I recently had a chance to see “Citizen Hearst” on PBS’s “American Experience.” It was extraordinarily well done. Despite clocking in at nearly four hours, with much of the time given over to talking heads, my attention never flagged. Partly it’s because there was so much high-quality archival footage. Partly it was because the subject, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, is just so compelling.
There was only one aspect of Hearst’s career that I thought got short shrift. Years ago I read William Andrew Swanberg’s 1961 biography of Hearst. (Confusingly enough, Swanberg’s book was also called “Citizen Hearst,” but the documentary is based on a different book — “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” by David Nasaw, who appears in the film.) I distinctly recall that Hearst’s papers were sympathetic to Germany during the early years of World War I, so he faced a crisis when the U.S. entered the war. His solution: adding the name “American” to many of his papers.
Another omission from the documentary is more conceptual than factual. The film seems to take it for granted that we’ll never see another media figure who wields power the way Hearst did. Well, what about Rupert Murdoch? If anything, Murdoch has more power and is more dangerous. His Fox News Channel has become the single most important force driving the crisis of democracy that we’re contending with at the moment.
In that sense, “Citizen Hearst” is not just a well-made film about a historical figure. It’s a cautionary tale.
With the delta variant spreading and COVID-19 rates climbing in all 50 states, President Joe Biden last Friday offered some tough words for Facebook and other social media companies that are enabling lies and misinformation.
“They’re killing people,” he said. “I mean, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”
Biden was not wrong. But despite the enormous reach of Facebook, only one media outlet has devoted itself to injecting falsehoods about the pandemic into the nervous systems of its audience on a 24/7 basis. That, of course, would be Fox News, the right-wing cable station that tells its viewers, over and over, that vaccines are dangerous and that wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 is ineffective — and, in any case, is not worth the price we’d pay in giving up our freedom.
Anne Applebaum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, put it well in a tweet reacting to Biden’s warning to Facebook and its ilk: “Surely Fox poses as big or even bigger problem?”
Consider a recent exchange between Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and frequent Fox guest who’s become a notorious purveyor of pandemic falsehoods. “Masks are useless,” Berenson said, although he added that an N-95 medical-grade mask might be of “some minor benefit.” Mainly, he said, mask directives are “symbolic,” explaining, “If I don’t see people wearing masks I forget to be scared, and that’s why they want people wearing masks.”
Berenson wasn’t done. In response to gentle prodding by Carlson, he said, “The vaccines unfortunately appear to be declining in effectiveness very quickly.” He complained that he’d been suspended by Twitter for saying just that, and he urged Carlson’s viewers to subscribe to his Substack “before I get kicked off Twitter.”
"Biden aims blistering attack at tech companies over vaccine falsehoods"
Carlson responded by appearing to agree with Berenson. “The big media outlets are committed to lying and censorship,” he said sympathetically. “It’s terrifying.”
Carlson’s show is the top-rated program on cable news, drawing some 3 million viewers every weeknight. That may pale in comparison to the reach of social media. But unlike Facebook, where you’re going to encounter news about your family and friends, cat photos and the like along with the occasional falsehood, Fox is pushing this stuff at all hours of the day and night.
As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy put it: “Rupert Murdoch, who was among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine, but who pays people who intentionally fear-monger to millions of people about them, must be smiling about all the attention Facebook is getting. Facebook is allowing for the spread of misinfo, but at least, unlike Fox News, has made some effort to reduce it.”
From “Fox & Friends” in the morning to Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham at night, Fox in recent years has morphed from a somewhat normal conservative news and opinion outlet into pure propaganda.
Last week, Media Matters for America released a study that showed the extent of Fox’s disinformation campaign about COVID and vaccines. Media Matters is liberal and partisan, but it also has a reputation for getting its facts right. The findings were sobering.
“From June 28 through July 11, 57% of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined vaccination efforts,” according to the report. The biggest offender was the “Fox & Friends” morning show, followed by Ingraham, though Carlson wasn’t far behind.
