The Murdoch Boys and the Future of Fox News
The Fake News-inspired perception that existential problems are enveloping the Trump Administration is expanding and deepening. As this questionable meme takes hold, it appears that the current toxic political climate is drawing more anti-Trump viewers to the partisan attack “resistance” programs that are playing out nightly on two of the three cable television news channels. Meanwhile, the new ratings war among the three 24/7 cable news outlets is settling into an ongoing war of attrition.
In recent weeks, the Fox News Channel (FNC), considered the most friendly to President Trump, has lost the commanding ratings lead that it held for the past decade and a half. On most – but not all – weeknights now, FNC is coming in second or third to MSNBC in prime time when the preferred demographic or “the demo” (viewers between the ages of 25 and 54) is the metric. The other anti-Trump channel, CNN, has seen its ratings rise, too, and occasionally it wins an hour or two in prime time. With the future of FNC’s iconic conservative program Hannity in doubt, the outlook for Fox News is, at best, increasingly uncertain.
See also: Bill O’Reilly promises ‘stunning’ information about his firing by Fox News as litigation likely
The rewards for the winner of the cable news wars are substantial. According to a 2015 New York Times Magazine profile of Fox News anchor-star Megyn Kelly, who has since jumped to NBC, “During a 10-year span, Fox News’s profits grew six-fold to $1.2 billion in 2014, on total operating revenue of $2 billion, according to the financial analysis firm SNL Kagan.” On April 20, 2017, the Hollywood Reporter noted that 20 percent of the profits for 21st Century Fox in 2016 came from Fox News, “the biggest-earning division in the company.”
The unprecedented success of the Fox News Channel is accountable to billionaire international media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who bankrolled the effort, and Roger Ailes (1940-2017), the legendary TV producer, political consultant, and all around media genius. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN in 1980 and another larger than life personality, believed that “the news is the star.” Ailes discovered and nurtured personalities – attractive ones, at that – and made them the stars of his channel. (Ailes’s 1987 book on how to achieve success is titled You Are The Message: Secrets of the Mass Communicators.) This ethos had a profound impact on the other news channels, which, like FNC, are also now largely personality driven.
The success of FNC at the hands of Ailes was impossible for the hostile mainstream media to overlook, even the New York Times:
Ailes has long argued that Americans alienated by the sensibilities of the “New York-Hollywood elitists” are a valuable demographic, and the past two decades have proved him right. He started Fox News in 1996, led it to first place in the cable-news ratings in 2002 and has widened his lead ever since. At the point it surpassed CNN, Fox News had an average prime-time audience of 1.2 million, while CNN’s was 900,000 and MSNBC’s was around 400,000. By the end of 2012 – a presidential-election year, with higher-than-typical news viewership – its prime-time audience of more than two million was the third-biggest in all of basic cable and larger than those of MSNBC (905,000) and CNN (677,000) combined. By last year , its share of that news pie had climbed to 61 percent, and it had moved to second place in the prime-time rankings for all of basic cable, behind ESPN.
Fox News’s standing actually went up from there. But that was then – 2015 and 2016 – and this is now.
The past year for FNC has witnessed simmering scandals, on-camera talent and executive staff upheavals, bad programming decisions, and a number of successful actions by FNC’s well-funded left wing adversaries – resulting in advertiser boycotts and an unending stream of negative reporting about Fox News by the mainstream media. All of these factors have taken an enormous toll on Fox News – and have upended the entire cable news status quo.
The Murdoch Boys
Many of the recent problems plaguing Fox News have been self-inflicted. With the forced departure of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes in August 2016, followed by his deputy Bill Shine in May 2017, the control of Fox News officially came under the purview of the aging Rupert Murdoch, 86, and his two sons, Lachlan and James, who are in their 40s. Murdoch the elder, who has hedged his bets in the past by giving campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, has enforced a reliably right of center editorial policy in the diverse news media properties that he controls on both sides of the Atlantic. That is not the case with the younger Murdochs, who are now wielding significant influence on every aspect of Fox News and its parent company. James Murdoch is the CEO of 21st Century Fox and the #1 heir apparent of his father, while Lachlan Murdoch is the executive co-chairman of News Corp (which manages Fox News) and 21st Century Fox.
The Murdochs L. to R. Lachlan, Rupert and James
A number of articles have described the changing landscape at the Murdochs’s businesses in light of the ascent to power of the Murdoch boys. One of them, “Here’s What to Expect with the Changing of the Guard at Fox News” in Fortune, appeared five days after the ouster of Bill O’Reilly, FNC's most popular host. O’Reilly’s firing represented a major victory for the enemies of Fox News. His unceremonious exit was reportedly facilitated by pressure instigated by James and Lachlan Murdoch.
