|Years ago, I attended a meeting with James Murdoch, then the C.E.O. of 21th Century Fox, at a corporate glass spaceship-ish office tower in lower Manhattan, overlooking New York Harbor and the redevelopment of the post-9/11 landscape. Murdoch was very much as advertised, the quintessential non-Murdoch Murdoch: youthful, ebullient, collaborative, thoughtful, and fiercely trained in the corporate lexicon and style of the modern media chief executive.
He wore an elegant lightweight jacket, jeans, straight-from-the-box white sneakers, no tie, and only a little too much hair gel. He spoke with the slight uptick of Horace Mann vocal fry. Like his peers in Silicon Valley, he uttered the phrase super eagerly.
The meeting was high level and much of the content was off the record. But what I can relay, and what has stuck with me all these years later, was the younger Murdoch’s disciplined McKinseyism, his realpolitik. Our conversation took place in a fascinating moment for the Murdochs, after the horrific Roger Ailes scandal and before Rupert Murdoch sold off the non-news-and-sports company assets to Bob Iger for $71 billion. James Murdoch had openly resented Ailes, and had famously helped agitate for the Paul Weiss investigation that set into motion his ouster. But Fox News was also the province of News Corp, the Murdochs’ other entity, outside his direct purview. When I tried to test him on his feelings about the network—this was the peak of the Trump-Hannity-Pirro era—he demurred and sidestepped. This wasn’t his first rodeo as a Murdoch scion. Anyway, he was the digital and O.T.T. Murdoch, the futurist.
The Murdochs have been top of mind these days, as Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the business picks up momentum. Recent troves of documents, well covered in the media, suggest that some of Fox News’s top anchors and executives were cognizant that the network was platforming nonsensical lies about the veracity of the 2020 election. I wasn’t stunned to hear that Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham privately raised their doubts about the credibility of various guests. Cable news is often performance art masquerading as journalism. I was surprised, however, by the fact that top executives seemed motivated to tolerate election denialism because they worried that their competition would.
We often lump our culture’s largest cable news brands—Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC—into one cohort. But the truth is that Fox, in terms of total viewership (and revenue), is essentially CNN and MSNBC combined. And yet, amid the troves of documents, its top executives were fretting about whether they might lose out in the ratings wars to Newsmax. Nothing is sacred in our economy, and especially in media these days, and it was bizarre and chilling to see that even Fox News, the seemingly entrenched vox populi of rightward America, fears the winds of change. To understand the consequences, I suggest perusing Dylan Byers’ wrenching piece, Will Rupert Murdoch Make a “Blood Sacrifice”? And for a masterclass in the legal strategy behind it all, I recommend Eriq Gardner’s characteristically brilliant Will Fox News Win Its Legal War? Better yet, dig into Dylan and Eriq’s crosstalk on the subject, Murdoch Shrugged.
On the other hand, of course they should be terrified about the change afoot. As my Puck partner Tina Nguyen has reported tirelessly, a large balkanized right-wing media universe is emerging in the shadows as we speak. It’s not just Joe Rogan or Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing’s Daily Wire. Late last year, as Tina reports this week, the DeVos family quietly invested in Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media empire. A post-Fox News firmament is developing rapidly, and its reach and ambitions are far larger than Newsmax. Murdoch and his executives should be nervous. In fact, if the legal filings indicate anything, they aren’t nervous enough.
James Murdoch was smart to leave the family businesses when he did. It’s impossible to know whether the fallout from the Dominion scandal will become more material and consequential than previous Murdoch dramas (phone-hacking, Ailes, among others), but it’s indeed possible that the Murdochs, themselves, are about to become less consequential.
Have a great weekend,