During the two-week period, the report said, “Fox personalities and guests made 216 claims undermining or downplaying vaccines or immunization drives. Out of those, 151 claims came from pundits on the network, which represented 70% of the total. Fox pundits described vaccine efforts as coercive or government overreach 103 times and described vaccines as unnecessary or dangerous 75 times.”
This is pure poison, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Trump supporters are lagging on vaccinations, and why we’re all wondering how soon we’ll be under a mask mandate once again.
The Washington Post and Time magazine weighed in earlier this month with in-depth profiles of Carlson, who has become perhaps the most influential force in right-wing politics since the semi-departure of Trump and the death of Rush Limbaugh. Both profiles focused on his racism — a worthy subject, for sure, but no doubt a sign that the stories were assigned before the recent resurgence of the pandemic.
Gillian Laub of Time, though, did manage to work in some key COVID-19 material into her piece, eliciting a ludicrously offensive answer from Carlson when she asked if he’d been vaccinated. He called the anodyne question “super-vulgar” and parried with “What’s your favorite sexual position and when did you last engage in it?”
Laub also noted that, early in the pandemic, Carlson took COVID-19 more seriously than his fellow Fox hosts and even urged then-President Trump to change course. As a result, researchers found that Carlson’s viewers modified their behavior in practices such as hand-washing sooner than did Hannity’s fans.
There are some recent signs that Fox is hedging its bets. Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” has been praised for pushing back against his anti-vaxxer co-host Brian Kilmeade. (Both sides!) Even Hannity has been edging toward encouraging his viewers to get vaccinated. But it’s Carlson with the most viewers and influence, and there’s little evidence that his bosses are going to intervene.
Is there anything that can be done about the toxic influence of Fox News? It would be exceedingly difficult. Occasionally you hear some talk about reviving the FCC’s fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked. But even if that were politically possible, it would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster. The fairness doctrine applied only to over-the-air television and radio, not cable TV, since the airwaves were regarded as a finite, publicly owned resource.
In any case, such a heavy-handed approach might not be necessary. Congress could require cable providers to offer à la carte service so that no one would have to pay for Fox News or any other cable channel unless they wanted to. No more bundling. Personally, I’d probably keep Fox so I could check in on what they were saying from time to time. But I’d happily give up the 57 flavors of ESPN I’m forced to pay for and rarely watch.
For now, though, we’re stuck with Fox and the baleful influence it exercises over our entire culture. People are literally dying because of the false beliefs they harbor about COVID-19, and Fox is one of the principal vectors for spreading those beliefs.
Donald Trump himself has urged people to get vaccinated. But that’s not the message being delivered to the Trump supporters who tune in to Fox News every day. As a result, some 47% of Republicans say they are unlikely to get the shots, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared to just 6% of Democrats.
Over the course of the next few weeks, more people will get sick and more people will die. We may be told to wear masks in public once again. New restrictions may be put in place. We were so close to beating COVID-19, and now we’re moving backwards. For that you can thank Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the rest of their ilk at Fox.
Most of all you can thank Rupert Murdoch, for whom misery and disease is just another profitable day at the office.
What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.
Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:
Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.
No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.
If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.
Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.
Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night just by sitting behind President Biden during his joint address to Congress. As the understudy to our oldest president, Harris may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 if Biden decides not to seek re-election.
And Harris, who is not just the first female vice president but also the first Black person and Asian American to fill that role, is driving the right crazy. Back in 2019, when she was running her own presidential campaign, the main critique of her was that she was too conventional and too close to law enforcement. Now the right-wing media echo chamber portrays her as the fifth member of the Squad.
The latest attack on Harris backfired in an unusually spectacular manner, and illustrates the corrosive effect that the Murdoch media are having in this country.
On Saturday, Murdoch’s New York Post devoted its cover story to a report that immigrant children at the border were being given goodie bags that included taxpayer-purchased copies of Harris’ children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere.”
The story immediately became fodder for Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. But the only evidence was a photo of one copy of the book, and the tale quickly unraveled — though that didn’t stop the Post, in a follow-up, from claiming that “thousands” of copies were distributed.
