No one has had a greater impact on modern American media and politics than Rupert Murdoch. His most lasting legacy in the United States will be Fox News, whose board he left yesterday, and the ethos of fear and contempt that permeates today’s Republican Party.
Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996 to exploit what he saw as an unmet need for a conservative television network. According to him, the existing media leaned left without recognizing it. Fox’s reach was initially limited, but as more cable companies began carrying the network, its influence grew. A 2007 study established what became known as the Fox News effect: the network’s introduction on a particular cable system generally pushed local voters to the right.
Fox’s power grew in part through 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 reality of its viewers, fueling a suspicion of Democratic politicians and policies as well as the mainstream media. In doing so, the channel has become the only news source that many American conservatives trust.
Fox also drew influence from its unique relationship with its audience. Murdoch was a businessman and Fox News was a business, which meant that audiences were the primary determinant of programming decisions. In this sense, Fox was a permanent 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 that number.
Murdoch owned media properties on several continents, but he had a particular interest in Fox News. His political influence gave him political influence. He didn’t necessarily ask interview questions from the control room, but he oversaw all the big decisions — like hiring and firing showrunners and executives — that shaped the direction of the network.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Fox News covered endless hours of raucous Tea Party rallies and the “Birther” campaign – a false story claiming that Obama was not born in the United States – aimed at delegitimizing the the country’s first black president. Both were quintessential Fox: building a right-wing populist groundswell in a movement that generated significant audiences and fueled the Republican base, creating and fueling an appetite for the culture war.
It was this groundswell – and its amplification by Fox – that propelled the political rise of Donald Trump. Murdoch and Trump have had an on-and-off relationship. Murdoch initially opposed his candidacy in 2016, but eventually swung Fox behind him and was delighted to have a president he could get on the phone whenever he needed.
Under President Trump, Fox has become the dominant news network in the United States. But he also became something of a prisoner of his own business model, spawning numerous imitators and an ecosystem of right-wing media outlets that sought to threaten his monopoly on conservative voters. Even though Murdoch privately dismissed Trump’s election fraud claims as “really crazy stuff,” his network continued to sell the lie. His support ultimately came at a financial cost: In April, the network agreed to pay nearly $800 million to settle a defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over coverage of the 2020 election.
Even though relations between Trump and Murdoch are currently strained, there is no doubt that Fox will support Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee. His viewers will demand it.
On the eve of the 2024 election, Murdoch cedes control to his eldest son, Lachlan, victor in the battle for the family’s Shakespearean succession. 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 could also call it the Fox News effect.
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