The Memo: How Murdoch changed American politics

Rupert Murdoch, who announced Wednesday he was stepping back from his role as chair of Fox and News Corp, leaves a bigger imprint on American politics than the vast majority of people who have held elected office.

Whether that impact has been for the good or for bad depends on the politics of the person making the judgement.

But the sheer scale of Murdoch’s influence is not in question — something which, in itself, is rebuke to those who mocked his ambitions when he launched Fox News Channel in 1996.

Even GOP presidential candidates now seek his implicit imprimatur — a process that has made the battle to win the “Fox primary” part of the political lexicon. 

This year, the perceived attitude of Fox News toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in particular, has been watched intently by every other candidate, including former President Trump.

In a Truth Social post in June, Trump contended that the reason “FoxNews is pushing Ron DeSanctus, or anyone else for that matter [is] because they hate the greatest ‘America First’ president to ever put on a suit and tie, me.”

In the same post, he encouraged the network to “embrace MAGA” — an instruction that Fox’s critics would consider superfluous.

Trump has benefitted greatly from the Fox News spotlight, dating back to the middle of the last decade, when his regular appearances helped smooth his transition from the business world to his White House quest.

Fox’s coverage of him during his two impeachments is widely seen, by both supporters and detractors alike, as being of fundamental importance. The observation was made more than once that, had Fox been around when President Nixon was caught up in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Nixon would never have had to resign.

The network, launched in 1996, remains by far the most-watched cable news outlet. On Wednesday, its highest-rated show, “The Five” drew 2.7 million viewers. The highest rated shows on MSNBC and CNN — “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” and “Anderson Cooper 360” — pulled in 1.8 million and 790,000 viewers respectively.

Prior to Fox News’s arrival, the TV news landscape was dominated by the three major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — and the first big cable-news player, CNN. (MSNBC was launched less than three months before Fox News.)

To conservatives, the big players leaned liberal in their assumptions and editorial choices. Fox, to conservative eyes, was simply leveling the playing field.

Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican consultant, recalls working on Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s, around the time the GOP sensationally took back the House majority under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

“I can remember Newt Gingrich, when he was Speaker, talking about Rupert Murdoch launching the Fox News network, and about how this would give us the opportunity to get the message out directly to the American people, without the filter of a media that many Americans saw as liberal,” Bonjean told this column.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted Wednesday that Murdoch’s Fox News had become a “force in American politics” in part because it “gave voice to millions of Americans who were routinely left behind by the overwhelmingly liberal mainstream media.”

The story of the network’s rise is also the tale of the intertwined relationship between Murdoch and Roger Ailes, the now-deceased Fox News chairman and CEO. The two men were united by a belief that other media outlets were elitist, condescending and out of step with the sensibilities of middle America.

Ailes was a sometime Republican operative and a gifted TV producer who had guided a big-band-era singer, Mike Douglas, to syndicated talk-show success in the 1960s. 

Ailes, with Murdoch, was the driving force in Fox News’s phenomenal ratings success. But he was forced out of the network in disgrace in 2016, after numerous allegations of sexual harassment came to light. Ailes died the following year.

The Ailes blueprint called for glamour, excitement and gloss. And, in the eyes of its many critics, appeals to cultural resentment and racial grievance were just as central.

Examples cited by Fox’s detractors are legion. One instance that proved memorable — in part because it had actual repercussions — was a 2008 segment mulling whether a celebratory fist-bump between then-presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his wife Michelle was a “terrorist fist-jab.” The anchor who made that suggestion, E.D. Hill, lost her show soon afterward.

Material like that is one of the reasons Fox has long been so loathed among liberals and progressives.

“It is hard to overstate the damage that Rupert Murdoch has done to our country over the years,” Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday. “His legacy will be shepherding a media environment that rewards the peddling of conspiracies and lies.”

Progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini told this column: “It’s hard to imagine anyone, generally in public life, who has had as much of a negative impact on racism, immigration, women’s rights and just the whole spectrum of decency as Rupert Murdoch.”

One of Fox’s most inglorious moments came in the waning months of Murdoch’s leadership. In April, Fox News settled a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems for $787 billion.

Fox did not admit to defaming Dominion. But the discovery process in the case was widely seen as deeply embarrassing for the company. 

Internal emails showed panic among anchors, producers and executives in the wake of the 2020 election, as viewers deserted it for competitors who were more willing to peddle then-President Trump’s fictional claims about election fraud. The solution, at least in some of their minds, was to allow Trump allies to propagate claims that were untrue.

Murdoch, in a farewell memo on Wednesday, noted that he would still be “involved every day in the contest of ideas.”

It’s the savage intensity he brought to that fight that won him legions of supporters and detractors alike.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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