After Buffalo, Will Corporate America Turn Against the Murdochs and Fox News?

The Intercept
May 21, 2022

If your anger at Fox News is directed toward Tucker Carlson, you’re focusing on the symptom rather than the cause of what’s wrong. It is the Murdoch family, which owns Fox News, that’s the biggest advocate in America for the “great replacement theory.”

It’s right to be furious about Carlson espousing the racist conspiracy theory that inspired a white supremacist to kill 10 people in Buffalo last weekend, but Carlson serves at the pleasure of Rupert Murdoch and his heirs. Even if popular pressure forced Carlson off the air, the Murdochs would just find or create another racist host to take his place, probably a worse one. (They’ve done it before.) That’s why we need to focus on the Murdoch family, on its base of support in corporate America, and ask a simple question: Shouldn’t the Murdochs become the next Sacklers?

The decisive role of the Murdochs was emphasized this week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who implored them to cease platforming “great replacement” lies. “For years, these types of beliefs have existed at the fringes of American life,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Rupert Murdoch, his eldest son Lachlan, and two Fox News executives. “However, this pernicious theory, which has no basis in fact, has been injected into the mainstream thanks in large part to a dangerous level of amplification by your network and its anchors.”

In other words, the Murdochs are Stormfront with clout.

Due to public pressure, most major advertisers have pulled away from Carlson in recent years, and other programs on Fox News are heading in that direction. But it doesn’t really matter: The network derives most of its income from cable providers that pay generous fees to carry it. Comcast and other cable companies do not think twice about pouring nearly $2 billion a year into a pseudo news operation that’s been described as a “hate-for-profit racket.” So long as there’s not too much of a stink — which a campaign called #UnFoxMyCableBox is aiming to create — cable providers do not mind enriching a family whose marketing of intellectual poison remains an attractive business proposition.

The Murdochs have adopted an ancient strategy associated with money launderers and bootleggers who do not wish to live in the shadows: They surround their objectionable endeavors with reputable ones. Challenges to their propriety are diminished by the legitimate things they actually do and the upstanding associates they really have. The Murdochs, for instance, possess an array of valuable assets in the U.S. that include a network of TV stations that broadcast sports and entertainment programs. This gives the family a loyal army of bankers, producers, actors, sports stars, and journalists who are willing to see them as they wish to be seen and uninterested in asking about those other things they do with their money and time.

Just last week, Lachlan Murdoch, who runs the family’s sprawling empire on a day-to-day basis (Rupert is 91 years old), had a friendly earnings call with a group of Wall Street analysts. The softball financial questions from the representatives of Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America steered miles away from the political untidiness at Fox News. Nobody asked why Lachlan, when Carlson breaks another taboo, responds by texting or calling his favorite host to let him know the family is behind him all the way.

On Monday, Lachlan was back in the establishment’s kind embrace, this time with advertising executives and media buyers who were attending the “upfront” presentations of his family’s U.S. broadcast units: Fox Entertainment, Fox Sports, and Fox News. Lachlan, according to Variety, was dressed in sneakers and watched as his management team outlined their offerings for the coming year, including the next Super Bowl and World Cup, as well as entertainment programs featuring, among others, actors Jon Hamm and Susan Sarandon. The presentation about Fox News made no mention of the network spreading the idea that white Americans are being replaced by nonwhite immigrants, and Carlson’s name was not uttered once.

The inevitable truth is that corporate America loves the Murdochs. Powerful executives who would leave a room if Alex Jones or Steve Bannon presented himself are delighted to have a moment with Rupert or Lachlan.

Hollywood and the Murdochs

Is there any way to disconnect corporate America from the family that operates the “central node” of the far-right conspiracy machine?

Reader, I have mused about this a lotAgain and againPerhaps too much. In fact, maybe I have a problem. But the dilemma of Fox News and the Murdochs does not go away, it just gets worse. Government action is not the answer, as the protections of the First Amendment exist for good reason. The key question, in my mind, isn’t whether the government should allow the Murdochs to operate a racist cable network — they have that right — it’s whether major corporations should line up to do business with them.

The prospects are not good for a change of heart in corporate America. For instance, it’s impossible to imagine that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who is paid $63 million a year by billionaire team owners to make as much money for them as possible, will suddenly decide to pull the plug on the league’s lucrative $2.3 billion-a-year contract with Fox Sports. Goodell, remember, is the man who had no problem with the banishment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people.

