The worst thing that you can say about Rupert Murdoch, who resigned from the board of the Fox and News Corporations on Tuesday, is that no one has had a greater influence on the news over the last half-century. Murdoch’s influence is both incalculable and fantastically corrosive. It is impossible to look at all of the most malignant aspects of the current news environment—its pace, its callousness, its rancor—without seeing his impact. It is also a fully baked cake. Murdoch may be exiting the scene, but there is no undoing the damage he has done.
Murdoch set the tone he would follow in his Australian tabloids, before quickly dominating the media landscape in the United Kingdom and, eventually, America. He would eventually acquire more respectable outlets—most notably The Wall Street Journal—but his overall approach to the news was best exemplified by the scummy, vile Sun and News of the World in the U.K., tabloids for which no bottom was too low. These were gratuitous, cruel, nihilistic papers. They also made Murdoch millions and established his modus operandi: Feed readers a steady trough of lurid stories meant to excite their basest emotions—and then profit.
Much will be made about Fox News, Murdoch’s greatest and most destructive creation. With Roger Ailes, he turned it into a juggernaut and transformed the media. The cable news industry as we know it is, more or less, the invention of Murdoch and Ailes. News had long been packaged as entertainment, but this reached new heights at Fox News. The network itself existed as an answer to long-standing conservative complaints that the media had a “liberal” bias. It portrayed itself as a “fair and balanced” corrective. It was, instead, a new, powerful partisan machine. It worked immaculately.
Fox News, with Murdoch and Ailes at the helm, transformed news into a massive engine of confirmation bias. It was a safe space for Americans, most of them older and white, to have their fantasies affirmed: Immigrants were pouring into the country, crime was out of control, their way of life was under threat from sources both foreign and domestic. For decades, it pushed conspiracies of every stripe and played a major role in pushing numerous disasters, from the Iraq War to the January 6 insurrection. Pushing conspiracies was and is Fox’s business plan: It exists to tell its viewers that their political opponents are not just their adversaries but represent an existential threat.
There is already hope in some corners that things will improve at Fox after Rupert’s exit. There is no reason to believe this will be the case, however. His son Lachlan, who is taking over, is a close friend of Tucker Carlson; describing himself as a “political independent,” he has shown no interest in shifting Fox’s coverage in any direction, particularly one that would hurt its profitability. Lachlan’s siblings are more liberal—James, the older sibling who was once seen as the heir apparent, left the company and has since spent most of his time working on liberal causes relating to climate change and democracy. Lachlan’s two other siblings, who will also be on the board, are also more liberal than him. But Lachlan holds the reins.
In the aftermath of the January 6 riot, there was a small shift in Fox’s coverage. The network showed a greater willingness to break with Donald Trump; it began coddling its viewers less, telling them the truth: that Trump had actually lost the 2020 presidential election. The result was a disaster for Fox. Its viewers flocked to other, jankier competitors with fewer reservations about lying to their audience, namely Newsmax and One America News. Fox’s audience has recovered—and then been decimated after Carlson’s firing before recovering again—but the lesson was learned: Shifting gears means disaster. The business model demands fearmongering and lies. There is no other way to exist.
The cable news business is changing and shrinking. It is possible that this is the beginning of the end for Fox News and that Rupert Murdoch’s quasi-retirement will be seen as a shift in the network’s fortunes. But there’s no reason to believe that will happen anytime soon. The network is still built in Rupert’s monstrous image, and it is built to last.