Then, on Tuesday, we received a rare moment of clarity. Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the story, tweeted that she had resigned. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point,” she wrote. Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times has all the details.
The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point.
Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then you’re thinking that this happens all the time. One part of the Murdoch media empire runs with something false, exaggerated or, at the very least, unverified; other parts of the empire amplify it; and we have a full-blown fake scandal about Democrats on our hands. (Note: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. See below.)
Last fall, for instance, in what was surely the lamest attempt at an October surprise ever, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon attempted to feed a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to Fox News. Taking the sensible position that the story couldn’t be verified, Fox’s news division actually passed on it — only to see it pop up in the New York Post.
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But not before some internal hand-wringing, as the Times’ Katie Robertson reported. The Post reporter who wrote most of the story refused to let his byline be put on it since he was afraid it would blow up, and several others declined as well. But Fox News, whose journalists had enough scruples not to take the story, recycled it endlessly on its opinionated talk shows, running “nearly 25 and a half hours, which included 420 segments” between Oct. 14 and 23, according to Rob Savillo of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America.
Today the laptop story exists in kind of a weird limbo, neither proven nor disproven, and in any case telling us nothing of relevance about President Biden.
After stumbling a bit after Election Day and allowing pure Trumpist outlets like Newsmax and OANN to move in on its territory, Fox News has resumed its dominance, according to Ted Johnson of Deadline — although the three major cable news channels, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are on the decline.
Morever, Fox, fed by the New York Post, remains the most dominant force in Republican politics, making it impossible for the party to move beyond Trump or even to think about compromising with Biden.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently testified before his country’s parliament about the harm his fellow Australian Murdoch has done. Among other things, he said:
What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other. That is exactly what Murdoch has done: Divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.
On Thursday we learned that Giuliani’s home and office were raided by the FBI, reportedly in connection with his murky dealings in Ukraine as he attempted to draw a connection between alleged corruption by Hunter Biden and his father. Bannon has faced criminal charges since last August over an alleged fundraising scheme involving Trump’s wall at the southern border.
The Murdoch media, though, just goes on and on, smearing without truth or consequences. You’ll be hearing false stories about Kamala Harris’ book for the rest of her political career. Mission accomplished.
Update: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. The Times’ Grynbaum tweets:
"The New York Post does not order reporters to deliberately publish factually inaccurate information. In this case, the story was amended as soon as it came to the editors’ attention that it was inaccurate." https://t.co/rXSx4mYU6khttps://t.co/X9Fjj3u4js
Not too long ago, Tucker Carlson would go on vacation — always long-planned, of course — whenever one of his rancid descents into racism and white supremacy made life momentarily uncomfortable for his overlords at Fox News. He’d disappear for a few days, come back once the heat had died down and resume his hate-mongering ways.
But that was before former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, before the insurrection of Jan. 6 and, most important, before Newsmax and One America News Network briefly put a scare into the Murdochs by showing that Fox’s audience, increasingly unmoored from reality, could no longer be taken for granted.
Thus we should have known that an uncontrite Carlson would be back at his perch Monday evening after enthusiastically endorsing “white replacement theory” the previous week. After all, Lachlan Murdoch, the heir to the throne, had defended Carlson earlier in the day in response to a letter from the Anti-Defamation League calling on Fox to fire its top-rated talk-show host.
“A full review of the guest interview indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory,” Murdoch said in his letter to ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt. “As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: ‘White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.’”
This is how it works if you’re Tucker Carlson: You can express vile, unadorned racist views. And as long as you say the equivalent of “I’m not being racist,” you’re good to go. Or, rather, good to stay.
So what exactly happened last Thursday? Carlson popped up during the crossover from the 7 p.m. show to his own in order to banter with guest host Mark Steyn. Picking up on something Steyn had said earlier, Carlson excoriated Democrats for allowing immigrants into the country who would at some point be allowed to vote — thus diluting the votes of Americans who were already here.
“Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” Carlson said.
He then added the part that Lachlan Murdoch seems to think absolves him of racism: “Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do it. Why are we putting up with this?”