But let’s think creatively. Fox Corp., the parent company of the Murdochs’ networks in the U.S., is a shareholder-owned firm in which the Murdochs have a controlling stake. What would happen to the share price if NFL players or their union spoke out against the owners of Fox Sports and called for the league to not renew its broadcast rights (which unfortunately don’t expire for a number of years)? Alas, there’s a tremendous disincentive for players to criticize the Murdochs, because they could forget about ever being hired by Fox Sports as a commentator after they retire. And Goodell might be tempted to allow the Kaepernick treatment for any dissidents, meaning that their playing careers could be in jeopardy too. So this thought experiment isn’t encouraging.

How about the Murdochs in Hollywood? The major companies that will no longer put their ads on Fox News are glad to have their wares advertised on Fox television shows like “The Simpsons.” Corporations respond to consumers, and while consumers punish them for supporting political programs on Fox News, that’s not the case for sponsoring “The Masked Singer” on Fox TV. Absent consumer pressure, there’s no market-driven reason for any company to withdraw its ads from, say, “The Cleaning Lady.” Balance sheets do not have line items for doing the right thing by turning against the first family of “great replacement.”

What about the creative talent? While Hollywood proclaims itself to be devoutly anti-racist, there’s little sign that the enlightened writers, actors, and producers who create Murdoch’s entertainment programs are having second thoughts about who they work for. Susan Sarandon, famous for her political activism, was on the upfronts stage last week to promote her new Fox show and did not, in front of Lachlan Murdoch, seize the moment to pull a Nan Goldin.

Goldin is an art photographer who set off a dramatic wave of protests against the Sackler family — the owners of the pharmaceutical company that flooded the U.S. with the addictive painkiller OxyContin. Goldin became addicted to opioids after OxyContin was prescribed for her tendonitis, and in 2018 she led a now-famous protest at the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which she and other activists threw prescription bottles into a reflecting pool and shouted “Sacklers lie, people die!” Those protests came amid a wave of lawsuits that recently culminated with a settlement in which the Sackler family agreed to pay as much as $6 billion to communities harmed by the opioid epidemic and transfer ownership of Purdue Pharma. The family’s name has been taken down from the Met and other museums.

Lawsuits against the Murdochs have not gotten far because the First Amendment offers broad protections for news organizations and individuals in ways that no constitutional provision or law protects a pharmaceutical company. Proving direct harm from an opiate is far easier in a court of law than proving direct harm from a broadcast. There are exceptions, but they are narrow. While the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been sued into bankruptcy for saying the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, that’s because he was accused of defamation — making false statements about the parents of the slain students and causing them damage.

You never know what a bit of protesting might do, however. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find examples of anyone in the television business, even people who don’t currently work on Fox shows, protesting against the Murdochs in a consistent and public way. It’s a pattern that seems to affirm the silencing effect, in itinerant Hollywood, of not knowing who will sign your next paycheck. Though one exception is Judd Apatow, the prolific director and writer who for years has been drilling holes into the family Murdoch.

Reporting the Murdochs

There’s been extensive discussion in the media about needing to cover the GOP as an extremist entity that threatens democracy rather than as a standard political party. The same discussion should probably be raised about Fox and the Murdochs. Should they be covered as something other than a conservative news outlet with a cranky proprietor who enjoys watching his children battle each other for his attention and love? If so, what would that mean?

For a long time, news organizations have treated the Murdochs with generosity and indulgence, as a tale of financial success and succession intrigue. I’m not referring just to the usual suspects of CNBC and MarketWatch, but also the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others. Just watch this 2018 public interview of Lachlan Murdoch by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin and try not to cringe at Sorkin’s knee-bending solicitude. The only remotely tough question came during the audience Q&A from a New Yorker reporter.

The Times has improved in the past few years, starting with an excellent series in 2019 that was headlined “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.” In April, the Times published another lengthy investigation, “How Tucker Carlson Stoked White Fear to Conquer Cable.” But this kind of hard-nosed criticism remains patchy. In March, the Times published a puff piece about Kathryn Murdoch, the wife of James Murdoch, Rupert’s younger son. The article, “How a Murdoch Hopes to Save American Democracy,” was more than 1,300 words of fluff about a supposedly centrist member of the Murdoch clan donating to nonpartisan causes. It neglected to mention that Kathryn Murdoch has never criticized Fox News and that her husband played a loyal and key role in the family empire, stepping aside in 2020 mainly because his father finally chose Lachlan as second-in-command.

One of the lessons of the past few years is that journalists need to call things by their names, and that means, when covering Fox News, naming not just the hosts who mouth the words that inspire violence, but the family that approves of these words and pays for them to be spread from coast to coast. This is a drum I’ve been banging for a long time, and while the coverage of the Murdochs has improved, it has a ways to go. In an otherwise acceptable news story this week about the conservative media’s embrace of “great replacement” ideas, the Washington Post mentioned Tucker Carlson 15 times — but did not once mention the Murdoch

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.