One of the main characteristics that Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump share is a distaste for losers. As the Australian media mogul’s US channels and newspapers turned against Trump this week, culminating in not so subtle appeals for him to concede on Friday, it became clear that Murdoch believes the US president now falls squarely in that category.
Perhaps the clearest signal that Murdoch’s empire was abandoning its Sun God came on Friday night from the mouth of Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies.
“If and when it’s time to accept an unfavourable outcome in this election,” Ingraham began an appeal that was as much for the president as the rest of Fox News’ viewers, before going on to insist that the best way to protect Trump’s “legacy” was to focus on “moving the country forward”. This was a commentator and channel that has spent years helping the president deny reality, asking him, and his supporters, to accept it.
Fox had been distancing itself from the president days before a Biden victory seemed so certain. Its decision to call Arizona for the Democrats, ahead of even the Associated Press and long before many other news organisations, including The New York Times, may have had at least something to do with the much-vaunted independence of its so called decision desk. It nevertheless angered Trump, with reports that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner got in touch with Murdoch seeking a reversal, to no avail. It was not the first time Trump had felt Murdoch’s media has been insufficiently supportive during his campaign for re-election, but it underlined how far the relationship had broken down.
But as the week wore on, more and more airtime was given over to voices shooting down the president’s baseless assertions that the vote was somehow being stolen. That some of those voices belonged to senior republicans was no less significant. Before this week they would have been given short shrift.
The pattern has been reflected across Murdoch’s US newspapers. As early as Thursday the New York Post was labelling a tweet calling for “total war” from Donald Trump Jr “clueless”. And as Ingraham was appealing to Trump’s legacy on Fox, the Wall Street Journal was doing the same in an editorial headlined “The Presidential Endgame”.
We should not give too much credit to Murdoch’s outlets for some sudden shift towards responsible journalism. Let’s not forget that it was the New York Post that published a dubiously sourced story on Hunter Biden, which attempted, without success, to implicate his father in corrupt acts. The story was so thin, and its source so questionable, that the reporter who wrote it would not put his name on it. But that didn’t stop Fox from giving it acres of airtime. And even late Friday Fox was still featuring dangerous conspiracy theories, such as claims that US security services were somehow manipulating vote counts, which aired on sister channel Fox Business.
But the change is there and Trump’s most ardent supporters can see it. As early as Wednesday protesters gathered outside counting stations in Arizona, some of them armed, were chanting “Fox sucks!”. In social media groups set up to oppose what they believe could only be a “rigged” vote, many insisted that they could now only trust the likes of Newsmax and OAN, right-wing outlets that have broadcast a mix of Trump propaganda and conspiracy theories online, taking advantage of social media to reach an ever more polarised segment of Trump supporters.
There is speculation that Trump could turn his base into a ready-made audience for his own media empire to take on Fox. The success of alt-right outlets under Trump and their ability to continue attracting huge audiences online certainly suggests there are many who will want to keep watching him as their own king in exile.
But building and running a media operation to compete with Fox would require huge amounts of money and a great deal of expertise, things Trump doesn’t have and that it is difficult to see how he would obtain.
And it’s not like opposition doesn’t bring its own benefits for Fox. The network built its huge audience not on unwavering support for Republicans, but on vicious attacks on Democrats, along with pretty much any other expression of the progressive politics it seeks to portray as “un-American”. There’s little doubt that approach will bring in viewers under a Biden presidency.
An enduring debate back in the UK has been whether the claim by Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper to have been the one “wot won it” for John Major in the 1992 UK general election was a genuine celebration of its power to pick prime ministers, or the paper simply trying to make the most of its ability to see which way the wind was blowing.
But now, as then, for Murdoch and his media empire, the election result matters a lot less than what it means for his businesses. After years backing a president who has done more than any other to undermine facts, he was not able to change them on the ground of this election. Murdoch can see that as clearly as anyone, and is acting accordingly.