Journalist Michael Wolff, who has written extensively about Fox News, wrote about James Murdoch on April 20, 2017:
It would be hard to imagine how James could have been regarded with more contempt by many of the people at Fox News. James was rather exhibit No. 1 of the liberal elite entitlement that Fox had so profitably programmed against.
For the past two decades as they ascended the ladder to power, the Murdoch boys cut their teeth in a variety of jobs at various levels of the far-flung Murdoch media and entertainment empire, which includes the Fox broadcast TV network, the Fox Business Channel, 21st Century Fox, The Wall Street Journal, Harper Collins publishers, the venerable National Geographic – it’s an incredibly lengthy list of businesses worth billions of dollars that could consume an entire article. In fact, it has: “What does Rupert Murdoch own? A little bit of everything,” published in USA Today in 2015.
James and Lachlan Murdoch are married to high profile professional women – both of whom are widely reported to be on the far left side of the political spectrum. James’s wife Kathryn was a marketing executive and is now a dedicated environmental activist. At the Web site of the foundation that she co-founded with her husband, Kathryn Murdoch’s profile notes: “Between 2007-2011, Ms. Murdoch served as Director of Strategy & Communications for the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) where she also managed CCI’s partnership with Microsoft in the development of a global greenhouse gas emissions tracking software.” She is also a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund. Confirming Kathryn Murdoch’s left wing credentials, her personal Twitter account features frequent tweets like the one she posted on June 4, 2017: “I don't believe in Donald Trump. Will that make him go away?” On
July 27, 2016, Kathryn Murdoch tweeted: “This election is not about left or right. It’s about right or wrong. Reason or insanity. Backwards or forwards. #ImWithHer.” (“Her” being Hillary Clinton.)
Bill Clinton and Kathryn Murdoch
Lachlan Murdoch’s wife Sarah is a former super model who is reportedly a close confidante of her father-in-law, Rupert Murdoch. It was Sarah, according to the British press, who influenced her husband and father-in-law to fire Bill O’Reilly, the most successful host in the history of Fox News, after he was targeted as a sexual harasser following the publication of a New York Times hit piece on April 1, 2017. (O’Reilly has continued to deny the allegations leveled against him – none of which has been subjected to judicial proceedings – by the mainstream media.)
Sarah and Lachlan Murdoch
Since the reports of $13 million in payouts to five female Fox employees to hush up O’Reilly’s alleged bad behavior surfaced on April 1, there has been much debate about whether or not O’Reilly should have been forced to leave Fox News. A thoughtful, concise analysis about this topic was offered by Michael Wolff, writing in The Hollywood Reporter on April 12, 2017, exactly one week before O’Reilly’s ouster:
What has been revealed is not evidence nor an admission of guilt but details of payments settling complaints against O'Reilly – not a small distinction. You can assume maximal guilt, which the Times and other Fox haters do, or you can assume, as many lawyers do, that when there is money to be had, plaintiffs come out of the woodwork (“Coming out of the woodwork” is a virtual term of art in big settlement tort cases).
Michael Wolff weighed in again on April 20, 2017: The ouster of Roger Ailes in 2016 and Bill O’Reilly on April 19, 2017, he wrote, “means most of all that James [Murdoch] is in charge. And, most immediately, this means that Fox News, that constant irritant in James’ view of himself as a progressive and visionary television executive, will begin to change. Virtually overnight.”
An article in Vanity Fair on June 6, 2017 speculated about one possible change in the Fox News hierarchy:
Lachlan [Murdoch] is said to be recruiting possible leaders for the Fox News newsroom. One name that surfaces with regularity is David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, and a former V.P. at the network. Rhodes would appear, on some level, a perfect choice – a pedigreed newsperson with a history at Fox as well as deep connections in liberal political circles. (His brother, Ben Rhodes, was Barack Obama’s foreign policy guru.)
The Changes Begin
The firing of O’Reilly and the abrupt end to his number one show, The O’Reilly Factor, which was on for two decades Monday through Friday at 8 PM ET, upended FNC’s successful prime time schedule. The reassuring, articulate, conservative writer and talk show host Tucker Carlson was moved from his 9 PM time slot to O’Reilly’s former slot at 8 PM. Veteran iconic conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity remained at 10 PM. The weeknight prime time FNC schedule might have continued to work were it not for the program that was put on at 9 PM: The Five. Previously on at 5 PM, The Five is a less-than-heavyweight ensemble debate program that first went to air in July 2011 after Glenn Beck left the channel. It worked – sort of – at 5 PM, bridging the gap between daytime breaking news and prime time news and opinion programming. But in the opinion of many viewers, including this writer, The Five is totally inappropriate for the middle of prime time when an intelligent presentation and discussion of the day’s news should be the focus, rather than five predictable cackling commentators, one or more of them self-described comedians, loudly talking at and over each other.
