How Rupert Murdoch Destroyed the News

Murdoch’s vast empire of toxic right-wing propaganda, from the British tabloids to the Wall Street Journal to Fox News, has poisoned the brains of millions and made the world dramatically worse.

Apparently, when Tucker Carlson was fired from his job as a host on Fox News in April of this year, he was “stunned” and “blindsided.” After all, he was the No. 1 rated host in all of cable news. He was talked about constantly, both by those who hated him and those who loved him. He seemed untouchable. He was clearly a major asset to the network; as soon as he left, ratings plummeted

But Tucker Carlson had clearly forgotten who he worked for. He had assumed, like many others before him, that his job was to make money for the network, and if he was making money for the network, his position was secure. 

This is not how it works. This might have been a rational assumption in an “Econ 101” world, where the capitalist looks only to maximize profits, and if you are a useful cog in the profit-machine, you can expect not to be replaced. But in the real world, corporations can operate a lot more like feudal estates than money machines. Whether your position is secure depends on whether you please the emperor who sits atop the organizational hierarchy. At Fox News, the emperor is Rupert Murdoch. And if you displease Rupert Murdoch, you’re toast. 

As conservative commentator Andrew Neil explained in a 1996 book, recalling his time in Murdoch’s employ: 

When you work for Rupert Murdoch you do not work for a company chairman or chief executive: you work for a Sun King. You are not a director or a manager or an editor: you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King—rewarded with money and status by a grateful King as long as you serve his purpose, dismissed outright or demoted to a remote corner of the empire when you have ceased to please him or outlived your usefulness.

Carlson wasn’t the first network star to be unceremoniously ditched upon displeasing the Sun King. Years before, Glenn Beck had been a ratings powerhouse on Fox News. But Murdoch came to dislike Beck, whether because of his independence from the network or his controversy-courting clownishness (standing on his desk wearing lederhosen, drawing conspiracy diagrams on a blackboard), and so Beck was exiled. His national profile has not been the same since.

When Tucker Carlson pushed “white genocide” theory, or Glenn Beck argued that Barack Obama was a secret Marxist radical, or Bill O’Reilly viciously smeared a 9/11 victim’s son, the ensuing controversies surrounded the pundits themselves. What kind of influence is Beck on the country? Is Tucker whipping up fascistic hatreds? But these are the wrong people to analyze, because everything these men said was in fact the ultimate responsibility of one man, Keith Rupert Murdoch. It was Murdoch who built the network, Murdoch who put these men on the air, and Murdoch who decided whether they should stay or go. Whether Tucker Carlson would continue poisoning minds with tales of defecating “gypsies” and criminal immigrants depended entirely on whether Rupert Murdoch wanted Carlson to go on doing this. Every single horrific thing said on Fox News is ultimately not coming from the performing puppets whose mouths it comes out of, but from Murdoch, who built the theater and pulls the strings. 

This isn’t conspiracy; it’s simple fact. Rupert Murdoch built the company. Rupert Murdoch is the one who hired Roger Ailes, the paranoid, psychotic sexual predator who turned Fox News into a mouthpiece for delusional right-wing conspiracies and culture war nonsense (and in the process, made it the highest-rated cable news channel in the country). Rupert Murdoch played a key role in establishing the rancid “gutter journalism” that dominates U.K. print newspapers. He owns the Wall Street Journal, which uses its widely-read editorial pages to push outright climate change denial and rabid opposition to every redistributive social program. Murdoch has probably been, over the last half century, the single most important figure in U.S. and U.K. media. No other person has had as much reach. Without Fox News, the Trump presidency would have been inconceivable. Two of Murdoch’s U.S. papers (the WSJ, the New York Post) are among the top five most read in the country, and in the U.K. The Sun and The Times are among the leading papers. News Corp’s HarperCollins is one of the “Big 5” U.S. publishers. 

