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Fox and Foes

Are We In the Last Days of Fox News?

Michael Wolff’s new book on the Murdochs is full of juicy details, but its predictions may be off.

Victoria Jones/PA Images/Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch in June, at his annual party at Spencer House, St James’ Place, in London

“The people you know live in this moment,” Fox News founder Roger Ailes once told the journalist Michael Wolff, “the people who Fox is for live in 1965.” The Murdoch family enabled Ailes to create an alternate world for this curated audience of regressives at the network. But Wolff reports that Ailes had no use for the Murdochs, especially the sons, James and Lachlan, whom he derided as “gay”—a label he applied to all coastal elite men. 

Ailes carefully chose his stars and style with 1965 and not-gay in mind. Dumb was OK. Plucking Sean Hannity from an $800-a-week radio job in Atlanta, Ailes boasts, was a brilliant move precisely because Hannity is, well, not that bright. “Smart is what people hate. God they hate it,” the old man tells Wolff.

The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty
by Michael Wolff
Henry Holt & Company, 320 pp., $29.99

Readers have come to expect this kind of charming vignette from Wolff’s forays into high-powered, right-wing networks. In his 2018 barnstormer Fire and Fury, which sold more than 1.7 million copies, Wolff produced a garish report from inside the bedlam of the Trump White House, revealing such choice details as Trump’s habit of eating cheeseburgers in bed and the engineering behind his oddly coiffed hair.

Ailes’s cynicism and ruthlessness propelled Fox to a cable dominance that endured beyond his sexual harassment–related ouster in 2016. But Wolff proposes that the empire Ailes and Murdoch built is not long for this world: The old generation is fading, and the new one doesn’t have the stomach to run a crypto-fascist propaganda machine. The book’s titular prophesy of The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty has a deeply satisfying ring—if alas, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s greatly exaggerated reports of death. Rupert Murdoch, at 92, will not last forever; this past week, he announced his retirement. But Wolff’s prediction that Murdoch’s death will signal “the end of Fox News” is shaky, since his own book shows again and again how Fox succeeds not because of Rupert Murdoch but in spite of him.

Wolff has been embedded in the trenches of Fox for a while, surfacing with a haul of filthy quotes and anecdotes sewn together with casually insulting insights. The book relies on a long and fruitful relationship with Ailes, whom Wolff cultivated during his years as a media writer for New York magazine, when many other writers were shunning the goatish strategist turned media mogul. Early chapters read like a notebook dump of the old man’s observations on women, pontifications on politics and the TV business, and power plays that doubled as story tips for his interlocutor. 

During his reign, Wolff reports, Ailes was very precise about his casting of females. They had to be “not just white, but not ethnic,” Wolff summarizes, and “each needed to have a more particular sexual-role function. The girl next door. The vixen. The disciplinarian.” Perhaps most importantly, they had to pass what Ailes called “the American blow-job test”—what Wolff calls “a homegrown Ailes theory, which he was pleased to frequently expand upon, about every man’s evaluation of whether or not a woman would give head and with what verve and style.”

When Ailes finally flamed out, thanks to anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit, no one at Fox was surprised. “Ailes’s sexual penchants hid in plain sight,” Wolff writes. “An overweight man and an ugly man, he appraised all women with something like greed and anger.” Ailes’s conversations “nearly always had a parallel tract of commentary about what acts a woman might be best at, invariably heading to what, with relish, he saw as forms of satisfying degradation.”

To the end, his defenders blamed the women. Wolff conducted his final interviews with Ailes at his suburban home in Cresskill, New Jersey, where he overheard Ailes on the phone to Rudy Giuliani, whose law firm was representing Ailes in his separation from Fox but whose “real job was commiseration.” Wolff recalled Giuliani launching “into a denunciation” of the women who had made complaints about Ailes at Fox. He observed “a set piece between the two men,” as they bemoaned, Wolff writes, “a dark world of women whose inner avarice and aggression had been released in this new age.”

When Ailes died, five months into Trump’s presidency, Wolff joined the Fox stars as they hitched a ride on Sean Hannity’s private plane from New York down to the funeral in Palm Beach, Florida. En route, Fox contributor Liz Trotta bitterly mutters: “What the sluts did to him, should be a public whipping.”*

The girls don’t seem to care: Kimberly Guilfoyle is on board, “dressed in black widow’s weeds, to sinister effect” and apparently, obvious to all, flying commando. Laura Ingraham pays her respects. One almost feels sorry for her for the way Wolff portrays her as the butt of constant jokes and derision from Fox men. “She was, in the telling of many men at Fox and throughout a social unreconstructed conservative movement, gross, pathetic, drunk, and a skank—cue the huge peal of laughter.” Wolff claims Ailes rated her “no better than a C- on the blow-job test.”