The Five has helped to make stars of two veteran liberals, Bob Beckel and Juan Williams. Starting in late January 2017, Beckel, an ill-mannered Democratic Party operative, was in his second run at FNC after being fired in 2015 for taking too long to return from, and being uncooperative after, a lengthy stint in rehab. He was mercifully fired again on May 20, 2017, after reportedly using a racial slur to insult a Fox employee who is African-American.
Juan Williams is another figure who deserves closer scrutiny. Williams was associated with the 1987 six-part PBS series Eyes on the Prize, and he authored the series’s companion book of the same title. A comprehensive chronological review of the Civil Rights Era (1954-1965), the influential program, which continues to be replayed every year or two on PBS, and the book helped to establish the legitimacy, thanks to Williams’s hagiographic and revisionist narrative, of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture), H. Rap Brown, the Black Panthers, and other leftist radicals of the period.
On the crest of the success of Eyes on the Prize, Williams got himself hired by the Washington Post. Largely forgotten now is the scandal that engulfed him there. In October 1991, several score women employees at the Post complained to management about alleged verbal sexual harassment by Williams over a period of several years. An article by Howard Kurtz in the Post on November 2, 1991 reported the story. The article quoted a letter by the newspaper’s executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr., that was posted in the paper’s newsroom on November 1, 1991: “The complaints about Juan's verbal conduct with a number of women in the newsroom were thoroughly investigated. The complaints were found to be serious, and, as Juan acknowledges, he was disciplined for his conduct and intends to apologize to women he offended.”
The 1991 Williams affair was largely forgotten until it emerged in 2010 in the wake of his firing by National Public Radio for a supposedly Islamophobic comment he made while appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program. After NPR booted him, Williams was immediately rewarded by Roger Ailes with a $2 million, three year contract as a Fox News Contributor. Williams’s star has continued to rise at Fox News ever since then.
Sean Hannity: The Last Conservative/Ailes Loyalist Standing
Sean Hannity has been a mainstay on Fox News in prime time since the day the channel launched in 1996. The rest of the occupants of prime time on FNC – Martha McCallum at 7 PM, Tucker Carlson at 8, and The Five at 9 – are relative newbies to the evening schedule. In the wake of the current chaos at the channel, Hannity has been making on-camera references to his tenuous position at FNC. More than once, he has concluded his nightly program with a sign-off like this one on Monday June 5, 2017: “We’ll see you tomorrow if they’ll have me back.” On April 27, 2017, in response to a New York Magazine article that Fox News co-president Bill Shine, a conservative in the mold of his mentor Roger Ailes, might be on the way out, Hannity tweeted “i pray this is NOT true because if it is, that’s the total end of the FNC as we know it. Done.” Four days later, Shine was out.
Two weeks after Shine’s ouster, Hannity was the only host on Fox News who ran with the story of the unsolved Seth Rich murder case. Rich was an information technology specialist at the Democratic National Committee who was murdered in the street – shot in the back – by unknown assailants as he returned to his apartment in Washington, D.C. early in the morning of July 10, 2016. Some journalists, mainly in alternative media, have been attempting to investigate a possible link between Rich’s murder and the release by Wikileaks twelve days later of damaging internal emails purloined from the DNC – an embarrassing scandal that resulted in DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-FL) being forced to quit her position on the eve of the Democratic National Convention that nominated Hillary Clinton.
Independent inquiries into the unsolved murder of Seth Rich started to gain momentum this spring when local media in Washington, D.C. – including Fox’s affiliate in the nation’s capital, Fox5 D.C., and Scott Taylor at ABC7 – as well as the One America News Network – began to look into the case. Articles in World Net Daily have also been instrumental in raising awareness of the story, more recently joined by Jerome Corsi’s three-part series at Infowars.
Lingering questions about Seth Rich’s murder represent a story that is complex and convoluted and the unsolved case, and its possible larger implications, deserves an article of its own. Suffice it to say that when Hannity did some probing reporting on the subject, including inviting retired D.C. homicide detective Rod Wheeler on his May 16 FNC program for a live interview about what he had uncovered, all hell started to break loose. A week after Wheeler’s appearance, Fox News took the unprecedented step of retracting the May 16 story about the Rich murder that quoted Wheeler, which Fox News had published at its Web site. Interestingly, the May 15 report by Fox’s local D.C. affiliate that the May 16 Fox News national story was based on has not been retracted and it is still online.
In the wake of his broadcast segments on the Rich case, most of the mainstream media immediately lined up to attack Hannity for spreading “conspiracy theories” about Rich’s murder, and a boycott of his program’s advertisers was attempted. This move proved to be largely unsuccessful, however, and as of mid-June, Hannity and his nightly program are still on Fox News, with relatively few advertiser defections. But that hasn’t stopped speculation that Hannity is no longer the right ideological fit for the new bosses of Fox News (and their wives).