Yet perhaps the greatest trick Rupert Murdoch has pulled is to keep people from noticing just how powerful and influential he is. Murdoch keeps a low profile. He’s not the one people get outraged at. To the extent that Murdoch himself makes the news, it is usually over the family drama about his marriages and his children. The question of which Murdoch child will inherit what, and how they handle their different pieces of the empire, has proved so fascinating to people that it has inspired the popular HBO series Succession. (Personally, I cannot get into the show, despite its quality writing and acting, because I cannot bring myself to care in the slightest about the drama of what these rich sociopaths will be bequeathed.) It’s understandable why the family stuff fascinates, especially the juicy tidbits about sociopathic personal behavior. (Murdoch told one of his wives he was divorcing her by sending an tersely-worded email that said, “We certainly had some good times, but I have much to do.”) But we should step back and look at Murdoch’s kingdom as a whole, and appreciate the sheer scale of his power. When we do, it becomes clear that many of the worst features of American political life today (climate denial, anti-trans panic, suspicion and fear of various Others) are being made much worse by a vast institution, News Corp, that is ultimately accountable to a single man. It is not accurate to say that Rupert Murdoch is mostly responsible for everything that is wrong. But I think it is right to say that he is more responsible than any other living person. I don’t think anyone else has personally done more harm or contributed more social toxicity. I won’t go so far as ex-New York Times editor Bill Keller, who called Murdoch “the Antichrist.” But if there is one person truly doing the Devil’s bidding on Earth today, it is Murdoch. 

Keith Rupert Murdoch is not exactly a self-made man. He was born into one of the most influential families in Australia. His granduncle, Sir Walter Murdoch, was a prominent academic for whom Murdoch University (and the suburb, Murdoch, in which it is located) was named. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a wealthy newspaper proprietor, and upon the senior Keith’s death in 1952, Rupert inherited the family business. Rupert Murdoch had only just graduated from Oxford when he took over The News, an Adelaide newspaper that he used to begin the construction of a globe-spanning media empire. 

The story of Rupert Murdoch’s rise has been told in at least half a dozen books, and it’s pretty easy to tell: in Australia, he bought newspapers, then used the money he made from those newspapers to buy more newspapers (he would eventually own 70 percent of Australian newspapers). Then he went to the U.K. and bought still more newspapers. (Murdoch would go on to destroy the power of the U.K. print workers unions.) Then he came to the United States and bought more newspapers before expanding into film and television through 20th Century Fox and Fox Broadcasting. Books about Murdoch are filled with the intricacies of his dealmaking, and a common picture emerges: Murdoch is ruthless and predatory, making promises and then breaking them, and has taken on infamously vicious fellow moguls and won. A lot of people who have worked with Murdoch bear lasting grudges, because he disposes of them as soon as they cease to be useful to him and is far more committed to his own power and his bottom-line than his word. Journalists with integrity can be horrified to find Murdoch has taken over their company. When Murdoch bought the Chicago Sun-Times, its star columnist Mike Royko immediately quit, quipping that “no self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper.”

Indeed, Murdoch’s newspapers are infamous for the depths of their sleaze. Shortly after Murdoch took over the U.K.’s The Sun in 1969, the paper introduced the “Page 3 girl” feature, which was literally just a picture of a topless model on the third page of the paper. Some of the models were as young as 16. Despite the consistent opposition of feminists, The Sun’s circulation doubled within a year. 

For Murdoch newspapers, ordinary notions of journalistic ethics simply went out the window. As Ryan Chittum wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Murdoch just never bought into—indeed, he sneers at it—the ethical edifice that journalism as an institution built up over the last half a century or so,” and “few so aggressively laid bare their disregard for standards, both journalistic and societal.” They openly practiced checkbook journalism, illegally bribing British police officers and other officials for sensational stories and gossip. Their paparazzi terrorized celebrities, making their lives a misery. Hugh Grant, in his ongoing lawsuit against The Sun, alleges that its reporters “used private investigators to tap his landline phone, place listening and tracking devices on his house and car, burgle his property and obtain his private information by deception.” 

