Business Maverick

Business Maverick

The Murdoch Empire — and Fox News — Is at a Crossroads

The Murdoch Empire — and Fox News — Is at a Crossroads
Rupert Murdoch Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Back in 2021, Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch was described by President Joe Biden as the “the most dangerous man in the world,” such was the raw power his cable news network had in shaping public opinion.

Flash forward to now, where a more diminished figure emerges from court filings revealed this week as part of a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems Inc., one forced into an uncomfortable admission: He could have stopped the promotion of the false idea that the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump, but feared the network would lose loyal viewers and irritate the then-president.

Asked if he could have stopped producers and hosts from booking guests like Sidney Powell who propagated the election myth, Murdoch said, “I could have, but I do not run Fox News that way. I appointed Ms. Scott to the job,” referring to  Suzanne Scott, the chief executive officer of Fox News. “And I delegate everything to her,” he added.

Just how influential Murdoch remains, whether he still has the ability make or break political careers, looms large in Republican circles ahead of what portends to be a contentious 2024 presidential primary race. The party is split between a zealous base still devoted to Trump and those hankering for a less controversial challenger in the form of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Fox News has shown a clear preference for DeSantis, according to Trump, who has spent recent days attacking the network. “Fox is working overtime for DeSanctus, but they are failing—Look at the Polls. We are MAGA!” the former president posted this week on Truth Social, his social media platform.

The problem is that Murdoch’s admission under oath could damage the credibility of the conservative news network as it faces another Trump-centric presidential primary season.

Murdoch’s outsized ability to influence the political landscape was the stuff of legend from his native Australia to both sides of the Atlantic. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair went so far as to say in an official inquiry a decade ago that he was afraid to stand up to him.

Dominion, a voting machine maker, accuses Fox News and Fox Corp. of helping to promote false claims that the company flipped millions of electronic ballots away from Trump in the election as part of a vast conspiracy.

The network and its parent deny wrongdoing and say Fox News was merely reporting “newsworthy” allegations being made by a sitting president, and that Fox is protected by the First Amendment.

The company says Dominion “took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting.”

The lawsuit not only put Murdoch’s media empire under scrutiny, but also reveals that he doesn’t have complete control of some his most high-profile on-air commentators who remain loyal to Trump.

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Trump speaks during the “Save America Rally” near the White House in Washington, DC on Jan. 6, 2021. Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg

The Murdoch-owned New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have decidedly soured on the former president, pointing out in editorials that he has lost most of the elections he has played a role in since 2018.

That puts the network at a cross-roads — to follow in the footsteps of unabashedly conspiracy-driven outlets like One America News Network or to be a conservative but fact-based news organization.

Political journalists and other experts say the credibility crisis at Fox might not have happened under Roger Ailes, the former Fox executive driven out over allegations of sexual harassment.

They say he kept a tighter rein on the talk show hosts, particularly during key moments like election night coverage and maintained a stronger distinction between opinion and news, even as the network promoted Trump’s upstart candidacy in 2015 and 2016.

“Our job as reporters and producers was to beat CNN on stories and the only way to do that was to get the story right and get it before them,” said Carl Cameron, who worked at Fox News for more than 20 years before leaving in 2017, a year after Ailes’s departure. “Making stuff up was not part of the process.”

Dominion’s filings reveal that Fox leadership was concerned that acknowledging that Biden had won the 2020 election would alienate fans and advertisers.

On Jan. 5, 2021, Murdoch discussed with Scott whether Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham should convey some version of “the election is over and Joe Biden won,” according to the filing. None of them made a statement, Dominion said, with Scott telling Murdoch that “we need to be careful about using the shows” and turning off viewers.

Asked why Fox News hosted MyPillow Inc. founder Mike Lindell, who was spreading false claims of election fraud, Murdoch testified that Lindell “pays us a lot of money” in advertising.

And when asked why Fox continues to give a platform to Lindell, Murdoch agreed that “it is not red or blue, it is green,” according to the filing.

Fox News gave its Trump-leaning on-air personalities wide latitude to discuss Trump’s grievances for weeks by hosting the former president’s surrogates and hinting at evidence of massive election fraud that never materialized, according to Dominion.

With Newsmax and OAN going all-in on false reporting about the results, Fox “knew that they had to ‘straddle the issue’ and continue allowing the stolen election narrative featuring Dominion to be pushed on Fox News in order to avoid angering — and losing — their Trump supporting viewers,” Dominion said.

For example, Dominion said, Hannity told his viewers that the hand recount in Georgia “would be critical regarding the questions about Dominion,” but then didn’t report when the recount proved Dominion’s machines worked properly and counted Trump’s votes accurately. Instead, Hannity had Powell, a lawyer and one of the chief promoters of the conspiracy theory, on “to spread lies about Dominion,” according to the Dominion filing.

“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” Murdoch testified.

Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, who interviewed some of Trump’s top supporters, testified that she would have listened to Rupert Murdoch, his son Lachlan Murdoch or Scott if one of them had instructed her not to promote a particular guest. But “they never said anything like that,” she said.

Notably, Fox Corp. is touting Murdoch’s lack of editorial direction in its request to have Dominion’s claims against it be dismissed. Fox’s hosts “uniformly testified that they never received instruction from anyone at Fox Corporation, including Rupert Murdoch or Lachlan Murdoch, regarding any of that coverage,” the company said in a filing on Monday.

The network is unlikely to change its programming formula, even after the explosive revelations in the case, said Jon Klein, former president of CNN’s US network.

“Their basic outlook on the world will not change,” Klein said. “It’s core to their business model to say anything, do anything, allow anything so long as they’re not outflanked by the even crazier outlets to their right like OAN.”

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