By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
The symbiotic, mutually advantageous bond between Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and Donald Trump has often been described as a romance or a love fest.
Now that the relationship looks as if it may be headed to divorce court, let’s remember what really matters in any decision to split up: money and power.
And let’s remember what doesn’t matter one whit: loyalty.
There’s no such thing on either side of this equation. In fact, I’d argue that neither side is capable of it.
Trump, after all, is the president who seemed to think the vicious calls of the mob on Jan. 6, 2021, to hang his ever-faithful vice president, Mike Pence, were a pretty reasonable idea.
And he’s the same guy who mysteriously seems to forget close associates as soon as they cause him any trouble. After White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson — a frequent presence in his meetings whose workstation was mere steps away from the Oval Office — offered devastating testimony to the Jan. 6 select committee in June, Trump suffered the usual amnesia: “I hardly know who this person, Cassidy Hutchinson, is, other than I heard very negative things about her (a total phony and ‘leaker’) … .”
Semper fidelis, in other words, isn’t really Trump’s strong suit. More appropriate is what legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko suggested as a motto for his city where public officials often had their hands in the till: Ubi est mea? ( “Where’s mine?)
As for the Murdochs, cold hard pragmatism will rule the day. If Trump continues to serve the media empire’s purposes as he has been doing so effectively for the past six years — bringing money in the form of ratings and viewership and benefiting Murdoch’s chosen political party — he’ll remain in favor.
If not, then he’ll be tossed overboard without an iota of regret, at least not by the top leadership: Rupert Murdoch and his increasingly important son, Lachlan.
Whether that will actually happen is not entirely clear. The signs are still a little murky and certainly open to interpretation.
On the one hand, the opinion pages of two Murdoch newspapers — the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — have turned on Trump recently, both offering scathing editorials that blasted him for his role on Jan. 6, 2021, particularly his utter lack of leadership in calling off the dangerous mob. And, far more important than any newspaper editorial, his most valuable media ally, Fox News, has skipped much of the live coverage of the former president’s speeches and rallies while not interviewing him live for months.
Worse, the person emerging as his chief rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has clearly caught the cable network’s eye.
But there’s still plenty of sycophancy on display. Just days ago, the talking heads of “Fox & Friends” — perhaps chastened by Trump’s raging that they had gone to the “dark side” after they reported some unfavorable poll numbers — once again stroked his fragile but oversize ego. Brian Kilmeade called him the “greatest golfing president ever,” and Ainsley Earhardt backed that up with one admiring exclamation: “Athletic!”
Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson showed up at Trump’s Saudi-funded golf tournament over the weekend in Bedminster, N.J., and yukked it up with the former president over an anti-Biden chant from the crowd.
The Murdochs, it seems clear, are waiting to see which way the wind blows.
Yes, they are having their doubts about Trump as the right horse to back, but most of all, they desperately want to hang onto the vast base of MAGA voters (and viewers) who haven’t quite made their minds up about moving on.
“Appearing loyal to Trump made them money, and the minute it stops making them money, they will stop doing it,” a former Fox News commentator was quoted in a weekend story from my colleagues Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr. The elder Murdoch may be personally disgusted, or at least put off, by Trump’s malfeasance as it has been revealed in the House hearings; that distaste is probably what’s being reflected in the Post and Journal editorials.
But we’re not there yet. And lofty ideals will have nothing to do with what ultimately happens. Pure pragmatism will rule the day.
Despite his occasional fits of pique, Trump will never really turn on Fox. After all, his social media platform, Truth Social, is no substitute for the constant blast of support that he can get from the most popular cable network in the land and from its prime-time stars. And the television alternatives he once touted, such as One America and Newsmax, have not gotten the job done.
But the soulless expediency runs in both directions. If Trump manages to snag the Republican nomination in 2024 — very far from impossible despite his falling star — Fox will be right there by his side with pompoms and megaphone at the ready.
Not because of personal affection. Not because of stalwart loyalty. But because that will be the best bet for maintaining what really matters.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times’s public editor and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.
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