On June 7, Raw Story, an online venue not exactly favorable to FNC, citing an anonymous source, reported that “The power players at the network are ‘rolling their eyes’ at Hannity. . . but they know that to lose him at this juncture would be ‘a disaster’ for the network.”
Douglas J. Hagmann
Douglas J. Hagmann, a multi-state licensed investigator and the co-host of the daily, three-hour prime time Internet program The Hagmann and Hagmann Report, has developed a confidential source inside of Fox News. In a telephone interview on June 10, 2017, Hagmann summarized what the contact at Fox News has told him.
My last conversation of substance that I had with my source is consistent with what you have said and is pretty much what the appearances are which is that there is an internal war taking place within Fox News where people have been forced to take sides. It’s a very uncomfortable place to work at the moment, whether you’re a secretary, a runner, or the on-camera talent. And there is a sense that Sean Hannity is on the chopping block and skating on thin ice. They – the Murdoch side as opposed to the Ailes loyalists – are attempting to mitigate the perception of adverse change or changing the mandate of Fox News from a conservative bastion of truth to more of a mainstream network. In the case of Hannity, they want to clean house and reformat the show. And Sean Hannity does not fit the new mold. Sean Hannity, in the words of my source, is a loose cannon that’s hard to control. He’s taking too many chances, he’s pushing the envelope, according to my source. In the words of my source, Hannity is “pissing a lot of people off who make the decisions and write the checks.”
If Hannity continues to be perceived as an embarrassment to Fox, his fate there is probably sealed.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the Murdochs are actively trying to buy the rest of Sky News in the UK to give them control of the valuable and influential news channel. According to Fortune:
[James Murdoch] and his father both want to merge the British broadcaster Sky – which they [sic] trying to acquire the rest of for $14 billion – with 21st Century Fox, to create a truly global media brand.
Some Murdoch-watchers believe that the proposed acquisition of control of Sky, which requires approval from the British broadcast regulator, was one of the motivating factors behind the removal of both Ailes and O'Reilly.
According to this theory, the family didn't want even the slightest hint of impropriety to affect the Sky bid – especially when there is enough attention already on the Murdochs’s history with News of the World and the hacking of private telephone accounts, an affair that caused them to drop an earlier bid for the company in 2011.
In 2011, Rupert and James Murdoch were hauled before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK for a hearing that was part of a lengthy and damaging investigation of their role in the infamous British criminal phone hacking scandal. The hearing was televised live around the world and was a low point for the Murdoch empire.
Commentary and Conclusion
I cautiously enter the realm of punditry here with some personal observations. I have been studying the media for most of my life and have paid close attention to the Fox News Channel since it launched in October 1996. FNC has never been perfect – what mainstream media source ever is? – but its “fair and balanced” approach to news and political coverage, including a comparatively fair representation of conservative points of view, provided compelling reasons to watch.
In recent years, alternative – and social – media have come into their own, thanks to the expansion of the Internet, the pervasive spread of smart phone technology, and the possibilities for citizen journalists and others who are not part of the mainstream media swamp to step forward and gain an audience. The most obvious example of success in that area is The Drudge Report, but there are thousands of other independent sources available to the public now and their number is growing. In addition, more and more people are relying on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, for their news.
As I said during my appearance on the Hagmann and Hagmann Report on June 6 to discuss my recent reporting about Fox News, the developments that we are seeing – the chaos at Fox News and the potential of its disappearance as a go-to source of news for conservatives – may represent a sign that we have finally achieved critical mass in the long overdue paradigm shift that is influencing how we access information. Finally, an undeniable, potential terminal crack in the MSM castle wall may be opening.
Those of us who follow the news obsessively or professionally have known for years that FNC and most other large mainstream media outlets are increasingly ancillary sources. Trusted and new online news sites, including video and podcast reporting – as well as insights obtained from monitoring previously hard to access international media – are now becoming the primary sources of information for understanding our times.
In terms of what might emerge if Fox News continues to falter, there are indications in a number of recent articles that people with large amounts of money to invest are eyeing the possibility of creating a new conservative news channel to challenge Fox News. Meanwhile, alternatives like One America News Network, available on some satellite TV systems and via Roku, are gaining subscribers. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or operates 170 local television stations, most of them outside of the major media markets, recently completed a deal to buy Tribune Media, which would add Tribune’s 42 broadcast TV stations in 33 major markets to Sinclair’s portfolio. Sinclair currently provides Full Measure, a weekly news program to its affiliates, anchored by former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson who is one of the best investigative journalists in the country. NPR reported that in the expansion of Sinclair “There are what could be the stirrings of plans for a national platform – such as a cable television station. . . Speculation has centered on possible conversion of Tribune's WGN America as a possible conservative news and opinion channel.”
We are living in interesting times. Stay tuned for developments.
Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care. His bio with links to many of his writings can be accessed here.