No one has had a bigger impact on modern American media and politics than Rupert Murdoch. His most enduring legacy in the U.S. will be Fox News — whose parent company’s board he stepped down from yesterday — and the ethos of fear and contempt that infuses today’s Republican Party.
Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996 to exploit what he saw as an unaddressed need for a conservative TV network. Existing news outlets, he believed, leaned left without acknowledging it. Fox’s reach was initially limited, but as more cable providers began to carry the network, its influence grew. A study in 2007 established what became known as the Fox News Effect: The introduction of the network on a particular cable system typically pushed local voters to the right.
Fox’s power grew in part from the very proposition of cable news. Years before people were glued to their smartphones, they were glued to their TVs. Hour after hour, night after night, Fox hosts shaped the realities of its viewers, fostering a suspicion of Democratic politicians and policies and of the mainstream media. In the process, the network became the only news source that many American conservatives trusted.
Fox also derived its clout from its unique relationship with its audience. Murdoch was a businessman and Fox News was a business, which meant that ratings, above all, drove programming decisions. In this sense, Fox was a nonstop Republican message-testing machine. The goal was always to find what resonated most with Fox viewers — a group that was becoming synonymous with the Republican base — and then double- or triple-down on it.
Murdoch owned media properties on multiple continents, but he took a special interest in Fox News. Its political influence gave him political influence. He didn’t necessarily call in interview questions from the control room, but he oversaw all of the big decisions — like the hirings and firings of hosts and executives — that shaped the network’s direction.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Fox News provided endless hours of coverage of raucous Tea Party rallies and of the “birther” campaign — a false story claiming that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. — to delegitimize the nation’s first Black president. Both were quintessential Fox: building a populist, right-wing groundswell into a movement that delivered reliably big ratings and stoked the G.O.P. base, creating and feeding an appetite for cultural warfare.
It was that groundswell — and Fox’s amplification of it — that propelled Donald Trump’s political rise. Murdoch and Trump have had an on-and-off relationship. Murdoch initially opposed his 2016 candidacy, but eventually swung Fox behind him and was thrilled to have a president whom he could get on the phone whenever he needed.
During the Trump presidency, Fox became America’s dominant news network. But it also became a kind of prisoner of its own business model, spawning numerous imitators and an ecosystem of right-wing outlets that were seeking to threaten its monopoly over conservative voters. Even as Murdoch privately dismissed Trump’s claims of voter fraud as “really crazy stuff,” his network kept selling the lie. Its support ultimately came at a financial cost: In April, the network agreed to pay nearly $800 million to settle a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems over 2020 election coverage.
Though Trump and Murdoch’s relationship is currently off, there is little doubt that Fox will back Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee. Its viewers will demand it.
On the eve of the 2024 election, Murdoch is turning control over to his eldest son, Lachlan, the winner of the family’s Shakespearean succession fight. Rupert will remain chairman emeritus and will continue to be active behind the scenes.
Each new poll confirming the resilience of Trump’s popularity — despite four indictments and 91 criminal charges — is a testament to Murdoch’s impact. You might call this, too, the Fox News Effect.
Lachlan is finally getting the family prize: the keys to his father’s media empire.
His path to succession was rocky at times, but Lachlan showed his father in recent years that they were aligned politically.
Murdoch built a propaganda machine by giving his people what they wanted. He turned grievance into money and power, James Poniewozik writes.
The electorate that Fox helped shape has made this country ungovernable, Michelle Goldberg argues for Times Opinion.
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