Murdoch watchers are about to see in real life how Lachlan handles the dilemma his father regularly faced: how to choose between the political right (in this case, Trump) and the likely political winner (almost certainly not Trump).
It’s not just the polls, with averages currently showing Joe Biden up about 10%. It’s the perceptions leaking out of the Murdoch family bunker on New York’s Sixth Avenue — the same building that houses the headquarters of both Fox News and News Corp’s The Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
Those perceptions? Trump is heading for a loss in November. Earlier this month, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported an inside source telling him: “Rupert thinks Trump is going to crash and burn. It’s a clear-eyed assessment, just based on just looking at the news.”
The Wall Street Journal is already testing the waters, with its editorial board opining on Trump last week: “He still has no second term message beyond his own grievances.” The paper’s lead opinionista (and former Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan added: “He hasn’t been equal to the multiple crises. Good news or bad, he rarely makes any situation better. And everyone kind of knows.” Ouch!
Fox News is gentler with yesterday’s lead story headed: “Rough polling stretch has GOP operatives asking: Could Trump drop out?” I wonder how far from Sixth Avenue those particular operatives are based?
The relationship between those New York oligarchs, the Murdochs and the Trumps, has been an enduring sub-plot of the Trump presidency. In his 2018 book Fire and Fury, former Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff quoted Rupert calling Trump an idiot. In Wolff’s 2019 follow-up, State of Siege, Rupert says: “I can’t get the asshole off the phone.”
Number two son James Murdoch, says Wolff, told his father that the family had become collaborators and the company’s future was at stake. Last year, Sherman reported that Fox News commentator Sean Hannity told Trump the Murdochs hated the president.
Idiot? Asshole? Shrug.
Loser? Threat to the company? That’s dangerous. Just ask Malcolm Turnbull.
As always, Trump can be expected to tweet the quiet parts out loud. Since April, he’s launched multiple threaded critiques of Fox, fulminating in a May 22 missive: “@FoxNews is doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd.”
It’s long been a mixed relationship. The Murdochs were sceptical of Trump’s presidential bid, although his views aligned with the network’s long reputation for coded racism. They were dragged on board in part by network head Roger Ailes (as portrayed in The Loudest Voice) and in part by their audience.
Over the months between declaration and inauguration, Trump demonstrated that the Fox audience were his supporters before they were Fox viewers. Almost as a test, he forced the network to choose between him and its lead personality, Megyn Kelly. Driven by its audience, Fox chose Trump.
Over at News Corp’s US mastheads, support was more subdued, although Trumpists, such as Australia’s own Miranda Devine in the New York Post, continue to dominate columns and op-eds. But in mastheads, Trump’s home-town The New York Times matters more, even as an “enemy of the people” he can push back against.
As the leading cable news network, and as the voice of the populist right, Fox always mattered more to a television personality like Trump.
It matters more to the Murdochs, too, particularly the new generation. Family heir Lachlan draws his salary as Fox Corp executive chair with Rupert as non-executive co-chair. At News Corp, the roles are reversed.
Trump puts Fox in a bind. They share audiences and populist politics. Fox gives the Murdochs influence across the Republican party which, in turn, drives the company’s income. But where will a post-Trump Fox fit into a Democrat-run America where it’s targeted by campaigners like Sleeping Giants and Media Matters and confronted by the cultural reset driven by big trends from Me Too to Black Lives Matter?
At the same time, Trump may be planning to dump Fox before the Murdochs dump him. He’s embracing the alternate conservative cable voice, the One America News Network (OAN). With Trump’s support, OAN would bite into Fox’s audience, while his family is reported to be forming a consortium to buy the network — although the current owners say it’s not for sale.
Trump has promoted the more conspiracy inclined OAN, most notoriously by tweeting its theory that the 75-year-old BLM protestor pushed over by police in Buffalo was an Antifa activist seeking to grab communications equipment.
In Australia, the News Corp solution would be simple: gin up a party-room challenge. With the US system? That’s a lot harder, particularly when the audience may turn out to belong to Trump, not the Murdochs.