Rupert Murdoch had never had a US president in his pocket before Donald Trump landed there in 2016.
It was the biggest missing piece on his global chessboard. An Australian by birth and a patriotic American citizen for the past 35 years, Murdoch has been grovelled to by almost every Australian and British prime minister for five decades. But until Trump, no president had chosen to follow that sycophantic route.
The only other US leader who dealt with Murdoch, but at a distance, was Ronald Reagan. I watched the dynamic of that relationship during the sharemarket crash of 1987 which sent all stocks, including News Corp, plunging.
Working from his father’s old office alongside mine at The Herald in Melbourne, a deeply agitated Murdoch emerged soon after the crash to tell his senior executives “I’ve spoken to the president” and that he and Reagan had agreed the media’s pivotal responsibility during the crisis was to talk up capitalism. All editors followed suit.
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Now Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch can finally boast they not only influenced, but created an American president.
The only problem is how they achieved this exercise in power: through a “constant drumbeat of stories promoting fear and mistrust, eroding confidence in institutions and our democracy”, as Alex Wagner described it in The Atlantic last October, months before Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol building.
“From a television screen tuned to Fox News,” she wrote, “it’s not all that hard to see the brownshirts on the horizon or the paedophiles in the pizza parlour, whether you’re a self-styled militiaman — or the commander in chief.”
What drove the Murdochs to deploy Fox News as Trumpism’s populist platform, and The Wall Street Journal as its serious mouthpiece? Simple and straightforward: their motive was (and always is) money, not ideology.
Fox News grew its ratings and advertising during the Trump era as it exploited the base instincts of its audience. It’s the same calculating formula News Corp has exploited in London, New York and Sydney for decades. Fox News earns about $2 billion a year in profits (that’s profit, not revenue), making it possibly the most profitable single-brand media business in history.
That the Murdochs made large profits from propagating Trump’s lies and aggressively supporting an anti-democratic charlatan arguably makes their role even worse.
They did it for money, not even for principle.
“Day after day, hour after hour, Fox gave its viewers something that looked like news or commentary but far too often lacked sufficient adherence to a necessary ingredient: truth,” wrote media critic Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post after the riot. “Birtherism. The caravan invasion. COVID denialism. Rampant election fraud. All of these found a comfortable home at Fox.”
As former US government communications bureaucrat and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Blair Levin, told The New Yorker: “Fox’s great insight wasn’t necessarily that there was a great desire for a conservative point of view. The genius was seeing that there’s an attraction to fear-based, anger-based politics that has to do with class and race.”
Now that Trump has imploded, the Murdochs are in damage control. Using an editorial gymnastic device cultivated at The Sun in London known as a “reverse ferret” — a shameless, highly visible 180-degree U-turn executed brazenly after your journalism has been exposed as fakery — they will act as though the years of slavish support for Trump never happened.
The Wall Street Journal led the charge in an editorial last Friday, after four years of unrelenting Trump boosterism, by formally advising the president that “his best path would be to take personal responsibility and resign” and that “this week has probably finished him as a serious political figure”. Whoa.
Most of the company’s big-name commentators in print and broadcast are also executing reverse ferrets with aplomb. Expect the Murdochs to do the same, just as they did after the ignominious phone hacking disasters in the UK, when a doddery Rupert famously declared “this is the most humble day of my life” to a parliamentary inquiry.
Of course, as in any corporate culture, the deception and obfuscation starts at the top.
In an interview at a New York Times investor conference in 2018, Lachlan Murdoch described Fox News as the only mass media company in America “with conservative opinions … frankly, I feel in this country we all have to be more tolerant of each other’s views … we’ve come to this point where we are more and more intolerant of each other, and frankly, that has to change”.
Tolerance? After all the distorted coverage of Trump by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Sky News Australia and The Australian, none has been detected. Instead the past four years have been quite a contribution to public life, even by Murdoch family values.
For more on how Murdoch helped give us Trump, go here.