The retiring Fox leader built a noise-and-propaganda machine by giving his people what they wanted — and sometimes by teaching them what to want.
Sept. 21, 2023
The polite way to describe the legacy of a man like Rupert Murdoch is to leave aside whether his accomplishments were good or bad and simply focus on how big they were. It is to eulogize him like Kendall Roy memorializing his father, Logan, in “Succession,” the HBO corporate drama none too slightly based on the Murdochs, among other dynasties. Maybe he had “a terrible force,” as Kendall put it, but “he built, and he acted. … He made life happen.”
But the polite way is exactly the wrong way to assess Mr. Murdoch, who on Thursday announced his retirement from the boards of Fox and News Corporation. Mr. Murdoch achieved nothing the polite way. His style and his work were direct and blunt. Let us take his measure his way.
Rupert Murdoch’s empire used passion and grievance as fuel and turned it into money and power.
His tabloids ran on the idea of publishing for readers as they were, not according to some platonic ideal of how one wished them to be. That meant pinups and prize giveaways and blaring scandal headlines.
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Over years and decades, Mr. Murdoch’s properties shifted their definition of “elite” away from people with more money than you and toward people with more perceived cultural capital than you, something that would be essential to nationalist politics in the 21st century and Fox’s dominance. (He did all this while living the life of a jet-setting billionaire.)
He translated this model to America in the 1970s with his acquisition of The New York Post. But that was a warm-up to his larger project of acquiring 20th Century Fox and applying his tabloid skills to the entertainment and broadcast business.
Fox gave Mr. Murdoch a movie studio and allowed him to create the Fox broadcast network in 1986; he would add publishers and more newspapers to his empire as well. But his news philosophy and his conservative politics were most fully expressed in Fox News Channel, which he launched with the former Republican consultant Roger Ailes in 1996.
Like Mr. Murdoch’s tabloids, Fox had an aesthetic that was key to its appeal. Where news programs once sought to project stability and gravitas, it had flash and energy. It had the tone and political attitude of conservative talk radio and the rah-rah spirit of TV sports (as well as the blinding graphics).
But Fox was not a style phenomenon alone. It branded itself “Fair and Balanced,” implying that other outlets were unfair and unbalanced. “We Report, You Decide,” it said, implying a they who were making the decisions for you.
Fox promised news but its cash crop was feelings. Making viewers feel — feel angry, feel betrayed, feel threatened — was vital to keeping them tuned in for hours. The particulars of Fox’s mood, and its conservatism, adapted and evolved with the eras. It was jingoistic during the wars of the George W. Bush era. As Barack Obama emerged, it fed suspicions that he was alien, other, a malign un-American force. (Its morning show, “Fox and Friends,” gave airtime to a bogus story that he had attended a madrasa.)
When conservatives were losing, Fox held an audience by appealing to their sense of siege. Winning, they could find ways to feel besieged anyway, as with “The war on Christmas,” a Fox staple.
On Fox, the news was a serial drama filled with enemies and heroes, victory and peril. But like on a long-running thriller, each new twist had to top the last. The stakes had to heighten. Bushian Republicanism gave way to the string-on-a-bulletin-board theories of Glenn Beck, until, eventually, Tucker Carlson was mainstreaming racist “replacement theory” for one of cable TV’s biggest audiences.
That is not to say that Mr. Murdoch’s creation was simple or without contradiction. The formula that Murdoch applied to his tabloids — cheap-seats entertainment combined with right-wing populism — led, in his larger media empire, to the Fox paradox. The entertainment wing of the company produced, indeed specialized in, the kind of moral offenses that the commentators of the news wing would decry.
On the Fox broadcast network, the outsider ethos and need to stand out led to brilliant inventions and tawdry disasters: “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files,” “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?”Entertainment TV may not have been Mr. Murdoch’s core passion, but much of Fox network’s inventiveness came from the same principle of prodding strong feelings and reactions.
Provoking reactions and sustaining attention would also define the candidacy and presidency of Donald J. Trump, Fox’s loyal viewer, longtime guest (he had a regular segment on “Fox and Friends” for years) and — if unintentionally — its most successful product.
Mr. Trump used Fox as a platform, intuited what its viewers wanted, then wrested them away by giving them a purer, more thrilling version of it than Fox itself. Fox could play footsie with Islamophobia; he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Fox had to ultimately call the results of elections that disappointed their viewers; he could declare the whole thing stolen.
If, as has been reported, Mr. Murdoch eventually came to hold Mr. Trump in disdain, it is an irony of his late career, which found Fox ensnared in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s election loss. The network paid a $787.5 million settlement for a lawsuit over its coverage of the stolen-election lies. Shortly afterward, it fired Mr. Carlson, a star turned liability, and lost many of his viewers in prime time. All the while it was under pressure from right-wing networks and platforms with an even fuller MAGA sensibility and looser relation to reality.
There is a Frankensteinian fittingness to Mr. Murdoch and his network’s losing control of the very passion, fury and sense of righteous injury that Fox News conquered the ratings by encouraging. It is one thing to stoke that flame, another thing to try to turn it down like a burner on a stove.
A man who made his fortune giving the people what they want has no business being surprised to learn what they inevitably want next: More.
James Poniewozik is The Times’s chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He is also the author of “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America.” More about James Poniewozik