Donald Trump has made America dangerous for journalists. He couldn’t have done that without the work of a man who employs thousands of journalists, Rupert Murdoch.
The president continues to incite audiences at his rallies in the same way that he incited them during his presidential campaign to believe that journalists are their foes—“enemies of the people” in his Stalinesque formation. And the audiences love it.
The ecstasy that is Trump Worship on the audiences’ faces and their readiness to believe, when he tells them “what you are reading, what you are seeing, isn’t happening” is scary enough as an Orwellian moment, but the hatred of the lynch mob that he directs at journalists is truly virulent.
But those audiences have long been conditioned to the point where they behave like a cult with blind faith in their leader. They have been brainwashed by a means that was not available to either Stalin or Hitler: television. By Fox News, to be more precise.
The contours of the Trump base are not exactly those of the Fox News audience. The extremes of the base—the white supremacists, the self-declared fascists—are not permissible on cable news. But that doesn’t matter: Fox News was the primary catalyst of the movement that elected Trump.
Certainly, the base was not incubated by the Republican Party, whose machine was as surprised as anyone to find such a strident body of support for Trump (and was, initially, disconcerted by the prospect). No. The base took years to coalesce as it was coached on a nightly basis by the prime time talking heads of Fox News.
It awaited only the man and the moment.
And what is even today remarkable is that all this could happen without the proprietorial role of Rupert Murdoch being visible or commented on. There are no cries of acclaim demanding “Author! Author!” The author is missing.
And yet if Murdoch doesn’t exactly own the White House the president seems psychologically unable to function on a daily basis without the help of two of Murdoch’s creatures from Fox News: Sean Hannity and Bill Shine.
Hannity, Fox’s star bloviator, provides a level of man-on-man counseling that amounts to indispensable 24/7 therapy as the president deals with his many demons. Shine, the deputy chief of staff for communications, is adapting the staging of the president’s appearances to the tenets of the Fox studios, where Murdoch himself set down the rules of presentation, including lighting and camera angles.
The relationship of Trump and Murdoch is one of extremes of character. Trump is impulsive to the point of verbal incontinence. Murdoch has spent decades gathering power and influence while practicing self-effacement.
This is the last phase of Murdoch’s astonishing career, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Disney is paying an eye-watering $71 billion for a chunk of his empire (Fox News is not included). All that and he has managed to create an entirely new political constituency in America without leaving any fingerprints.
To understand how this “invisible man” technique has been honed there is one very telling precursor to serve as a guide.
This is the scandal that hit Murdoch’s British tabloid, the News of the World and ended in 2014 with the jailing for 18 months of the paper’s editor, Andy Coulson.
The News of the World’s newsroom had developed an industrial-scale operation for illegally hacking into cell phones. Its targets included the royal family, politicians, numerous celebrities, the families of people killed in terrorist attacks, families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most egregiously, of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was later found murdered.
Before the operation was exposed Murdoch had paid out more than a million pounds to settle cases where victims had threatened to reveal the paper’s criminal methods.
To long-time Murdoch observers the hacking scandal looked like the apotheosis of Murdoch’s style in popular journalism. Since arriving in Britain in the late 1960s he built an empire on the back of two tabloids, the weekly News of the World and the daily The Sun.
Murdoch single-handedly took the tabloid format, which in Britain was closely tied to the politics of the working class, and rebooted it as a racy, titillating picture of a world of people behaving badly, at all levels of public life and show business.
And, from the beginning, this formula incorporated a peculiar simulation of small-minded populism. An editor who took The Sun to phenomenal success defined his own target reader as “the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs [people of color] back, buy his poxy council house [public housing]. He’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers.”
That view of an audience as fact-mocking primitives obviously foreshadows the path taken by Fox News under Roger Ailes as it became a business for Murdoch that was even more of a financial gusher than were the British tabloids. And that is why, although Ailes was a master of the black arts of political propaganda, it is a mistake to see Fox News as his creation. He did exactly what his boss demanded, as the newspaper editors had.
