Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he is retiring from the boards of Fox and of News Corporation had particularly interesting timing for one journalist.
“The Fall,” the new book by Michael Wolff, peers inside what we now know are the final days of Murdoch’s consequential tenure at the heart of global news. To be released Sept. 26, the book documents a particularly challenging stretch for Murdoch’s Fox News, buffeted by interpersonal drama and lawsuits by election-technology companies Dominion and Smartmatic. (The former suit was settled for some $787.5 million.)
Known for his Trump White House barnburner “Fire and Fury,” Wolff is a reporter who finds his way into all manner of tense and surprising conversations — this time around the question of when the boss at News Corp will finally exit the scene. And while the book’s narrative concludes before Thursday’s news that Lachlan Murdoch, eldest son of Rupert, will take the reins at Fox, Wolff takes pains in conversation to note that his time at the top will be complicated by the presence of his father, and could be cut short by an alliance of his siblings. This interview is drawn from two conversations with Wolff, taking place both before and after the announcement of Murdoch’s retirement.
I found it interesting timing on Murdoch’s announcement, given that your book comes out next week.
One of the things that I understand from people inside — I may have been the direct cause of this. Inside, they’ve been seeing the book as a bus aimed directly at him, and in order to avoid a direct hit, they acted first. I think that that is partly true. The book is pretty rough on the nature of what it’s like when a 92-year-old runs two public companies. But I’m going to offer another informed theory: All of that is true but at the same time they have been looking for ways to get around Rupert having to testify in the Smartmatic case. I don’t think it’ll work, he’ll be forced to testify anyway. But it’s a lot catching up with him at this point in time. The long Dominion, Smartmatic [cases are the] lingering effects of him being 92 and unable to settle this stuff in a businesslike fashion.
I wrote something after the news broke about how, even with Murdoch at the helm the past few years, Fox News has seemed somewhat rudderless.
No one is in control. That’s part of the effect of having a single decision-maker who is 92. Lachlan is going to take over. That’s also a fallacy, because Lachlan has theoretically been in charge for several years now, and that’s only seen him move further and further away from the decision-making process — he moved to Australia, for goodness sake.
And Lachlan is in a complicated situation himself.
The technical reality is that Lachlan has this job because of his father’s proxy. His father has put him in the job. But his father does not have the power to appoint his own successor. When Rupert dies, his shares are equally divided among his four oldest children. They will then be the decision-makers, and can push Lachlan out. Lachlan is a lame duck.
In a world where the other siblings, who trend more liberal, get their way, the network might change — but an eventual Fox News without the conservative politics doesn’t really seem like Fox at all.
No, then it’s not Fox; then it becomes the CNN pickle. CNN has no idea what it is, and Fox might find itself in the same position. James Murdoch’s response to this is that he led Sky News, and Sky News is an aggressively straight news organization. He has always been of the view that he could turn Fox into that. That’s a wish that many people have had for cable news television, but still the trend goes in exactly the opposite direction. It would be interesting to see someone willing to lose an enormous amount of money try.
Has Fox benefited from the relatively weak position CNN has been in of late?
Fox is laser-focused on what its audience wants, which has been fairly simple because its audience wants Donald Trump. And Donald Trump has been there to consistently and dramatically feed that desire.
Trump’s buoyancy in the polls seems to present a problem for Fox — namely, that there is now a force within the Republican Party bigger than it. He doesn’t need Fox anymore.
That’s the experiment we’re involved in right now. That’s the thesis that Trump is pursuing — that “I can go to war with Fox.” The broader question is, how does Fox evolve as it becomes clearer and clearer that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee?
Do you think that Fox News, in the short term, will remain largely unchanged?
That’s Lachlan’s vision. The thing that he believes in is his father and keeping him happy. His status and his standing flow from his father. And the reality is that while Rupert is — you would not want him running a public company, but he is still compos mentis and very opinionated. It’s not as if he’s leaving the building and leaving Lachlan in charge. Theyve been trying to effect that outcome as long as I’ve been writing abt the company and he never goes. He’s too old to run the company — too fragile and out of it — but not too fragile and out of it to share his opinions.
Outside the walls of Fox News, do you think Tucker Carlson stands a chance at a meaningful second act?
He has a very good shot at it. He has a big audience; he has a loyal audience. And we’re at a moment, possibly an inflection point, when it is perfectly possible to do this outside of the traditional television platform.
I was struck at how many of Murdoch’s own ideas for broadcasting, in your book, seemed like ratings poison. It’s like he didn’t understand what makes Fox News work.
Rupert Murdoch is not a television guy. He has never watched much television. Rupert Murdoch is a newspaper man, and he’s been a very good businessman. If something is working, let it work.
Right now, in the twilight of the Murdoch era, things seem dysfunctional. I was really surprised at how much the people to whom you spoke speculated about one another’s substance-abuse issues. Is Fox an unusually toxic workplace?
This is part and parcel of all television news networks. They almost always are incredibly toxic environments: If I get airtime, you don’t get airtime. But Fox was not like this. It was a relatively convivial place. And this was a Roger Ailes creation. Everyone was paid an enormous amount of money. And it was clear that Roger was the boss — you had to do what Roger wanted you to do, and if you couldn’t accept that you had to go. Separate that from the issues women have had at Fox, because it was always a very difficult place. But within that, it was a place that people like to work, unlike every other television network.
What do readers who know Murdoch’s fictionalized avatar on “Succession” likely misunderstand about him as he ends his tenure?
I think “Succession” has been terrific, and I think it’s been particularly terrific when it closely followed my first Murdoch book, “The Man Who Owns the News.” But the characters of these people are fundamentally different. Murdoch, who you might argue is the ultimate archetypal mogul figure, in real life is profoundly inarticulate, incredibly shy. That doesn’t mean that the ultimate result is not incredible aggression, but it’s in attenuated form.
There’s something on a human level almost poignant — even given the effects Murdoch has had on our nation and the world — about his finally, finally ceding control.
My book sets up a thing, a prove-it thing. Are you up to this? And he’s not. This becomes a convenient way to deal with this Smartmatic lawsuit — he can’t testify. He comes out and testifies, and this was a major issue with the Dominion suit — he can’t go on the witness stand, he can’t give a deposition, without revealing he’s so far out of his depth that it’s tragic. But part of being Rupert Murdoch is this unwillingness to go, this inability to go. For good reason. If you’re Rupert Murdoch and you’ve done what he has done for so long, to give that up must be impossible.