Fox News has recently engaged in what looks like a coordinated attempt to intimidate and derail the Special Counsel investigation of President Donald Trump. Fox commentator Judge Jeanine Pirro has gone as far as accusing Special Counsel Robert Mueller of attempting a coup d’état and suggesting he and his investigatory team should be taken away in handcuffs.
Rupert Murdoch was born an Australian, the son of a newspaper magnate. He is the owner of News Corp., which has massive media holdings, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and the largest cable news company, Fox News.
After Murdoch established himself in news media in his native Australia, he entered the U.K. media market in the late 1960s. He experienced particular success in tabloid journalism at The Sun. English tabloid papers are known for their sensationalist exploitation of bigotry and xenophobia. Many believe they are at least partially to blame for several instances of violence, including the murder of U.K. Parliament member Jo Cox. This circumstance recently prompted a backlash movement named Stop Funding Hate. The movement urges advertisers to pull their advertising until the outlets change their behavior. Murdoch’s The Sun is one of the main “hate” outlets identified in the Stop Funding Hate campaign.
In 1985, Murdoch became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In 1996, he established Fox News, where he blended tabloid-style journalism with traditional news journalism. Fox News has become known for its editorial hosts’ promotion of conspiracy theories and appeal to white racial animosity and resentment.
Although Fox News has an obvious conservative ideological bent, its programming has been criticized as being exploitative and corrosive of conservative ideology. Denial of science and academia, promotion of bigotry, and support of conspiracy theories define conservatism at Fox. Studies have shown Fox News viewers to be less informed compared to viewers of other media outlets. Fox News is also known for its unified positions on matters of public policy and for its global editorial meetings. Nevertheless, unlike The Sun, Fox News portrays itself as a traditional news outlet, with the slogan “fair and balanced.”
Rupert Murdoch has a history of using his influence to develop close relationships with political leaders. It’s been reported that he speaks by phone with Donald Trump on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. The program Fox & Friends’ propaganda-like support of Trump has been widely parodied. Little goes on at Fox News that isn’t a direct reflection of the thoughts and strategies of Murdoch. Britain’s entry into the Iraq War and exit from the European Union – each viewed as disastrous by the much of the U.K. public – have been attributed to Murdoch’s political meddling.
While sensationalism, tabloid topics, and bias are not new in news media, Fox News, combined with affiliates like the Wall Street Journal, is precedent setting with its combination of size and coordinated messaging. Fox News has long dominated cable news ratings. Thus, unlike any other news media outlet, Murdoch has been able create an alternative reality bubble for his audience.
While the damage done by Fox to reasonable public discourse is obvious to those who lean left, it has become an acknowledged self-destructive addiction for those who lean right. Former George W. Bush speech writer and American Enterprise Institute fellow David Frum was an early and vocal conservative critic of Fox News, stating back in 2010:
Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.
Fox News dumbs down Republican ideology but serves up short term victories – often to the least qualified Republican candidate. A polarized Congress has been one obvious result. Most analysts believe, as do Republican Party leaders, that the short term victories will turn to long term defeats as the party alienates an increasing percentage of the population.
By the shear heft of Fox News and News Corp., Murdoch has influenced U.S. public policy on issues ranging climate change to poverty, causing denial and delay on the former and shifting resources from the impoverished to the rich on the other. On gun control, Murdoch is reportedly not a gun rights advocate. Nevertheless, he has yielded his media platform to the pro-gun rhetoric popular with his target audience. As acknowledged by critics on both sides of the political ideology spectrum, Murdoch has derailed serious policy discussion to tabloid-style reporting of the issues.
Murdoch’s media empire has normalized commentary formerly deemed outrageous and unacceptable. Fox News hosts have long engaged in racially incendiary assertions not heard since the days of George Wallace. For example, Bill O’Reily characterized blacks as prone to violence and promiscuity after the Trayvon Martin killing. Fox News hosts perverted the messaging of Black Lives Matter – a movement protesting the well documented disproportionate killing of blacks by Police – as a “hate group.” Unfortunately, blacks at 12% of the population, have always been an easy target of political and economic opportunists, and the routinely shocking statements by Fox regulars have drawn little controversy. While much of the recent focus has been on the often divisive and “unpresidential” behavior of Trump, he is in many ways a perfect reflection of the Murdoch media empire.
However, Fox’s recent intensive campaign to intimidate Special Counsel Robert Mueller (a Republican) and his team – and to derail the investigation – may finally have been a move too bold, too far, too unpatriotic for the American public to stomach. There may be some delay in Americans’ recognition of Murdoch’s overstep. However, if history is consistent, there will be a day of reckoning for those connected with the Trump disaster. For someone as hopelessly undisciplined and helplessly reflexive as Trump, that day of reckoning will likely be soon.
The story serving as the basis for stepped up attacks on Mueller is fatally flawed for such purpose. Supposedly, two members of the Mueller team – Peter Strzok and Lisa Page – revealed their bias against Trump in a series of text exchanges with each other. The problem for Murdoch is that they were fired by Mueller months before the discovery of the texts by Trump supporters. Never mind that Strzok was hardly a liberal – indicating his preference in the texts for Gov. John Kasich. His reference to Trump as an “idiot” was and is shared by nearly two-thirds of the country and reportedly even members of Trump’s own cabinet. Mueller’s firing of Strzok and Page, if anything, indicates bias in favor of Trump rather than against – but more likely was Mueller’s anticipation of the politics at hand.
However, it is not the invalidity of the controversy that crosses the line. Rather it is the cause to which Murdoch has employed the contrived controversy. Russia’s attack on the election is no longer debatable. Russia is this country’s oldest enemy and most threatening rival. The Russian threat is deeply ingrained into the American psyche. In his effort to support Trump and derail the investigation, Murdoch may have made the fatal mistake of ‘taking point’ to aid and abet this historic enemy in its attack on the U.S. Murdoch has tied his fate to an unreliable, hapless, and divisive president. The odds are against Trump and every day he adds to his list of enemies. The Trump regime is more likely to end in collapse and disgrace than smooth transition. An autopsy will be performed. Murdoch’s actions will be viewed as treasonous. The dynamics of the moment will have changed. Murdoch will find no refuge on either side of the political divide. The GOP will look for a scapegoat. The Democrats will look for revenge. Murdoch will be viewed as Trump’s puppet master and Putin’s tool. His Australian heritage will add fuel to his fire.
Neither Murdoch’s support for climate change denial nor for racism can turn the masses into a hostile mob as quickly as conduct viewed as treasonous. Few matters plug into human instincts, with as strong reactions, as tribalism and warfare. Even the First Amendment will fail to shield him entirely from the angry mob. It will be ironic that Murdoch, having deftly exploited these instincts for so long, should fall victim to them as a result of his own arrogance and carelessness. Such is the truth of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. It will be Murdoch’s hubris that brings him down and his fate that he ends in disgrace.