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A 91-year-old billionaire sits atop a global media empire, while his adult children vie for control of the family business to the next generation.
It looks like the plot of the HBO series Successionbut New York Times Journalist Jim Rutenberg says the real-life drama involving Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and his children, Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence, rivals anything a screenwriter could imagine.
“I always suspected that the Succession writers have a mole in the family, because it’s just too much they seem to know,” Rutenberg says. “It’s just all the drama you want on TV, but democracy depends on its future.
Rutenberg is a consulting producer on CNN’s new documentary series, The Murdochs: Empire of Influence, which is based on a long investigative piece he wrote with Time journalist Jonathan Mahler in 2019. He says the next few years could help determine the direction of the Fox News empire.
“There’s an interesting thing about how Rupert started the business,” Rutenberg says. “It’s family counseling with these kids. …Rupert can’t be outvoted [but] once Rupert dies, every child has an equal vote…and the company could eventually be taken in a different direction.”
Rupert named his eldest son, Lachlan, CEO of Fox Corp. in 2019. Lachlan is, Rutenberg notes, “actually more conservative than his father.” Meanwhile, James was “horrified by what he sees as a turn toward Trumpism by Fox News.”
“Fox News is hands down the number one news network in this country, and it’s gotten even bigger under Trump,” Rutenberg said. “If Trump gave anything to Rupert, it was the lifeblood of his business, which was ratings, which equaled revenue.”
At a time in 2016 when Rupert, then 86, suffered a serious spinal injury aboard Lachlan’s yacht, and the Murdoch siblings raced to establish a line of succession
[Rupert] did not name a successor. The kids are called (now adults, actually) and told “Come to LA”, because he’s being airlifted to a hospital in LA… What’s going on behind the scenes here is that not only Rupert hasn’t named a successor, but his two main candidates at the moment – his son, Lachlan, his eldest and his son James – are in a really pitched battle to lead the company, and they will take it in two very directions. different. …And there’s also this long history of struggling for this job. Right now it’s all just kind of suspended animation while the family sort of sees how they’re going to get through this. …
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Now it’s Rupert Murdoch, he’s a survivor. His own mother lived to be over 100 years old with all her faculties intact – in the end, she comes out on top. … He had said that he “felt stronger than ever”, but there really was this moment when he could have died and there would have been this fight and we would, once again, have lived with the consequences .
On how Fox News changed after Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes stepped down and Lachlan took more control
The network started with the tag “Fair and Balanced”. It was very important to Roger Ailes that he establish himself as a credible voice of information, at least for the part of the country which he felt felt alienated from the rest of the press, but had a strong opinion, in particularly conservative at night. But they added the occasional liberal, Alan Colmes was previously the liberal co-host with Sean Hannity at the start of the network. Ailes, towards the end of his reign – which people may remember ended in a sexual harassment scandal, and then he died a little later.
When Ailes left… command and control disappeared. And Lachlan Murdoch is not one to command and control. So what has happened since then is that the network is self-sustaining under Suzanne Scott. And so far, her leadership seems to be that she will allow strong personalities to move as they see fit within her own limits – and right now, those prime-time limits have gone quite far.
On Trump’s relationship with Murdoch’s tabloid The New York Post
I worked there briefly for the newspaper and I was on Page Six and I was part of the Murdoch era. … Trump was just calling and he was constantly handing out articles. And for Murdoch, Trump was happy. I don’t think he respected him or showed him much respect as a businessman. But Trump was happy, and I’d say Trump wouldn’t have become the figure he became without it. The New York Post. Because before Twitter there was The post office, and The post office was meant to grab attention in the information economy, and these were sensational claims that would grab headlines and make headlines. There was a rat-a-tat-tat feed that was obviously way beyond Twitter, but this was an early version of that. And so Trump is learning through Rupert’s tabloid…how to be a modern media figure.
On Rupert Murdoch initially not supporting Trump’s bid for president
Murdoch did not support Trump and was almost upset by Trump’s rise. … When Trump visits him at his headquarters before he announces he’s planning to run and Rupert is really dismissive and actually basically … he says something like “prepare to be wrapped”, which I guess is Australian for beaten up or knocked down. So he warns her that it won’t be easy, including from Fox. But… he ultimately has to get behind Trump because he’s always going to get behind the Republican nominee, and Trump really gets him in, and they talk all the time and gossip. And Rupert loves it, because as close as he’s been with previous Republican administrations, he’s never had that kind of access. So Trump really earns it by his side. And then I think another factor is the reaction, the harsh coverage that Trump got from the rest of the press I believe sent Murdoch more into Trump’s fold, because he saw some of that as exaggerated. [He believed] the press acts as the resistance, and that is inappropriate.
On Murdoch’s relationship with Trump once he became president
They get really, really close. No one is going to control Trump or dictate what Trump does, and vice versa. Trump won’t be entirely able to tell Fox what to do, but there’s this fascinating feedback loop that’s allowed to happen. Everyone watched this happen in real time, but Fox News would kind of go off on a certain tangent. And if that tangent was truly in line with the base, then Trump would repeat it. Sometimes Trump knows in his gut what will work, so sometimes he jumps on it and can see the words flow from Fox News to his Twitter feed.
And sometimes Fox found himself on the wrong side of Trump, so he had to scramble to stay good with Trump’s base. Voting is an example. Murdoch didn’t listen to Trump when Trump asked him to drop some election night calls showing Joe Biden was going to win. But then Fox really went back to Trump’s side because his audience is where Trump is, so it becomes this fascinating dance.
On how Murdoch-owned media is helping shape the future of democracy
I think of how Tucker Carlson or other network hosts handled the problem of alleged and largely non-existent voter fraud after Election Day 2020. They were spreading many leads, theories, and allegations. It never worked. …And they were doing it in the name of voter integrity, but nothing erodes voter integrity like telling four million people every night that there is no integrity in the electoral system. without having any real evidence. So it’s going to have an effect on democracy now.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.