This is, in fact, racism in its purest form: the belief that real Americans, defined by Carlson as people who were born here, have the right not to have to compete for political power with newcomers, and to be regarded as more worthy and more patriotic than those who immigrate here, become naturalized citizens and vote. Like, you know, Rupert Murdoch.
By the way, the aforementioned Steyn is a piece of work in his own right. A Canadian by way of the United Kingdom who once wrote dismissively of former Sen. Max Cleland’s devastating war injuries — the Georgia Democrat lost three limbs in Vietnam — Steyn came to Carlson’s defense in a post on his website.
Yet it wasn’t always sweetness and light between the two. In 2004, I wrote a profile of Steyn for The Boston Phoenix describing how he straddled the line between respectable conservatism and Ann Coulter-style gutter-dwelling. Steyn had criticized Carlson as a “conservative cutie” who had gone soft on the war in Iraq. So I called up Carlson, who had not yet begun his own descent into the intellectual abyss, and asked him what he thought.
“He’s kind of pompous,” Carlson said of Steyn. “He’s obviously smart, he can be quite witty. I mean, I agree with a lot of what he writes. But the problem with being a columnist for too long is that a) you tend to repeat yourself and b) you tend to forget that you need to marshal facts to support your opinions.”
But I digress. After all, this is about Carlson, who, no doubt charged up by Lachlan Murdoch’s endorsement, replayed his entire Thursday monologue to open his show on Monday and argued that he couldn’t possibly be racist because he believes the votes of Black people who were born in the U.S. are being diluted just as much as those of white people.
“Our leaders have no right to encourage foreigners to move to this country in order to change election results,” he said, and said this of Democrats: “Demographic replacement is their obsession because it’s their path to power.”
Not that any of this is new. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote about Carlson’s endorsement of white replacement theory back in 2018, after Carlson said that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country.” That took place just a year after neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia — “very fine people,” as former President Donald Trump called them at the time — had chanted “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!”
So what is to be done? Advertisers have, on occasion, pulled out of Carlson’s show and other Fox programs. But that has a limited effect, since Fox makes most of its money from fees paid by the cable companies. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On The Media,” “They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box.”
That, in turn, has led the progressive media-form group Free Press to propose that Congress pass a law mandating à la carte cable service so that customers wouldn’t be forced to subsidize Fox and its ilk. That sounds promising, and I certainly wouldn’t mind not having to pay for the various flavors of ESPN. But I’m sure that such a move would have unintended consequences. For instance, how many people would choose to pay for CNN? Flawed though it is, it’s indispensable when there’s breaking news.
As for Carlson, nothing will change until, suddenly, it does. He may be the most powerful right-wing figure in the country right now — an heir to Trump and a possible future presidential candidate. Yet he’s playing with explosives, stirring up the hatred and resentment of his viewers in a way that could lead to some extremely ugly consequences.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.
The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.
It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.
The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.
So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.
It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.
I’m hardly the first person to make this observation, but there’s a reason that Google is trying to accommodate Australian news publishers while Facebook is fighting them tooth and nail: Google needs news much more than Facebook does. The New York Times puts it this way:
Facebook and Google ultimately value news differently. Google’s mission statement has long been to organize the world’s information, an ambition that is not achievable without up-to-the-minute news. For Facebook, news is not as central. Instead, the company positions itself as a network of users coming together to share photos, political views, internet memes, videos — and, on occasion, news articles.
While I have no problem with publishers trying to extract some revenues from the two tech giants, I’m disheartened to see that Google is trying to buy its way out of trouble in Australia by cutting deals with the likes of Rupert Murdoch. This shouldn’t be a matter of buying off critics and then resuming business as usual.
That’s why I prefer an idea put forth by the tech analyst Benedict Evans in a conversation with Ingram: help fund news by taxing Google and Facebook. At least theoretically, that could lead to a more equitable distribution of revenues to large and small publishers alike.
Regardless of what the road ahead looks like, though, it’s clear that Facebook is going to be harder to deal with than Google. The Zuckerborg just doesn’t need journalism as much.
It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.
