Comment: Murdoch’s out; not his legacy of ‘alternative facts’

The Fox News creator’s formula for laundering right-wing narratives as news lives on without him at the helm.

By A.J. Bauer / Bloomberg Opinion

The retirement of Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul perhaps most responsible for our contemporary media dysfunction, prompted renewed speculation about the future of his far-flung media holdings. In the U.S., questions swirled about what this change might mean for Fox News’ dominance, not to mention its penchant for disinformation.

If you were hoping the network would suddenly become a bastion of journalistic integrity, don’t get your hopes up. And Murdoch would like you to know that he’s proud of his lifework.

“Our companies are in robust health, as am I,” Murdoch wrote in an open letter to his employees. “Our opportunities far exceed our commercial challenges. We have every reason to be optimistic about the coming years.”

The facts suggest a less rosy future for Fox.

Murdoch’s decision to appoint his eldest son, Lachlan, as his successor is likely to continue the network’s more blatant white supremacist turn since the Murdoch heir took over as CEO of Fox Corp. in 2019.

Journalists Gabriel Sherman and Brian Stelter, known for cultivating sources deep within Fox News, theorized that his retirement may increase the likelihood of a sale. The company’s extensive and growing legal liabilities, tied to the network’s increasingly brazen falsehoods, present a considerable headwind.The $787.5 million settlement it paid to Dominion Voting Systems for promoting false claims of fraud during the 2020 presidential election has sparked additional lawsuits from shareholders — including the pension funds for New York City and the State of Oregon — who accuse Murdoch and the Fox board of violating their fiduciary responsibilities by exposing the company to legal risks through knowingly promoting lies pushed by former president Donald Trump. And another $2.7 billion lawsuit, this time from Smartmatic, looms on the horizon.

Fox’s business future may be uncertain, but ours isn’t. Murdoch’s many innovations as a media mogul have done irreparable harm to the foundational assumptions of U.S. liberal democracy; that government ought to reflect the will of the people, properly informed by a fair and impartial press. His retirement will do nothing to mitigate the damage done.

To be “fair and balanced,” the moto Fox News did away with in 2017; it’s not all Murdoch’s fault.

Founded in 1996, the network was built on a foundation of 50-plus years of conservative media activism, which cultivated a widespread belief in mainstream “liberal media” bias. Murdoch hired Roger Ailes, a Republican media consultant, who catered programming toward this lucrative and underserved market. Fox has since skewed the entire U.S. political system, setting the news agenda as the highest-rated cable news channel for more than two decades.

While it has only recently been held accountable for its promotion of disinformation, Fox has a long history of falsehoods in service of its partisan ends. It was the first network to call the 2000 election for George W. Bush before all the votes were counted in Florida, giving him momentum going into legal battles over ballots. Few U.S. media outlets deserve plaudits for their coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War, though Fox audiences were found to be particularly prone to misperceptions about the existence of weapons of mass destruction and putative links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.

But Fox’s real success — and damage — has come less from its outright lies than from its conveyance of what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway once called “alternative facts.” Its audiences are not detached from reality so much as they are provided with a clear and (to them) compelling narrative with which to interpret the news of the day.

A company wishes its customers “Happy Holidays” to be more inclusive, and it becomes the War on Christmas. Turns out some African Americans participated in the Revolutionary War, so liberal college professors must be lying about the deep legacies of racism. Bud Light partnered with trans actress and social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney to expand its market share beyond its traditional demographics, and all of a sudden capitalism is “woke.”

Fox’s purpose — an extension of Murdoch’s own outsider sensibility as an Australian son of a newspaperman who was forced to rebuild his father’s burgeoning media empire from a single backwater tabloid — has long been to convey the news in a style that appeals to white working class cultural tastes in order to cultivate a broad-based conservative common sense.

Murdoch exhibited this commitment in his retirement letter.

“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class,” wrote Murdoch, a billionaire Oxford University alum, without a hint of irony. “Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing truth.”

This is a blatant projection, of course. Fox News has long prioritized political narratives designed to match and amplify its audience’s beliefs over any commitment to pursuing truth. That Fox now faces competition on its right flank from outlets like Newsmax, One American News and Right Side Broadcasting only solidifies Murdoch’s legacy of having laundered right-wing narratives as a news.

Unlike Murdoch, that’s not going anywhere.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama and co-editor of “News on the Right.”

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