The Tragedy of Fox News
In the summer of 2011, Rupert Murdoch stopped by my small office at The Wall Street Journal, where I was a columnist and editor. He was just back from London, where he had given testimony to a parliamentary committee investigating the phone-hacking scandal by his British tabloids (and where he was attacked with a shaving-foam pie). The scandal ultimately resulted in the closure of News of the World, at one point one of the world’s biggest-selling English-language newspapers.
I don’t remember many specifics about the conversation — Murdoch loved to talk politics and policy with his journalists, sometimes by taking us to lunch at the Lamb’s Club in Midtown Manhattan — but I do remember the gist of what he said about the fiasco: Never put anything in an email. His private takeaway, it seemed, wasn’t to require his companies to adhere to high ethical standards. It was to leave no trace that investigators might use for evidence against him, his family or his favorite lieutenants.
Fast-forward a dozen years. Not much has changed. What is being euphemistically described as a parting of ways on Monday between Fox News and its Chief Disinformation Officer, Tucker Carlson, is happening after the now-former prime-time host put things in emails and text messages that proved he knew he was peddling lies — and then went ahead and amplified them.
“Sidney Powell is lying by the way,” Carlson told fellow host Laura Ingraham on Nov. 18, 2020, referring to the infamous election conspiracy theorist. “I caught her. It’s insane.” What’s true of Carlson holds for many others at the network, up to and including Murdoch, according to evidence collected by Dominion Voting Systems in a brief it filed as part of its lawsuit against Fox News, which last week resulted in a $787.5 million settlement. “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear,” Murdoch told the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott. But the network fired or chastised journalists who reported the truth.
It isn’t out of the question that Fox could now meet the same fate as News of the World. The company faces a similar lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting-technology company, this time for $2.7 billion. Carlson will almost surely set up shop elsewhere, taking his vast audience with him. The same will go for some of the other legally problematic prime-time hosts if given the boot.
All this makes Fox’s business challenge approximately the same as for the surfers at the Portuguese beach at Nazaré: miss the wave, ride the wave or be crushed by the wave. For Fox, riding the wave will no longer come easy: Angry populism is a force that can only be stoked, never assuaged.
So am I gleeful? Not at all.
Part of it is the thought that, whatever Carlson does next, it will probably be even more unhinged and toxic than his previous incarnation: This is a guy whose career arc has moved from William F. Buckley wannabe to Bill O’Reilly wannabe to soon, I expect, Father Coughlin wannabe. Nobody should rule out the possibility of his going into politics, either as Donald Trump’s running mate or as the Republican Party’s compromise candidate between Trump and Ron DeSantis.
But there’s also the sense of what Fox might have become. Murdoch had an opportunity to build something the country genuinely needed in the mid-1990s, when the G.O.P. was moving away from the optimistic and responsible party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush toward the angry populism of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay: an effective center-right counterbalance to the overwhelmingly liberal tilt (as conservatives usually see it) of most major news media.
In other words, instead of trying to surf a killer wave, Murdoch could have purchased a ship and steered it. It might not have had the ratings that Fox would get — though Fox was always about influence, as much as money, for Murdoch. But, executed well, it could have elevated conservatism in the direction of Burke, Hamilton and Lincoln, rather than debase it in the direction of Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan.
Such a channel would still have been plenty conservative, in a way that most liberals would find infuriating. But it would also have defended the classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism: the idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.
This kind of channel will be more desperately needed in the future, as the unhinged populism unleashed by Murdoch sweeps everything in its path, from “establishment” Republicans to, quite possibly, Fox itself. The shame of Rupert Murdoch is that he wasn’t the man to do it. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
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