It’s Time to Stop Pretending the Murdochs Are in the News Business

Rupert Murdoch's Face

News Corp Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch listens to a question at the “The Economics and Politics of Immigration” Forum in Boston, Massachusetts August 14, 2012. (Reuters /Jessica Rinaldi)

The New York Times Magazine’s recently published forensic examination of the power and influence of the Murdoch media empire is both a testament to what journalism can accomplish and an indictment of what it has, in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and his two sons, increasingly become. The 16,000-word investigation should quiet anyone who thinks that the survival of that often-infuriating newspaper is of no particular consequence to the future of American democracy. It should also lay to rest any remaining arguments that the Murdochs are engaged in anything but a power-seeking charade: pretending to be in the news profession while subverting it at every turn.

The piece, titled “Planet Fox,” by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, has not received the attention it deserves, in part because it does not contain any blockbuster scoops that could easily fit into a CNN or MSNBC chyron or pithy tweet. What it does contain is a history of how one family has been able to use the power of the press to subvert democratic norms, misinform citizens, undermine governments, and fill our national debates with lies, misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism while calling it news.

Murdoch watchers have long argued over whether Rupert Murdoch is motivated more by money or power. The answer, almost always, is “yes.” That’s the man’s genius: In his case, the two travel in tandem. But should they conflict, it is the money that matters. Take the most interesting fact I found related to Fox News’s horrific treatment of the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. You may recall Sean Hannity’s and’s obsessive promotion of a bizarre conspiracy theory that, with the Trump White House’s encouragement, sought to tie Rich’s 2016 killing to allegedly nefarious doings of the committee, though it was always hard to understand exactly how. Rich’s family sued, and the site quietly withdrew the story. It was a rare example of Murdoch caving in to any form of moral public pressure, or so we thought. (The family’s lawsuit was eventually dismissed.)

It turns out it was all business. The Murdochs were in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful fight to try to win over British regulators for their proposed takeover of the Sky satellite network. Their first attempt to do so collapsed under the weight of the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World, which ultimately forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid and endure a humiliating parliamentary hearing (along with a pie in the face). Now they were trying again.

Finding himself in this position was unusual for Murdoch. In the United States, especially with Trump in office, he gets what he wants. That’s why Fox’s sale of its non-news assets to Disney last month went so smoothly, despite the red flags it raised vis-à-vis Disney’s potential monopoly power. It is also the likely reason that the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Murdoch competitor, found itself stymied in its attempt to buy up most of Tribune Media’s television outlets. But in the UK, Fox News faced accusations of promoting “unfair and inaccurate content,” and in another investigation, British regulators ruled that Fox’s Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson breached impartiality standards. To help smooth these bumps, Murdoch was willing to pull the channel off the air in the UK—though, even then, his bid for Sky Broadcasting failed.