Murdoch papers used blatantly criminal methods to get stories. For years, they hacked into celebrities’ phones and listened to their voicemail messages. The illegal invasions of privacy were totally shameless; they even hacked into the phones of murder victims and the families of dead soldiers, all in the search for juicy tidbits to print in the tabloid papers. As evidence of the extent of Murdoch’s papers’ criminal activity mounted, there was outrage in the U.K. A number of Murdoch underlings were dismissed, a few editors were charged with crimes, the News of the World was forced to close, some big legal settlements were made, and News Corp issued some public apologies promising to Do Better. But the Godfather himself, Murdoch, escaped pretty much unscathed. He didn’t go to prison, he didn’t lose his empire, and he was able to successfully shift most of the blame onto others. A parliamentary select committee report found that Murdoch “exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications” and said he was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.” But while this sounds damning, it is actually unduly generous to Murdoch because it allowed him to get away with pleas of supposed blindness rather than outright complicity. (In private, Murdoch dismissed the scandal as being over “next to nothing” and claimed the criminal acts were standard tabloid practices.)  

It’s very unlikely that Murdoch would be blind to anything going on in his companies. One thing made clear in various Murdoch biographies is that, unlike at many other giant corporations, where power is distributed across many executives, at News Corp Murdoch really does rule like a king. His aides call themselves “henchmen,” his board exercises little oversight, and, as Andrew Neil put it, “outside of Rupert, there is no real management.” 

And of course, none of the ruthless methods are in the service of producing public interest journalism. Murdoch is known to love “gossip,” and papers like the Sun, News of the World, and New York Post are stuffed with “who’s sleeping with who” news about famous people. “If you think we’re going to have any of that upmarket shit in our paper, you’re very much mistaken,” Murdoch told a Sunday Times journalist who had praised the journalism of rival paper The Mirror. Some of the stuff in Murdoch tabloids was fairly innocuous sensationalist fluff. (The Sun’s most famous front-page headline was “FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER,” while the New York Post is known for “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.”) But a lot of it is poisonous and hateful, appealing to readers’ prejudices about trans people, immigrants, Muslims, leftists, and whatever other minority groups the editors can make money from demonizing. 

some typical murdoch tabloid headlines

Fox News, of course, has been the worst of the worst. One could compile a whole encyclopedia of its outrageous lies and distortions, from the “War on Christmas” hysteria to calling Barack Obama’s fist bump a “terrorist fist jab” to Geraldo claiming on the air that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman” was. Every week there is a new manufactured panic, from the New Black Panther Party supposedly intimidating voters to the “climate lockdowns” that environmentalists are plotting to use to keep people imprisoned in their homes. (The latest thing to be scared about is the rise of “trantifa,” violent transgender activists who will groom your daughter then burn down your city.) 

The idiocies spoken on Fox News can make the mind reel. A Fox and Friends host once called Mr. Rogers an “evil, evil man” for telling children they are special. Leading host Greg Gutfeld has asked: “Isn’t fossil fuels the ultimate renewable energy? It’s renewed once. It used to be a dinosaur. Now it’s fuel. How is that not renewable?” When New York City recently became enveloped in wildfire smoke, a Fox pseudo-expert promised people that breathing smoke was fine, because “we have this kind of air in India and China all the time.”

Brian Stelter, in his book on the relationship between Fox News and the Trump presidency, says that producers make it clear they prefer “stories about undocumented immigrants killing Americans, stories about citizens standing up to the government bureaucracy, stories about college students disrespecting the flag, stories about hate crime hoaxes, stories about literal media outlets suppressing the truth, and, whenever possible, stories involving attractive women.” Stelter reports that one staffer who had written a news story about White Castle introducing a vegan option was dressed down, because the story took a neutral stance on the change. “We hate this,” said her superior. It’s part of the “war on meat.” “You need to say this is ridiculous.”  