With Ailes out of the building, and off the mortal coil, Trump became the de facto leader of Fox-world, its ideological, amoral center and cash cow. And Hannity, whom Ailes and Murdoch and Wolff all openly regard as an idiot, rose to the very top of the power structure. (“He’s retarded, like most Americans,” Murdoch once remarked, according to Wolff.) Hannity became Trump’s straight man, interlocutor, and therapist: his Howard Stern, his video Boswell. “Trump, Hannity recognized, was quite the dumber ox. Hannity, in Trump’s presence, was the clear contrast gainer, the considered, methodical, thoughtful one,” Wolff writes.  

Wolff paints the post-Ailes, post-Dominion, and post-Tucker Fox as a rudderless behemoth, led by sheepish heirs who loathe the sordid business but are chained to the money pipeline by greed. Wolff writes that brothers James and Lachlan are at war and have not spoken to each other for five years, James having become a Democratic Party donor, Lachlan in charge of Fox, living in Australia, ultimately fine with getting richer off a democracy-chewing propaganda silo presided over by stars like Hannity and, until recently, Tucker Carlson and decorated with female eye candy. Everyone waiting for the old man to croak. In one of Wolff’s final meetings with Ailes before he died, Ailes said of the Murdochs and Fox: “They’re stuck with it … but they can’t run it either.” 

That internal conflict blew up on election night 2020, when Rupert Murdoch supposedly said, “Fuck him,” of Trump, when handed the hot potato of whether Fox should make the Arizona call for Biden. For a moment the old man “had allowed the network to seemingly take an overt position against its paramount franchise, the presidency of Donald Trump,” Wolff writes. But confused management and stars couldn’t and wouldn’t pivot, and the network immediately capitulated to the Election Lie storyline. The Lie has so far cost Murdoch $780 million and his top-rated star (Tucker’s defenestration, Wolff tacitly suggests, was part of the legal settlement).

Wolff puts the blame for the debacle of the Dominion lawsuit squarely at the foot of the old man, who resisted settling until pinned to the wall by imminent trial. Fox lawyer Viet Dinh blew off the danger Dominion posed even as it hoovered up stars’ private emails and texts in discovery and put the anchors on edge. According to Wolff, Dinh, who was not only a lawyer but a family retainer, godfather to one of the grandchildren, kept repeating that there was “‘absolutely nothing to worry about’ … after his multiple glasses of lunchtime wine.” He promised that if necessary, “we’ll take it to the Supreme Court” and win.

Dinh was recently sacked. According to Wolff, Dinh’s blasé attitude and misplaced confidence was rooted in long Murdoch media tradition. “The job of Murdoch lawyers, evolved over decades, was helping the company do what it wanted to do: i.e., what other more cautious and deliberate media companies would most often not do.”

Murdoch always saw himself as a champion of a particular kind of old school Fleet Street journalism. His editors had “aggressively trodden fine lines in coverage of celebrities, royals, politicians, ordinary folk in the headlights.” In 1981, when historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, advised Murdoch not to publish the fraudulent “Hitler diaries,” for example, Murdoch went ahead and did so, declaring “Fuck Dacre! Publish,” Wolff reports. (Did I mention the book is packed with Roy-family levels of profanity?)

But Murdoch’s defense of free speech was “not a defense of virtue, rather the opposite.” The debacle of being found to have hacked into the phones of several public figures, including members of the British royal family, caused Murdoch to shutter his News of the World tabloid and, Wolff claims, nearly destroyed the empire.

Trump ultimately got his revenge on Murdoch, bestowing on CNN his star power at the New Hampshire Town Hall in May. Trump “understood that of course CNN would be willing to put aside its own years of casting him as democracy’s Golgotha and a common criminal,” Wolff writes. Trump manipulated Fox, down to the timing of the debate, originally demanding that the Town Hall air during Hannity’s time slot, then, after Tucker Carlson was fired, demanding CNN switch the time to the old Tucker slot, so as not to compete with Hannity. On which Wolff quotes a “Trump inner circle staffer” commenting, “you can’t say all those years of fellating POTUS on air didn’t pay off for Sean.”

Perhaps because there is no believable end to Fox in sight, the book’s conclusion feels rather weak. In the final chapter, “Rupert—Après Moi,” Wolff spins out a fairy tale ending, in which the heirs dump Fox and move on. In this fantasy, Rupert’s kids James, Lachlan, Prue, and Elisabeth might just decide the stress of destroying democracy is too much of a hassle, and the rewards no longer worth it, sell, and ride off into the Australian sunset with their fortunes. 

If Fox ever does go down, its legacy will survive not just in unfathomable damage to political discourse and public trust, but in the myriad offspring—the stars, writers, producers—that flew Fox’s nest and/or took inspiration from it: all the conservative insult comedians and outrage fluffers now gone on to lucrative careers in the galaxy of platforms hyping right-wing unreality. Fox “established conservatism as a major media business, but more and more it occupied just a place in an industry that continued to expand around it,” Wolff writes. One America News Network, Alex Jones and his Newsmax, Bannon and his War Room, Tucker Carlson setting up shop on “X” are but a few of these spinoffs and copycats. They will surely be around to satisfy the bereft Fox audience in the unlikely event Murdochs choose the American public interest over cash.  

This article originally misstated Liz Trotta’s role at Fox News.