Society / September 25, 2023

Rupert Murdoch’s Final Con Game

Announcing his exit, the right-wing baron mixes public populism and private elitism.

Jeet Heer
Succession for suckers: While Lachlan Murdoch (left) gets the fancy title, Rupert retains the ultimate power.
Succession for suckers: While Lachlan Murdoch (left) gets the fancy title, Rupert retains the ultimate power. (Jean Catuffe / GC Images)

If Rupert Murdoch is not quite the prince of lies, it is only because that title belongs to the devil alone. But Murdoch is well above the middle ranks by any measure of mendacity: If he’s not the Prince of Prevarication, it’s certainly reasonable to call him the Duke of Deception.

Upon Murdoch’s announcement on Thursday that he is stepping down as head of Fox News and Fox Corps, Owen Jones of The Guardian described the media baron as “the most poisonous individual of my lifetime.” It’s hard to gainsay the truth of this accusation. After all, Murdoch ran the largest media empire in the world, valued at more than $17 billion. While Fox News in the United States is the most notorious of his enterprises, Murdoch’s reach extended, the BBC once reported, to “most countries,” with an especially strong concentration in his native Australia and the United Kingdom.

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For decades, Murdoch’s newspapers, radio stations, and cable TV networks have been the loudest megaphone on the right. Jones referenced Murdoch’s role in spreading homophobia in the 1980s, xenophobia and militarism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and climate change denial. One could also add that Fox was a powerful platform for promoting—with knowing deception and malice—lies about the 2020 election. This last set of deceits resulted in Fox’s agreeing last April to pay Dominion Voting Systems $783 million to settle a defamation lawsuit.

Yet Murdoch’s days of lying aren’t over. The resignation letter Murdoch released to his employees was itself a masterpiece of misinformation. The first falsehood is the idea that Murdoch is resigning and handing over the reins to son Lachlan. As the letter makes clear, Murdoch is going to be the type of retiree who continues to show up to work to make sure his wastrel son is following orders.

According to Murdoch:

In my new role, I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas. Our companies are communities, and I will be an active member of our community. I will be watching our broadcasts with a critical eye, reading our newspapers and websites and books with much interest, and reaching out to you with thoughts, ideas, and advice. When I visit your countries and companies, you can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon.

In other words, Murdoch is going to be a backseat driver, while Lachan will be a chauffeur, enjoying a fancy title but ultimately under the old man’s directions.

The other major flimflam in the letter is ideological. Murdoch casts himself as a populist fighting “elites” who “have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class.”

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One might ask how someone worth more than $8 billion has the nerve to cast himself as a populist. This is the familiar tactic of right-wing demagoguery: wearing the mask of populism in order to defend hierarchy and plutocracy.

This particular mask is increasingly slipping as Murdoch and his media minions are torn between a desire to stir up the mob while also defending their entrenched privilege. One small example of this is their reaction to the genuine left-wing populism of John Fetterman. Murdoch’s New York Post denounced John Fetterman as a “slob” in a recent article detailing how a reporter from the newspaper went to “New York City’s finest restaurants” dressed in “Fetterman’s trademark hoodie, gym shorts and sneakers.” The Fetterman mimic was roundly rejected from these haute cuisine hash joints. But surely it’s giving away the game for a putatively populist newspaper to take the side of a “suited maître d’” over an elected lawmaker who dresses the way countless Americans do. The underlying snobbery is all the more obvious when one considers that Murdoch’s children and executives at Fox are surely among the most likely guests at such high-end restaurants.

The exact nature of Murdoch’s phony politics is made clear in a recent excerpt in New York from Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty. This is, to be sure, a source that has to be cited with caution. Wolff’s attitude toward the truth is not all that different than that of the subjects of his recent books, Murdoch and Donald Trump.

Still, Wolff is a well-connected writer, with undeniable access to top figures in Murdoch’s media empire and inner circle. At the very least, he conveys how Murdoch and his cronies want to be seen by the world.

Based on Wolff’s reporting, Murdoch is eager for everyone to know he hates Donald Trump. This is a familiar game in right-wing circles in the age of Trump: acting like a faux-populist Trump supporter in public while signaling to fellow elites that in private you hate Trump. This allows the speaker to have it both ways: harnessing Trump’s popularity without being responsible for his violations of social and political norms. Countless Republicans play this game. As McKay Coppins reported recently in The Atlantic, Mitt Romney’s fellow Republican senators repeatedly make their contempt for Trump known in sub rosa conversation and then in front of the camera extol Trump as the party leader.

According to Wolff, in private Murdoch refers to Trump as an “asshole,” “plainly nuts,” an “idiot,” a “fool” who “couldn’t give a shit,” a man who had “no plan,” who “just wants the money,” a “fucking crazy man,” and a “loser.”

Murdoch despises Trump, Wolff asserts, but feels trapped because Trump is key to holding on to the Fox News audience. Wolff observes that Murdoch “might despise Trump, but Fox must remain the dominant cable-news channel, holding and increasing its market share and continuing to generate enormous profits. But was there any other way to do this than giving the audience what it wanted, which was lot and lots of Donald Trump?”

This mixture of public populism and private elitism is just another con game. Perhaps Murdoch is fooling himself as much as anyone, to salve whatever he possesses that resembles a human conscience. But just as likely Murdoch is trying, via Wolff, to burnish his reputation and that of his media empire. The message of Wolff’s excerpt is that while Murdoch might have done as much as anyone to create Trump, he feels very bad about it. Murdoch is thus cast in the role of Dr. Frankenstein or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: someone who inadvertently unleashed evil into the world but is now contrite.

But if you are a public figure, you deserve to be judged by the effects of your public actions and not some private qualm. This latest attempt at self-exoneration is just one more lie on top of all the other lies that are the sum of Murdoch’s legacy.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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