“He called it a ‘smear campaign’ and then went after me,” Erickson wrote, quoting Biden as saying: “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”
I asked Joe Biden: What is your response to the NYPost story about your son, sir?
He called it a “smear campaign” and then went after me. “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.” pic.twitter.com/Eo6VD4TqxD
Biden does indeed appear angry in the accompanying video. And why shouldn’t he? In fewer than three days, an unsupported allegation based on emails of dubious provenance had slithered up the media food chain from Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy scandal sheet to what we once called the Tiffany Network. Now the story was “Biden denies,” and if — as appears more than possible — it was the work of disinformation agents, then they must have taken great satisfaction in a job well done.
The details of the story hardly matter. Even if the emails are genuine, all they show is that Joe Biden may have met with an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board. Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. But as this piece by PolitiFact explains, it has long since been established that the prosecutor himself was corrupt, and that Joe Biden was acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the Western alliance.
What does matter is that the Post story has all the earmarks of disinformation from the campaign of President Donald Trump, from Russian interests or from both.
Consider that the two sources were former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers. One of Bannon’s best-known maxims is that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.” Because, inevitably, the media just can’t resist reporting on it, even it’s to debunk it or, in the case of Erickson, to get the victim to say something about it.
Moreover, The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had warned months ago that Giuliani was “the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence,” and that he was passing along Russian disinformation to the president as part of his so-called investigation into the Bidens’ connections with Ukraine. Trump’s reported response: “That’s Rudy.”
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it was a straight line from the New York Post to CBS News. There have been more than a few zigzags along the way.
For instance, there is the matter of why Giuliani’s latest “drug deal,” to recycle John Bolton’s apt phrase, found its way into the Post rather than a more respectable sector of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. If the story had been broken by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, we’d all be taking it seriously.
As it turns out, what Giuliani was peddling was too rancid even for Fox News, yet another Murdoch property. According to Mediaite, the news department at Fox rejected Rudy’s pitch because the veracity of the emails — allegedly found on a laptop that Hunter Biden had left at a Delaware repair shop — couldn’t be verified.
Crisis averted? Hardly. That’s not how the media food chain works. Because after the story appeared in the Post, Fox News hosts immediately began talking it up. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the story was discussed more than 100 times between Wednesday and Friday — not just on the opinion shows, but on the news side as well, even though the operation’s actual journalists had taken a pass on it.
And even within the Post, the story proved toxic. The New York Times reported that there were such misgivings in the Post’s newsroom that those involved in writing it refused to have their bylines put on it. In the end, the bylines of two women who may not have had much to do with it were placed atop the story. One, according to the Times’ sources, had “little to do with the reporting and writing of the article” and “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”
The smear led to the usual handwringing at Facebook and Twitter as well. As The Guardian reported, both platforms took steps to limit the reach and distribution of the story on the grounds that the emails had not been verified. And that, in turn, led to the usual complaints from Republicans that the two services were censoring news that had a rightward slant. “Twitter’s censorship of this story is quite hypocritical,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, “given its willingness to allow users to share less-well-sourced reporting critical of other candidates.”
As I wrote recently, the media for the most part have been less gullible in covering the presidential campaign than they were four years ago, when Hillary Clinton’s emails were conflated into a massive scandal despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, for instance, the press treated unproven claims by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who charged that Biden sexually assaulted her a generation ago, with the skepticism they deserved.
But Giuliani, in particular, has refused to let go of the Ukraine story. And it’s got to be damaging to Biden on at least some level for it to resurface just a few weeks before the final day of voting. You can be sure it will come up at this Thursday’s debate, and it is exactly the kind of complicated tale that can’t be refuted with a soundbite. The challenge for Biden will be explaining it in simple terms while Trump is interrupting him and yelling at him, regardless of whether his mic has been cut.
A few minutes after Bo Erickson tweeted out Biden’s response, his CBS News colleague Paula Reid came to his defense. “Biden adopts Trump playbook” by “attacking” Erickson, she tweeted, adding: “Fine to attack the story, but why personally insult Bo?”
