Are we heading for a Trump news slump? He’s been at the centre of the world’s biggest stories since at least 2016 — from the rise of populist authoritarianism to COVID. He’s sent some readers fleeing to fact-based media while encouraging others to amplify the echo of conservative voices.
Who will miss him more if, as all polls suggest, he loses this week’s election?
Rupert Murdoch is already carefully pre-positioning. According to The Washington Post he’s been telling associates he’s resigned to a Trump loss but that it would have worked out differently if Trump had listened to him and taken the pandemic seriously.
Hmm… I’m sure Dan Andrews would like a word about that.
The trouble was that Trump was listening to Murdoch — or at least to his network, Fox News. Like plenty of News Corp commentators here in Australia, the Fox pundits have been socially distancing from the science and endorsing a let-‘er-rip Swedish approach. It’s been more hydroxychloroquine than helpful advice.
While Murdoch is “resigned”, his news outlets are doubling down on Trump. The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and Fox News have been reporting out the alleged Hunter Biden emails story. This is despite internal opposition from the remaining fact-based loyalists on the news side of the organisations.
Like the front pages in this past month’s Courier-Mail, this puts to rest the supposition that Murdoch backs winners. Once, maybe. Now — and for at least the past decade — the outlets he co-manages with son Lachlan are standing staunch on the bridge as the campaign slowly slides underwater.
It looks like the company is positioning itself to be the voice of the resistance to an incoming Democratic administration. (Queenslanders will know what that means.) As a business strategy, it may be working for Fox News, with both audiences and advertising reportedly up this year.
For the News Corp side of the family holdings? Not so much. The right-wing market is just not big enough in, say, Queensland or Victoria to sustain the company’s conservative tabloids — particularly now that the Clive Palmer ads look like drying up.
News Corp’s conscious polarisation of politics in both Australia and the US has alienated key demographics needed to build a media voice for the future. These include university-educated under-55s and anyone whose political views range from mildly right-of-centre out to the extreme left.
There’s no Australian Trump and Trump is central to Fox’s US success. His daily tweets, interviews and rallies provide critical content. He amplifies both the Fox brand and its right-wing talking points. He brings in his audience and protects the network when he warns his supporters away from alternate views in the “fake news” media.
Maybe the Murdochs don’t have any choice. Their two companies are deeply positioned in the right-wing noise machine, with Trump on one side and a populist ecosystem of activists, armed militias and conservative media on the other (from the “alt-right” to the “alt-light”, as New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz has called it).
This denies them the flexibility to pivot to the centre as they once could with, say, a Tony Blair in mid-’90s Britain. Trump has already demonstrated to them that support runs both ways, tweeting criticisms to hold Fox close. Nervous about the impact, Fox has usually followed along.
How will that work with an inevitably weakened post-president Trump?
There’s a risk, too, for fact-based media. Around the world, anti-Trumpists have spent the past four years trawling through news feeds to see just how bad things are. There’s even a word for it: “doomscrolling”.
The lure of doom gave news media a Trump bump following his election in 2016, with subscriptions jumping for US papers. (COVID-19 provided a further boost this year.)
As Barack Obama said on the weekend: “With Joe and Kamala … you’re not going to have to think about them every day. You’re not going to have to argue with your family about him every day. It won’t be so exhausting. You’ll be able to get on with your lives.”
Between the diminution of the Trump foghorn and this return to a news-lite normalcy, it’s hard to tell who’d miss Trump most.