Murdoch’s Audience of Two

Lachlan, James, Anna and Rupert Murdoch in New York City, 1987.
Lachlan, James, Anna and Rupert Murdoch in New York City, 1987. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty
Matthew Belloni
September 22, 2023

It was fun to have Michael Wolff on my podcast today. I know Wolff is a controversial, polarizing figure, especially in media circles. But I’ve always appreciated his willingness to go there, journalism orthodoxy be damned. I hadn’t seen him in years, and he’s been on quite a ride—embedding inside the Trump White House during those chaotic first 100 days, selling more than 1.7 million copies of Fire and Fury, becoming a national figure worthy of SNL caricature, following with two more Trump books, and now, on Tuesday, The Fall, about the turbulent and possibly final days of the Rupert Murdoch media dynasty. 

Amusingly, it all started with a 2016 Wolff article that I edited at Hollywood Reporter, where he was our media columnist. Trump was doing Jimmy Kimmel Live! in advance of the California primary, and Wolff had secured a sit-down with the long-shot candidate, first in the Kimmel green room, and then, when that was too loud, at a Trump home in Beverly Hills that was stocked only with Häagen-Dazs ice cream—a detail I insisted on placing high up in the story. It wasn’t a particularly flattering piece, but for some reason—maybe it was the sunglasses we adorned on him in the cover illustration—Trump liked it. And so Steve Bannon ended up inviting Wolff to hang out in the White House during the transition. Millions of books later…

Anyway, among the many comical/alarming Trump moves in those early days, Wolff witnessed how the president that Fox News elected would interact with Fox hosts and with Murdoch, who didn’t much care for Trump. In fact, he hated him. That dynamic between Fox, Trump, and Murdoch has always fascinated me—a cynical, unhappy, arranged marriage of mutual financial-political-narcissistic benefit, maintained at the expense of Murdoch’s conservative principles and, for a time there in late 2020 and early 2021, possibly American democracy. Predictably, Fox’s dependence on the Trump audience caused it to overcorrect after the Arizona call for Biden, to the point where the election lies cost it dearly in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit. A tragicomic result for Murdoch—one of many in a career highlighted by as many scandals as industry-defining wins—with more pain almost certainly still to come from the Smartmatic case.