Out-Foxing the Murdochs
That the Murdoch family wants to control the news cycle rather than be controlled by it is hardly a secret. As such, the cascading scandals, misadventures, and the humiliation of allowing Dominion Voting Systems’ eager hands to dip into their deep pockets for three quarters of a billion dollars has likely made for a rather unpleasant few weeks for Rupert Murdoch, son Lachlan, and Fox Corporation’s shareholders and board members.
Scandal is no stranger to a business that has blithely operated near the boundaries of veracity since its founding and blew through the decency boundary years ago. Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Gretchen Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, and Megyn Kelly are just a few of the sources of adverse publicity that Fox and the Murdochs have been forced to confront, sidestep, or buy off.
The company has survived — and thrived — because it never lost sight that its core audience thirsted for angry, hateful rhetoric, true or not, delivered by a series of shrill and smug program hosts, which allowed their viewers to feel justified in their own anger and hate. When Donald Trump came along — a man Rupert Murdoch never liked and may well have thought to be psychologically disturbed — it was as if the angels had descended and perched on his shoulder.
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The Fox News haters, of which there are many millions, are desperately hoping that this new round of legal woes and corporate scandals might be more than the Murdochs can skate past. Dominion is just one of a number of legal actions for which Fox may be forced to agree to nine-figure settlements, to say nothing of the lawsuits that will inevitably be filed by stockholders against Fox board members, such as Paul Ryan.
As shocking as was Tucker Carlson’s banishment to the media wilderness, other Fox hosts, such as Maria Bartiromo, made a series of public and private statements that have caused media watchers to question their intelligence as well as their judgment. In Bartiromo’s case, this could be particularly bothersome, since, as a Fox Business anchor, she would be required by its more sophisticated audience to have at least some idea of what she is talking about.
Not the first: But the question that is being asked most about Fox is whether this recent avalanche will cause it to alter the manner in which it courts its audience, whether it will moderate, at least a little, its uber-tabloid approach to news reporting. If history is any guide, the answer to that is no.
This is not the first big hit the Murdochs have taken. In 2011, News of the World, a scandal sheet in the United Kingdom with practices so despicable that they make Tucker Carlson look like Walter Cronkite, was forced to close when it was learned that its reporters were regularly hacking into telephones of among others, a missing teenager who was later found murdered and the families of British soldiers killed in action. At the time, News of the World was among the world’s largest selling English language newspapers.
If that disaster did not dissuade the Murdochs, these recent debacles likely won’t either.
But that does not mean they will have no impact. With the 2024 elections looming, there might be profound repercussions indeed.
As the nation moves toward the 2024 election, those living in forty-three of the fifty states can expect to have no real voice in selecting the next president. Each of those states will almost certainly go red or blue without much of a contest. In the remaining seven, however — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada—a very small slice of the electorate will determine the winner of their state’s electoral votes and thus determine who will claim the White House.
In addition, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan all lean blue — at least for the presidency — which means that, unless there is a drastic change in the political landscape, Democrats are likely to have at least 260 electoral votes. That means Republicans cannot lose Arizona, Wisconsin, or Georgia, each of which President Biden carried in 2020. Arizona and Wisconsin have Democratic governors, as does Pennsylvania and Michigan, which adds to the challenge for Republicans. The ultraconservative agenda of House Republicans coupled with the backlash over the Dobbs decision will not make their task any easier.
All of which makes it vital for Republicans to convince independent voters, who will determine the winner in every swing state, not to desert them. It is here that Fox’s current difficulties might actually make a difference.
Informed voters: Independent voters are independent for a reason — they either do not ascribe fully to either party’s ideology and will choose the one that seems more appropriate to current conditions or they will make their decision based on which candidate they most trust rather than on policy alone.
Those who are nonaligned tend to be more informed and more curious than ideologues and will balance a variety of inputs before deciding for whom they will cast their ballots. They will read the Wall Street Journal as well as the New York Times or the Washington Post and may watch both Fox and MSNBC. These are the “persuadables” and what will persuade them is information or policies that seem to make sense, that will help them make choices that will better their own lives and be right for their country.
In his 1919 dissent in Abrams v. United States, in which the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of anarchists for distributing leaflets protesting America’s intervention in the Russian revolution, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote, “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe, even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct, that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” This notion of the “marketplace of ideas” has been fundamental to free speech advocates ever since.
But in a marketplace, one makes choices that are based on the perception of the quality of the product. The quality of Fox News’s product to those consumers that the Republican Party needs the most might now be viewed in a harsher light.
If that is true, Fox’s loss of credibility will be far more damaging than its loss of money.
— Lawrence Goldstone’s latest book is “Not White Enough: The Long, Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment.” Learn more at www.lawrencegoldstone.com.
— The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. Sign up for our newsletter at thefulcrum.us. The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems. It is a project of, but editorially independent from, Issue One.