While Fox News and President Donald Trump have formed an echo chamber that helped get the former reality-TV host elected and has propelled the network to sky-high ratings, the network’s continued support for the president has driven a wedge in the billionaire Murdoch family—one that threatens a potential corporate civil war, CNN media reporter Brian Stelter reports in his upcoming book.
On Tuesday, Stelter is set to release Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, an in-depth look at the somewhat well-trodden territory of the symbiotic relationship between America’s highest-rated cable news network and the president who religiously watches it.
The book largely focuses on how Fox News evolved from a moderately Trump-skeptical conservative TV network to a de facto press arm of the Trump administration—much to the chagrin of some employees and members of the Murdoch family. Additionally, the book suggests that even patriarch Rupert Murdoch overlooks Trump’s numerous inadequacies in exchange for unfettered access to a Republican White House.
“Rupert still mocked Trump’s inadequacies behind the man’s back,” Stelter writes in one excerpt of his new book shared with The Daily Beast. “‘Rupert calls him a fucking idiot,’ a Murdoch insider told me. ‘Rupert knows Trump is crazy,’ another insider said. And Rupert’s wife Jerry Hall was known to call Trump a ‘pig.’ But the media mogul craved proximity to power, and with Trump, he had it. Perhaps it was his own inadequacy.”
Following the resignation of numerous high-profile staffers who were skeptical of Trump—including long-time anchor Shepard Smith—Fox News now largely stands as a monolithic feedback loop of praise for the president and skewerer of his political foes. But reservations about him reached the highest levels of the Murdoch family, resulting in the resignation from News Corp of Rupert’s more liberal son James.
In his book, Stelter confirmed previous reports and detailed extensively how internal disputes over Trump have helped further fracture the tenuous dynamic at the heart of the family business between James and his brother Lachlan, whose political beliefs align more closely with the network’s unwaveringly pro-Trump programming.
Before his exit from the company, which insiders had speculated about for months, James often privately “ripped into Fox’s alternative reality and his brother’s willingness to allow it to continue,” Stelter reports in the book. Additionally, James at one point “likened the network to a ‘sinking ship’ and said some of the ‘rats’ would drown while others would scurry off. One of the few hosts he could stand watching was Shep Smith.” (Smith’s new primetime show on CNBC debuts in late September.)
By contrast, Stelter describes Lachlan as aloof and indifferent to Fox News’ propensity for spreading misinformation and its transition to a nearly full-time support wing of the Trump administration.
“Lachlan’s physical distance from Fox News HQ was matched by his hands-off approach to the content,” Stelter writes. “He went well beyond deference, all the way to indifference. He didn’t watch Fox News religiously. He didn’t worry much about Trump’s war on truth. He was a soccer dad at heart, which was fine, except for the fact that he was also responsible for the most popular cable channel in the country, and that channel—his channel—was grossly misleading people about the worst pandemic in living memory.”
According to Stelter, the network is now mostly piloted by its ratings-generating stars like Sean Hannity, and programmed by the president himself, who regularly chats with his major on-air boosters on the network and offers critical feedback on their programming choices.
Stelter’s book says that CEO Suzanne Scott, who took over the role after the ouster of the late Roger Ailes—who tightly controlled the network’s right-wing editorial bent—has made little impact and has created a power void happily filled by the whims of its zealously pro-Trump stars. (The network has touted Scott’s business decisions, noting the network’s high ratings, and recent strong advertising profits, which Stelter acknowledged in a piece on Monday.)
In excerpts previewed by Vanity Fair, Stelter also notes in the book that hosts like Hannity have essentially acted as shadow staffers to the president. In one instance, the host was reportedly so stressed by the near-constant queries and comments from the president that he gained weight, according to Stelter. And much like his Murdoch bosses, the CNN reporter further writes, even Hannity has privately expressed doubts about the president to whom he has hitched his cable-news wagon.
“Hannity would tell you, off-off-off the record, that Trump is a batshit crazy person,” one of the Fox star’s associates told Stelter. Another Hannity friend agreed, telling the CNN host, “Hannity has said to me more than once, ‘he’s crazy.’”
Stelter’s reporting in Hoax additionally suggests an intriguing possibility for the company’s future that seems ripped straight out of the Murdoch-inspired HBO satire Succession.
According to Stelter, people in James Murdoch’s orbit have hypothesized about a possible scenario in which, upon Rupert Murdoch’s death, James and two Murdoch sisters, Elisabeth and Prudence, would attempt to wrest control of Fox News from Lachlan by using their power as shareholders to outvote their right-wing sibling.
“Was this a serious possibility, or just a liberal fantasy? ‘Time will tell,’ a source said,” according to Stelter. “Meantime, every step James took in the outside world burnished his reputation with an eye toward a shareholder fight in the future.”