I guess it was always too much to hope that the blight on humanity that is Fox News would suddenly reform itself when its architect, Rupert Murdoch, departs this Earth.
That kind of magical thinking was based on the idea that the next generation of Murdochs would be more enlightened—enlightened enough to know the malignant effects of Fox News and enlightened enough to see those effects as a long-term liability to the business rather than a core asset.
Well, the next generation is now clarified in the form of one person, Lachlan Murdoch, and we can forget about enlightened. Lachlan is Rupert Redux, a young-ish man in full genetic regression.
His grip on Fox News and the whole Murdoch empire was consolidated when his brother James suddenly resigned from the board, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content” and “certain other strategic decisions”—two vague phrases that conceal a volcanic family feud as well as incompatible approaches to the future of the media business.
To really understand the Murdoch pathology—its genius and its darkness—you have to begin with its foundational culture, Australia. And the thing about Lachlan Murdoch is how deeply and unreservedly Australian he is, in an old-school and revanchist sense.
James, in contrast, acquired a far smoother, cosmopolitan broadness of interests and thinking than either his brother or father, which may well have been why in the end he just couldn’t take the gig any more. Moreover, his wife, Kathryn Hufschmid, has openly liberal views and they have jointly donated more than $1 million to the Biden campaign.
But this is not simply a good son-bad son narrative. The company business has made them both multi-billionaires.
And James sacrificed some of his own reputation in trying to save his father’s by taking the heat for one of the most disreputable episodes in British tabloid journalism. In 2014, the former editor of the London-based Sunday paper, The News of The World, was jailed after it was revealed that its reporters had hacked the phones of more than 7,000 people, including the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.
That happened before James was in charge of the London papers but he was handled harshly by British lawmakers for covering up the systemic rot of the Murdoch newsroom, while his father claimed no knowledge of a culture that grew out of service to his relish for tabloid scandals.
James also loyally followed the party line on some of Rupert’s most long-running vendettas, like his loathing of the BBC and public broadcasting.
But people on the other side of the argument always found James a serious and fluent adversary. There was none of his father’s bar-room belligerence. If anything, he elevated argument rather than lowered it.
That has never been said of Lachlan, who, although he has an American accent, has a throwback Australian temperament.
Lachlan’s attachment to his Australian roots was not predictable. He was born in London and completed his education at Princeton, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. But his father gave him a first taste of the family business in Australia at the age of 18 and at the age of 23 he was made publisher of The Australian, the national daily that Murdoch has long used to wield his political influence.
It was during his youth in Australia that Lachlan acquired the mantle of a basic Australian male stereotype, the jackaroo, when he worked on sheep farms, herding and vaccinating sheep and lambs—and culling kangaroos (they may be a national icon but they are regarded as invasive) with a shotgun.
This made him a natural fit among the male-dominated conservative ruling caste where one editor of a Murdoch paper said Lachlan’s conservatism “is more vigorous than that of any Australian politician” and another said he was to the right of his father.
Lachlan also paid homage to the hard-driving founding father of the Murdoch empire, his grandfather Sir Keith Murdoch. Quite quickly, Rupert Murdoch warmed to Lachlan’s love of the bloodline and his adamantine embrace of core family views—like opposing all forms of government intervention in businesses.
But this depth of amity came to an abrupt end in 2005, when Lachlan walked away from running Fox News in New York after a power struggle with its mastermind, Roger Ailes. He took $100 million from a family trust and spent a decade in Australia building his own business.
The results were uneven in his media investments, but a $10 million stake he persuaded his father to make in an online real estate site became worth $4.33 billion. When he returned to the family fold in 2014, the Murdoch papers in Australia, controlling around 65 percent of the total Australian newspaper readership, were at the height of their political power and it was obvious that he shared that power with his father.
Two Australian prime ministers, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, blamed their downfalls on pressure from Murdoch papers and Rudd declared that the Murdochs were “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy.”
Significantly, Lachlan had become a trenchant climate change denier. This was in a nation that was trying—unsuccessfully—to balance an economic dependency on a domestic coal industry while living at the very edge of the planet’s ability to survive rising temperatures that were largely driven by the consumption of fossil fuels.
Over many decades, Australian politicians of both left and right had allowed one of the world’s greatest natural treasures, the Great Barrier Reef, to slowly die as the result of rising water temperatures. The climate denying chorus was led by Sky News Australia, the main Murdoch channel in Australia. During the day it was an unbiased news channel, but at night, following the Fox News model, it fielded a team of ranters who echoed Lachlan’s views.
And then, early this year, came an event that brought Lachlan and the family policy under direct attack from James, when the worst forest fires in Australian history forced thousands of people in south east Australia to flee to the beaches for sanctuary. James saw this ecological apocalypse as the inevitable result of his brother’s blind support of fossil fuels, a support that also required all Australian prime ministers to be puppets for the industry.