The “Trump playbook”? Seriously? Biden’s response was sharp and a little rude, but hardly out of line given that Erickson was giving mainstream credibility to an unverified smear. Fortunately for Biden, the media for the most part appear not to be taking it seriously.
But the question of how to handle such unproven and unprovable allegations remains unanswered. Ignore them, and you’ll be accused of bias — and the story will get out there anyway. Debunk them, and you’re giving them wider play. Ask the target about them, and you run the risk of #bothsides-ism.
It’s a miserable dilemma. But that’s the state of media and politics in 2020.
The toxic combination of President Trump and Fox News has reached dangerous new levels, as the network has shifted from dismissing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, to (briefly) acknowledging its virulence, to pushing Trump to end the extraordinary measures being taken to slow its spread. Three data points:
On Monday, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote that Fox major domo Rupert Murdoch has made a bad situation worse by leaving his hands-off son Lachlan in charge: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”
On Tuesday night, Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post reported that Trump’s bizarre, potentially lethal embrace of ending COVID-19 restrictions weeks or months sooner than medical experts recommend — even if the oldsters die — comes straight from Fox: “Early this week, the cable network’s most prominent figures began urging the president to ditch the restrictions and get people back to work, even if doing so risks the public’s health. The commentary dovetails with, and may even have encouraged, Trump’s expressing a desire for businesses to start reopening after the federal government’s 15-day, stay-at-home period ends on Monday.”
This morning, Tom Jones, who writes the Poynter Institute’s morning newsletter, took Fox to task for hosting a Trump town hall without challenging any of his dubious assertions: “Mostly because of the incompetence and softball approach from host Bill Hemmer, the two-hour town hall produced little in the way of accountability, clarity and specifics. Once again, Trump’s message to the American people felt more like the substitute for one of his rallies than a Q&A to inform them about one of the worst crises we have ever seen.”
You have to wonder what the late Roger Ailes would have done if he were still in charge. Yes, under Ailes, Fox spouted Republican propaganda and claimed it was “fair and balanced.” But Ailes’ version of Fox was at least nominally tethered to reality, even flirting with the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
What’s happening now is incredibly dangerous and is going to get people killed.
The New York Times Magazine’s massive 20,000-word takeout on the Murdoch media empire is what you might call a conceptual scoop. There is little in the way of new information, although the sheer accumulation of insider details and tantalizing tidbits is fascinating in its own way. But the real accomplishment of “Planet Fox” is that it helps us understand the Murdoch project as a coherent whole in all of its cynical, transnational, intrafamilial awfulness.
What does that coherent whole look like? Essentially this: For decades, Rupert Murdoch has built his media conglomerate in order to enhance his political power for the sole benefit of himself and his children. His method is based on synergy — that is, his control of more and more media entities wouldn’t be possible unless government officials bestowed deregulatory favors upon him, and those favors become easier for him to extract as his ever-growing control of the media makes those officials fear the consequences of saying no. His support for political figures who’ll give him what he wants has helped fuel the rise of right-wing xenophobic populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, all of which are suffering the consequences of the chaos that Murdoch unleashed.
There must be something in the air, as this is the third major Murdoch investigation to be published in recent weeks. Last month The New Yorker gave us Jane Mayer’s examination of the Fox-Trump mind meld, which I wrote about in an earlier column. More recently, The Intercept’s Peter Maass weighed in with a profile of Lachlan Murdoch, the heir apparent, and how he devolved from an idealistic Princeton student into one of the world’s most influential white nationalists. The Times’ contribution is to make an attempt at tying it all together.
The Times has gone all out to signal that “Planet Fox” is A Major Event. The reporters, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, are said to have interviewed 150 people on three continents. The story takes up most of the print magazine and has been tricked out with a vibrant digital presentation, a 14-minute video, and a “6 Takeaways” sidebar.
