Rupert Murdoch’s Retirement: How Trump Outfoxed the Cable-News Svengali

Rupert Murdoch’s retirement from the boards of Fox and News Corporation is the event we’ve been waiting for.

The most critically-acclaimed television series of the modern era, “Succession,” imagined a Murdoch figure struggling with the decision to let go of the reins. Journalist Michael Wolff’s book “The Fall,” to be released next week, muses about a post-Rupert world. That world will, we now know, arrive as soon as November, when Murdoch becomes chairman emeritus of both companies, and his son Lachlan Murdoch takes charge.

Murdoch has been consequential not merely for his Oz-like dominion over the global news landscape but for the substance of what his news organizations do. In the U.S., his Fox News, scrappily assembled in 1996 and given its voice and its vim by the late Roger Ailes, has set the agenda for the modern conservative movement, with its opinion hosts broadcasting in bitter opposition to what they depict as the foibles of modern liberalism and helping make both media and political stars. 

In the hands of Murdoch and of Ailes, politics on TV became a slugfest; the network’s most prized hosts were the ones most adventurously and creatively willing to heap scorn upon their ideological enemies. Ailes uniquely understood broadcasting, but Murdoch, borne out of a previous era of newspapermen elbowing one another for readers’ attention and their money, understood tabloid sensibility. And Ailes built out a network that looked for all the world like a Murdoch tabloid: It took an almost sensual delight in sinking its teeth into the news of the day. 

Now, everyone’s still playing catchup: CNN, with its endless roundtables seeking confrontation, drama, and juice, as well as MSNBC have borrowed certain elements from the Fox playbook. And GOP politics, defined more and more by trending-topic calls to action and organizing against a hazy but omnipresent threat of the other, have been shaped by Fox’s us-and-them vision, and the clarity with which its hosts express it. 

But it’s easy to see that the past several years have not been as charmed for Fox News, as it’s gone from defining the agenda to being defined by it. Ailes’ 2016 resignation after charges of sexual harassment left the network without a key organizing figure to marshal its outrageous, outrage-loving sensibility. And, that year, the network came to be defined not by its own voice but by a bullhorn from outside the News Corp gates. To this day, Fox News exists in an uneasy bear hug with former President Donald Trump, a politician who, unlike many in the GOP, seems unwilling to concede that he might need Fox News (even as, back in his days as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” appearance on Fox’s air helped legitimize him as a political force). 

Indeed, the force of Trump’s celebrity feels at times more powerful than Murdoch’s machine, just as social media — through which Trump can blast his personality and vision, without filter — has taken primacy in our culture away from television. The uneasy relationship between President and network has had real consequences: The recent lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, settled for a painful $787.5 million, was premised on Trumpian allegations expressed on Fox’s air, ones that Fox defended as the expression of “pure opinion.”

Murdoch was a man of his time — and while spirited jockeying in support of conservative ideas came naturally to his brands, this was something different entirely. He now leaves News Corp and Fox in the hands of the son who is, by all reported accounts, a true-believing conservative, one who may push the family firm yet further than it’s gone before into conspiratorial thinking, although he still must eventually contend with the complicated matter of his siblings’ shares of the family trust. Time will tell. But, as Fox has fishtailed around trying to find a way to accommodate Trump while asserting its own primacy, some might say that, whoever’s been in charge, it’s felt like a post-Rupert network for years.

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