Trump’s loss may be no match for Rupert Murdoch’s realpolitik

Presidents come and go. Rupert Murdoch remains.

For those who wondered how Murdoch, the octogenarian media magnate with a conservative streak, would react to the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump, the past few days have brought a complicated answer, well-suited to the mercurial nature of Murdoch’s world.

The New York Post, the Murdoch tabloid that attacked Joe Biden and his son Hunter before the election, splashed a beaming Biden on its Sunday cover —”IT’S JOE TIME”— and described Trump as “downcast” and misguided in his efforts to claim the election was a fraud. The Sun, Murdoch’s outpost in London, reached new heights of Fleet Street ingenuity by comparing the president’s defeated visage to a crumple of skin on actress Famke Janssen’s kneecap.

Presidents come and go. Rupert Murdoch remains. President Donald Trump and Murdoch at a dinner in New York City in 2017.
Presidents come and go. Rupert Murdoch remains. President Donald Trump and Murdoch at a dinner in New York City in 2017.Credit:Al Drago/The New York Times

The Wall Street Journal, which had rejected The Post‘s attack on Hunter Biden, has dismissed Trump’s fraud claims, and its conservative opinion page is nudging the president toward a gracious concession. Fox News — home to “Hannity” and “Fox & Friends,” instigators and nurturers of Trump’s rise — refused to retract an election night projection of a Biden win in Arizona despite intense pressure from Trump’s aides, who reached Murdoch in England to plead their case.


And yet, just as a Murdoch-Trump divorce appeared to be underway, Fox News’ prime-time stars — who have operated more or less on their own since the exit of the network’s co-founder Roger Ailes — have embraced parts of Trump’s sully-the-results strategy, even knocking colleagues who have portrayed Biden, accurately, as the election’s victor.

“Many people have not called Arizona,” Sean Hannity told viewers on his Monday night show, before lobbing a dagger at the Fox News decision desk: “Those that called early made a huge mistake.” Mark Levin, a right-wing radio star with a weekend Fox News show, attacked “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace for calling Biden the clear winner. And Tucker Carlson took a not-so-veiled swipe on Monday at his Fox News colleague Neil Cavuto, who had won the hosannas of Liberal Twitter by cutting off an appearance by Trump’s press secretary and saying he could not “in good conscience” broadcast her fictive claims about voter fraud.

Efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology. But former and current associates of Murdoch said that his response to Trump’s loss could be summed up by another Cold War term: realpolitik.

“In a democracy, you cannot ignore honest questions from citizens,” Carlson said. “You can’t just cut away from coverage you don’t like.”

Efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology. But former and current associates of Murdoch said that his response to Trump’s loss could be summed up by another Cold War term: realpolitik.

“He will do as he has done in other cases, which is adapt to a new reality,” said one former consigliere, who like others interviewed for this article requested anonymity to speak candidly about a man who values discretion.

Murdoch, who has presided over newspapers and television networks for more than 50 years, knows that opportunity awaits no matter who is temporarily in power: Some of Fox News’ highest ratings and profits came during the Obama administration, when the network was a gathering spot for dismayed conservatives, the same phenomenon that fuelled MSNBC’s success with liberals in the Trump age.

“Fox News Channel has been on the air since 1996,” said Christopher Balfe, a right-wing media impresario who has developed digital ventures for conservative stars, including former Fox News host Megyn Kelly. “They’ve been around for multiple presidents and they’re going to be around for multiple more.”

Fox News reached new heights of influence in the Trump era — it was the highest rated network in all of prime-time television this past summer — but it’s easy to forget it was the No. 1 cable news channel long before the New York real estate developer rode an escalator to the political stage. Many Fox News employees believe the network’s ratings are likely to surge again as an anti-Biden audience seeks succour.

“They don’t tend to back losers,” one longtime Murdoch lieutenant observed of the family.

To that point, Murdoch’s publicists — who declined to comment for this article — conspicuously confirmed rumours last month that the mogul did not expect Trump to recapture the presidency. And several people who have worked with Murdoch said he harboured no malice toward Biden and had even expressed some admiration of the former vice president on occasion.

Staying loose

It would not be the first time Murdoch has stayed loose to maintain influence with whoever comes into power. In England, he became an ally of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, despite years of backing Tory rule. The Biden administration is likely to handle regulatory disputes that could affect Murdoch’s domestic assets, which include sports and entertainment networks as well as Fox News, The Journal, and The Post.

FOX News' Sean Hannity raging against the "Washington swamp".
FOX News’ Sean Hannity raging against the “Washington swamp”.Credit:AP

Last week, Fox News was upfront with viewers about Trump’s poor chances, standing behind its Decision Desk call in Arizona and, on Saturday, trumpeting the network’s projection that Biden would be the 46th president.

But the recent hesitation of Senator Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders to acknowledge Biden’s victory may have complicated the equation for the network’s opinion stars, who are loath to end up on the liberal side of the mainstream conservative line.

Some prime-time personnel, protective of their ratings success, were unnerved after seeing some viewers turn against the network after the Arizona call; one group of protesters chanted “Fox News sucks!” outside a tabulation centre in Phoenix.

On Monday, Hannity and Carlson stoked Trump’s shadowy narrative of a suspicious election. “The Washington swamp, Joe Biden, all desperate, they want to just call it a day and stop you from asking legitimate, tough questions about the election,” Hannity thundered to viewers.

The president seemed to approve: On Tuesday, he urged his Twitter followers to watch Hannity’s program, promising “Ballot Corruption will be exposed tonight.” It was his first positive reference to Fox News since Election Day.

Still, Hannity has left himself options: His criticism of Democrats and the “swamp” is a familiar line of Fox News attack that can be easily adapted to a Biden presidency. And Carlson stopped short of uttering what Trump would most like to hear: that he was the true victor last Tuesday.

“If, after all the questions have been answered, it becomes clear that Joe Biden is the legitimate winner of the presidential election, we will accept that and will encourage others to accept it, too,” Carlson said.

Few expect a wholesale shift in the Murdoch ideology. Carlson has met frequently in Los Angeles with Murdoch’s son Lachlan, who is now executive chairman of Fox News’ parent company. Lachlan Murdoch has backed Carlson despite an ongoing advertiser boycott and multiple uproars over the host’s incendiary remarks.

The prospect of Trump starting his own media platform as a competitor to Fox News is often cited as a reason for Rupert Murdoch to keep the president close. But there are myriad hurdles before such a venture could get off the ground.

Trump, a connoisseur of traditional media, may balk at the sort of online-only service that former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly pursued. Fox News is available in far more households than One America News, a right-wing network often cited as a potential vessel for Trump TV. Cable providers like Comcast and Spectrum would need to agree to carry a new Trump-oriented network, and regulations make it difficult for existing channels to abruptly change formats.

Fox News, meanwhile, just notched its highest-rated week in prime time since the channel began.

“I don’t think there’s a fear among conservative media,” said Balfe, the right-wing media consultant, “that Biden winning is going to hurt.”

The New York Times

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