The final fig leaf has fallen from Fox News, in the form of Chris Wallace’s exit. As it does, the nakedness of the Murdoch network assumes more clearly the grotesque form of Tucker Carlson.
There were several signs that the burden placed on Wallace as the de facto protector of truth at Fox was too much for him to endure for much longer.
Last month, in a long interview with Matthew Garrahan in the Financial Times, Wallace refused to comment on Carlson. Instead, he offered this bromide: “I am only responsible for and only have control over my piece of real estate. I’m proud of what we do… I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to my audience and to the truth. Truth is non-negotiable. There’s no spin to truth. Truth is truth.”
With Carlson’s contempt for truth-telling going way beyond the range of Fox’s other primetime bloviators, the image of Wallace upholding his own guard rails—of him being the guarantor of the news division’s sanctity—was risible.
It’s the end of a substantial run at Fox for Wallace. He’s been a journalist for 52 years, having joined the Boston Globe after Harvard. Through a long passage in television news, at NBC and ABC, he had to work in the shadow of a legend, that of his father Mike, the fearless interrogator of some of the world’s greatest rogues, the benchmark tough guy of the CBS 60 Minutes mob.
Eventually, he successfully became his own man with his own style, always well briefed and even-handed, tough without excess, respected in Washington. He was a newsman’s newsman, never a carnival barker.
That made him valuable to Fox News when he joined them 18 years ago. He delivered a gravitas and credibility that the newsroom needed. But the seeds of a diverging culture were already there. Fox’s first primetime host, Bill O’Reilly, under the tutelage of the Fox mastermind, Roger Ailes, was turning news into the personal agenda of a populist blowhard.
With primetime given over to the bloviators, Fox was creaming CNN and MSNBC. By 2012 its primetime audience was more than twice that of the other two combined, giving Rupert Murdoch a huge new revenue stream. At the same time, Murdoch was insisting that Fox was primarily a news operation, independent of political allegiance.
Wallace clung loyally to the same conviction. Amazingly, he was still clinging to it in his Financial Times interview. Talking of Murdoch, he said, “The thing that’s most interesting when I’ve sat down with Rupert is he’s a newsman. He doesn’t want to talk about how we’re going to build an audience. He wants to know what’s happening, what’s going on at the White House.”
He praised Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the family’s minder at Fox News: “The Murdochs spent millions of dollars completely redoing the newsroom in New York and Washington. If all you wanted was opinion you don’t need all those reporters and producers and associate producers and desk assistants… they put their money where their mouth is when it comes to journalism.”
The greater reality is that the Murdochs know where their money comes from.
Their newspaper empire is a pale shadow of its former self, suffering the fate of an industry in freefall. Not only does Fox News produce more profits than the rest of the Murdoch businesses combined. It is now really the only thing that underpins Rupert Murdoch’s status as a global media mogul.
There are several layers of executives between Murdoch and Fox News. He’s long ceased to be the hands-on boss he once was. But nothing has ever happened in any Murdoch operation that he did not allow to happen. So no matter what spin Fox will put on the departure of Chris Wallace, let there be no doubt that allowing the face of Fox News to become predominantly that of Tucker Carlson has the Rupert blessing. He has to live with that.