Following the hacking scandal Murdoch was compelled to make an unusual public accounting of his role. He was grilled by a committee of British lawmakers and delivered a flawless rendering of the performance of the French police chief in Casablanca – he was shocked, shocked, to discover that hacking went on his newsrooms. And try as they did the committee could find no direct trace of his hand in the scandal.
However, it is far too simple to think that the manipulation of journalism into a potent form of political propaganda reflects Murdoch’s own beliefs to the letter.
There is nothing primitive about Murdoch. Had he been a primitive he could never have built the media empire he did. He has skills rarely seen in combination: those of an instinctive journalist and a strategically brilliant businessman.
There is no evidence that any of Murdoch’s businesses have been driven solely or primarily by ideology. He told one of his earliest biographers, William Shawcross, “I think what drives me are ideas and what you can do with ideas. You can demonize me by using the word power. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Having a little smidgen of power?”
In the same interview he revealed some basic prejudices that would be applauded by the Fox News faithful: he “loathed” feminism and the gay rights lobby and felt that political correctness “inhibited proper discussion of the problems of the black ghettoes.”
The tabloid editor’s definition of his readers’ bigoted world view was proof of craft, not of Murdoch’s beliefs. Nor did it reflect the views of the journalists on the paper who were just giving the readers what they had shown they wanted – in spades. It’s entirely cynical. And entirely good business.
Maybe Murdoch’s views on gays and ghettoes have evolved in the two decades since the Shawcross biography. Certainly something else he said at the same time would put him in direct conflict with Trump: “I would describe myself as being totally internationalist, free market, believing that most people will benefit most and the world will be a better place from having free markets. In ideas as well as goods.”
Are these the words of a chameleon, someone prepared to alter his beliefs to fit changes in opportunity if the opportunity brings profits? Probably not.
But one consistent streak in Murdoch’s character that he has never attempted to conceal is anti-elitism. In Britain the elitism he most loathed was embodied in the BBC. To be sure, when he first arrived in Britain from Australia the BBC still spoke in the plummy tones of the upper middle class. It could sometimes be gratingly didactic in how it saw its obligations as a public service broadcaster.
But if that is what annoyed him then Murdoch should have got over it, as did the BBC, which has dispensed with its posh accents and become an exemplar of robust independent journalism. Murdoch, though, seems to hate the very principle of robust independent journalism—that is, of a newsroom that doesn’t answer to one man’s tastes and dictates.
The “little smidgen of power” has grown exponentially with the years. With Fox News he has been allowed to politicize journalism in a way that would be impossible in Britain.
However, it is unfair to some reputable journalists to talk of “Fox News” as a generic entity.
The naked bias of Fox’s prime time talking heads—Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham—unfairly contaminates the reputation of the rest of the news division. Chris Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, and the network’s chief political anchor, Bret Baier, have both tried hard to keep space between them and the White House lackeys.
Wallace has called demonization of the media “bad form,” which may seem a mild rebuke but, in the context, was clear dissent. Even a journalist of Wallace’s pedigree and caliber finds it hard to be heard above the lunatic rants of commentators like Jeanine Pirro whose Sunday show Trump adores, or the emetic sycophancy of the morning show Fox & Friends that Trump uses regularly to vent his gases.
Around two-thirds of the television interviews Trump has given as president have been with Fox News and Fox Business Network (not one was given to Wallace). The barrage of prime time poison is not just a political policy. It has built a ratings engine that helps Fox generate a billion dollars a year in advertising.
As a money machine Trump is the best thing that’s happened to Murdoch. A president who treats the job as an extension of his television persona, built as it was on selling a phony idea of success in business, is in thrall to a magnate who is many times smarter in business than he is.
It has been said that Murdoch has a low opinion of Trump’s acumen, as well he might. And it could be that Trump’s vicious demonization of journalists is a bridge too far for Murdoch, that the monster is out of his control. But it’s too late.
As the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote, having himself been the recipient of menacing voice mails, “We are approaching a day when blood on the newsroom floor will be blood on the president’s hands.”
And on Murdoch’s hands, too. Is that really the legacy he wanted?