It’s not clear how sincere anyone at Fox News is about all of this. Stelter quotes a producer saying that “We don’t really believe all this stuff… we just tell other people to believe it.” But many of those other people clearly do believe it. There are plenty of harrowing stories of people whose loved ones have been transformed by watching Fox News. They claim that their relatives have gone from normal, fun-loving, tolerant people to paranoid, terrified, angry bigots. (The Kansas City man who shot a Black teenager on his porch earlier this year reportedly watched Fox News all day.) A 2017 study found that the presence of Fox News in a TV market causes “a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.” Dylan Matthews of Vox concludes from the data that Fox is “more powerful than we ever imagined,” and is “actively reshaping American public opinion” to the point of possibly flipping election results. 

illustration by Tom Humberstone

The content of Fox News broadcasts is bad enough, but the internal company culture has also been accused of embodying the same sexist attitudes that gave us “Page 3 girls.” Bill O’Reilly, the network’s biggest star for many years, was a serial sexual harasser, and the network eventually had to pay $13 million to settle five different sexual harassment lawsuits over O’Reilly’s conduct. Roger Ailes, Murdoch’s faithful deputy, was brazen in trying to get women to trade sex for career opportunities, and was only forced out of the network after the number of lawsuits and public scandals made him an embarrassment. (After Ailes’ death, Murdoch released a statement calling him “a great patriot who never ceased fighting for his beliefs.”) There is a “well-documented pattern of discriminatory—and, indeed, predatory—treatment of women employees” at the network that has led to over $200 million in lawsuit settlements. 

Then there’s the role of Fox in giving us Trump. Stelter’s book also shows convincingly that, while the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News has had ups and downs, the Trump presidency and Fox were inextricably tied together. Fox helped build up Trump’s profile, star commentator Sean Hannity was working as an unofficial adviser to the Trump campaign, and when Trump became president the two talked on the phone virtually every day. In the White House, Trump would watch up to eight hours of Fox News a day. This meant that Fox News often set the agenda for the president, acting as a kind of “cable cabinet.” Trump’s former press secretary said that “There were times the president would come down the next morning and say, ‘Well, Sean thinks we should do this,’ or, ‘Judge Jeanine thinks we should do this,’” referring to Fox hosts Hannity and Jeanine Pirro. Staffers “scrambled to respond to the influence of the network’s hosts, who weighed in on everything from personnel to messaging strategy.” Stelter explains:

Fox’s influence was constant. When he threatened North Korea and said he had a bigger “button” than Kim Jong Un, it was because of a Fox segment about Kim’s “nuclear button.” When he told Iran to “never threaten the United States again!” it was because of a Fox segment about Iran’s saber-rattling. Trump granted pardons because of Fox. He attacked Google because of Fox. He raged against migrant “caravans” because of Fox. He accused public servants of treason because of Fox. And he got the facts wrong again and again because of mistakes and misreporting by the network. 

Fox’s influence is, of course, ultimately Murdoch’s influence. But one of the reasons that Rupert Murdoch’s hand in global affairs is hidden is that Murdoch himself keeps his distance. He isn’t making day-to-day decisions about what to air. But this is because he doesn’t have to. Instead, he handpicks underlings who he knows will do precisely what he wants, without being given direction. “What would Rupert want?” is reportedly a question constantly on the minds of those working in various parts of the Murdoch empire. 

At the end of the day, all of it is Murdoch’s responsibility: the false claims of election fraud Fox repeatedly aired, the pushing of quack COVID cures, the moral panics over immigrant caravans and drag queens. Fox News is the originator of so much of the American right’s insanity, and while Murdoch keeps a careful distance from it, it’s ultimately all his baby. Hannity, Ingraham, Carlson, O’Reilly, Beck: the talking heads come and go, but they all push the same delusional, hateful worldview. You can tell it all ultimately comes from Murdoch, because it’s exactly the same across the pond in the pages of The Sun, and it’s exactly the same (albeit with a few refinements of vocabulary and style) on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. 

Rupert Murdoch is probably the most important media figure of the last century. But I don’t think the scale of his influence on our lives has yet been appreciated. He helped to give Britain Margaret Thatcher, and he helped give America Donald Trump. Having owned over 100 newspapers at various points, plus major book publishers and television stations, he is the William Randolph Hearst (or, if you like, Charles Foster Kane) of our time. But what’s strange to me is that one man could be so influential and yet so little noticed. We notice Carlson. We notice Trump. But we wouldn’t be noticing either of them if it wasn’t for the wizened Australian man behind the curtain. 

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