanding the removal of a chyron deemed unfavorable to Ivanka Trump.
Still, amid all the revelations—the power plays, the venal deals, the palace intrigue—the greatest shame of this story goes to people who receive no mention at all. It belongs to the journalists who, against all evidence and to the detriment of their profession and their nations’ democracies, continue to participate in the charade that what the Murdochs do is journalism and that, therefore, their dishonesty, provocation, and propaganda deserve to be taken seriously as news. Without their help, none of the above would have been possible.