Inexorably, the same ideological zealotry moved with Lachlan to the U.S., and once he became executive chairman and CEO of the Fox Corporation his zealotry flowed seamlessly into Fox News.
Under his direction, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the public influence of Fox News rising to a whole new and dangerous level. By slavishly cheerleading for Donald Trump from the start, the channel became complicit in Trump’s serial incompetence—and, therefore, it must by any reckoning carry a share of responsibility for the devastating result in human lives lost and its impact on millions of survivors.
But the role of Fox went beyond cheerleading. With a White House that dismissed science and replaced it with misleading messaging, day after day, Fox News was itself consistently reinforcing that messaging, dissing scientists and boosting quack cures.
In March a survey conducted for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania highlighted some of the damage that was already being done by not facing up to the reality of how serious the pandemic was.
Nearly 19 percent of people surveyed believed that the Centers for Disease Control was exaggerating the threat of the virus to undermine Trump.
As the researchers warned, “This assumption has the potential to engender distrust in one of the two U.S. government agencies tasked not only with protecting public health but also with communicating accurate information about ways to protect oneself and others.”
That came as Sean Hannity gave a platform to a Fox “medical contributor” Dr. Marc Siegel, who said “the virus should be compared to the flu. Because at worst, at worst, worst-case scenario it could be the flu.”
Fox played a key role in shaping a pattern: public understanding of the danger was dividing according to partisan allegiances. Democrats were more likely to know that the virus was more lethal than the flu; Republicans more likely to believe that the CDC was out to hurt Trump. And Fox was a major influence in promoting belief in quack remedies.
Some reporting on Fox has suggested that Lachlan has never been a daily hands-on overseer of the newsroom like his father was – or like Ailes. He certainly never gives interviews to explain his role. But, given his love of power, the final calls are inevitably his and so is the public responsibility. It’s unthinkable that those calls would have been pursued without the assent of the patriarch.
Moreover, when Tucker Carlson made a non-apology apology for firing his top writer, who had been exposed as having a record of posting racist, sexist and homophobic comments, reporting by The Daily Beast confirmed that Lachlan had personally directed Carlson to avoid any tone of apology.
If the performance of Fox News explains James’s objection to “certain editorial content” what explains his opposition to “certain other strategic decisions”?
Those decisions are bound up in how the family businesses, grouped together as News Corp is being reshaped after the sale of 20th Century Fox and its entertainment assets to Disney for $71.3 billion in a deal completed last year.
At the time, Robert Thomson, News Corp’s chief operating officer, promised that the new, far smaller company would “cultivate a start-up sensibility” and would build new business models around its properties and content—presumably taking old media like print into the digital age.
Media analyst Peter Kreisky, who has closely followed the company’s moves, told The Daily Beast, “So far only Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has fully lived up to that promise. It has successfully embraced digital and video and leveraged the value of its large and high quality subscription base.
“The striking disparity in performance between Dow Jones and the rest of News Corp newspapers was acknowledged in the full year earnings report on Thursday,” says Kreisky, “which, for the first time, broke out Dow Jones from the rest, showing a 13 percent rise in the bottom line for that business, while revealing the other newspapers’ results, compounded by the effects of the coronavirus, were down a whopping 71 percent.”
Kreisky believes that the family became split over whether and how to pump new life into the British newspapers, like the tabloid The Sun, that were once cash cows but have suffered huge falls in circulation and failed to challenge competitors like The Daily Mail, with its phenomenal tabloid site Mail Online: “The strategic focus has now shifted investment to Dow Jones, clearly the crown jewel, while there will be drastic cost-cutting to stem losses in the other newspapers. Rupert Murdoch is unwilling to spend what is needed to bring them into the digital age and long-term Lachlan lacks his father’s passion for the legacy newspapers.”
(James, on the other hand, acting as a private investor, has fully demonstrated the “start-up sensibility,” through his company Lupa Systems, investing in companies that develop “human tech” and, avowedly, that will counter fake news with a “more sustainable news ecosystem.”)
Fox News alone brings in more money than the rest of the businesses combined, generating annual revenues of $11.4 billion, against $10 billion for the rest of News Corp and with bottom-line profits three times as high.
Those profits are the fruit of high ratings. In the first quarter of 2020 the two leading primetime barkers, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, averaged 3.4 million viewers.
But neither Trump nor Fox can overcome the fact that the news cycle is now controlled by the virus, not by them. Even if the Murdochs sense that Trump will lose, it’s too late for them to back away from him and all the evidence is that under Lachlan they will double down, becoming a rabid attack dog against Biden as well as fomenting distrust in the voting system.
Earlier in the summer, 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch left his vineyard home in the elitist Californian enclave of Bel Air and flew with his wife, Jerry Hall, to England, where they have bought, for around $40 million, a vast but dilapidated stately home in the Cotswolds that will be transformed into something worthy of Charles Foster Kane.
The old man probably feels a lot safer in a country where wearing masks is accepted as a civic duty and is not seen as a challenge to virility.