Fox Corp. and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch announced Thursday that he has decided to “transition to the role of Chairman Emeritus at Fox and News” and pass the chairmanship of those companies to his older son and longtime corporate heir, Lachlan Murdoch. It’s unclear what that “transition” will look like in practice — the statement stresses Murdoch’s intention to remain fully involved in the companies’ operations in his new role. The 92-year-old seems to have engineered a scenario in which he gets to read his obituaries before he dies.
So here’s mine: Murdoch’s legacy is making billions creating a global right-wing media empire that empowered radical authoritarian conspiracy theorists. In America, the institutions he built and the demagogues he employed played essential roles in every aspect of Donald Trump’s rise to and retention of power within the Republican Party.
Murdoch and Republican political strategist Roger Ailes founded Fox News in 1996 to counter what they claimed was an excessively liberal U.S. press. The network’s noxious mix of right-wing propaganda, bigotry, lies and demagoguery attracted the largest audience in cable news while shaping the Republican Party’s base in its image. GOP politicians responded, courting the network’s audience and its kingmaking stars by imitating the ugliness on its airwaves.
That metamorphosis came to its logical conclusion with Trump. The business magnate learned what the GOP base wanted in years of regular segments on “Fox & Friends,” and used that insight and prominence to bootstrap his way to the Republican nomination and then the presidency.
Murdoch himself, by all accounts, disapproved of Trump’s ascension. He privately described Trump as “phony” and “a [expletive] idiot.” But Trump had stolen the loyalty of Fox’s audience away from its owner, ensuring that any conflict between the two would jeopardize the network’s profitability. Murdoch relented, seeking to access Trump’s orbit, offering him advice and trying to leverage their relationship to benefit Murdoch’s business interests.
During his four years in the White House, Trump benefited at every turn from the fervent public support and private counsel of Fox’s propagandists. He smashed up U.S. institutions, coarsened our politics, undermined our allies, aided our enemies and used government power for his personal benefit, all to the applause of Murdoch’s employees (at least those who did not leave the network and denounce it as propaganda).
But the 2020 presidential election tested that mutually advantageous alliance again. Trump turned Fox’s audience against the network after it did not initially embrace his election subversion campaign. Fox responded with a concerted effort to spread election fraud claims that its leaders — including Murdoch himself — knew were false. Murdoch subsequently acknowledged that his network was uniquely positioned to explain that Trump had lost, and that he could have stopped the fire hose of false claims but did not.
The price Murdoch paid (thus far, at least) was a $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. The price the country paid was the Jan. 6 insurrection, and a Republican Party no longer committed to democracy.
After a mob of Trumpists stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent attempt to overturn the results of the election, Murdoch was appalled. “Trump insisting on the election being stolen and convincing 25% of Americans was a huge disservice to the country,” he wrote in an email to Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott. “Pretty much a crime. Inevitable it blew up on Jan. 6th.”
But he and his outlet bore almost as much responsibility for the destruction as the then-president.
Murdoch reportedly hoped the Republican Party would move on from Trump after he left the White House. Privately, he said Fox would “pivot” and try to “make Trump a nonperson.” Publicly, he chastised Trump’s continued false claims that the 2020 election had been “rigged.”
Murdoch reportedly preferred Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, a Fox-created candidate on whom the network’s stars lavished accolades and airtime in the early stages of the campaign. But Fox viewers remained wedded to Trump, and its hosts continued their stirring defenses, even as the former president accumulated dozens of criminal charges in federal and state courts for, among other things, his plot to subvert the 2020 election.
The result has been a GOP primary in which Trump remains the overwhelming favorite, with his various opponents unable to target his vulnerabilities because of Fox’s protection.
Murdoch may not like Trump’s continued political dominance. But he was Dr. Frankenstein, and today’s GOP is his monster. And his legacy is that monster shambling through our countryside, wrecking everything it sees.