Will it matter? Eight years ago, it actually looked for one brief moment as if Murdoch’s world might come crashing down. The phone-hacking scandal perpetrated by his tabloids threatened his U.K. holdings and seemed like it might make the leap to the U.S. In the end, though, it fizzled, as Guardian reporter Nick Davies wrote in his book “Hack Attack.” The actual effect of “Planet Fox” is likely to be even more modest. You can be sure that Fox News’ marquee hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, will simply dismiss the whole thing as “fake news” — that is, if they mention it at all.
There is, by the way, a delightful anecdote about Hannity buried in the Times article. It seems that Hannity is too much of a toady even for President Trump’s tastes. Mahler and Rutenberg write: “Trump was also spending a lot of time on the phone with Hannity, who regularly called the president after his show. Trump had often found him to be too much of a supplicant for his purposes: He preferred his more combative interviews with Bill O’Reilly, which he felt better showcased his pugnaciousness, according to a former White House official. But Trump appreciated Hannity’s loyalty.” You can just imagine Hannity wincing as he reads those words.
The story of how Murdoch initially spurned Trump and then embraced him when it became clear that Trump was going to win the Republican presidential nomination is fascinating. That episode also traces the arc of Fox News’ transformation from a combative, conservative network at least occasionally tethered to the facts, as conceived by the late Republican operative Roger Ailes, into what it is today: a propaganda arm of the Trump administration that spews lies and conspiracy theories without regard for the public good.
Writing in The Conversation, Michael Socolow of the University of Maine argues that Murdoch’s influence has been exaggerated. Fox News’ 2.4 million prime-time viewers, Socolow observes, “means that 99.3 percent of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.” But surely the Fox effect is at least partly responsible for Trump’s enduring popularity with Republican base voters. And even if the Murdoch-controlled media are not quite as influential as they are often portrayed, it is well worth exploring the nexus of racism, corruption, and political machinations that define how the “rotten old bastard,” as the media critic Jack Shafer semi-affectionally calls Murdoch, does business.
One especially chilling detail in “Planet Fox” involves Murdoch’s seemingly endless quest to acquire Britain’s Sky network. It turns out that several of Fox’s rare acts of decency — getting rid of Bill O’Reilly over sexual-harassment accusations and ordering Hannity to stop peddling wild conspiracy theories over the death of former Democratic operative Seth Rich — were rooted solely in Murdoch’s need to impress British regulatory officials that he was sufficiently ethical to run Sky.
It gets worse. We learn that Murdoch may have used his influence to pass Brexit because, as he allegedly told one interviewer, “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.” The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, was instrumental in the Brexit victory and all the tumult that has resulted. Regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration all went Murdoch’s way, as Jane Mayer reported in her New Yorker piece. We learn, too, that Murdoch’s son Lachlan took the family’s Australian cable station in a Fox-like right-wing direction, and that its relentless anti-Muslim rants may have been a factor in the recent massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two high-profile Muslim employees, one in Australia and one in the U.S., quit — one of them in 2017, although he’s speaking out now.
“Planet Fox” is not perfect. There’s a minor error involving Murdoch’s ownership of the Boston Herald. I’d have liked to hear at least a theory as to why Murdoch has maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our great newspapers. Mahler and Rutenberg also note without comment the rise of right-wing populism in Murdoch-free zones such as Hungary, Austria, and the Philippines. In fact, many observers believe Facebook, not Fox, is the force that’s driving much of the world toward intolerance and authoritarianism — yet the Zuckerborg receives not a mention. Still, the Times has produced a comprehensive and convincing account of the carnage wrought by Murdoch and his family.
Is there hope? Murdoch is 88, so it’s hardly ghoulish to observe that he will probably not live forever. Indeed, “Planet Fox” opens and closes with a description of how he nearly departed this vale of tears in early 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that Lachlan, the more insular and right-wing of his two sons, has gained ascendancy while James, more liberal and cosmopolitan, has been pushed out. As befits a patriarchal monarchy, Murdoch’s two daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, don’t factor into any of this.
As the story ends, we see Rupert and Lachlan riding herd over a smaller company, shorn of its entertainment assets following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, waging endless war on three continents. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But it appears that we still have a few chapters to slog through before the end of the Murdoch story at long last comes into view.