I am seeing a lot of people speculate on the internet that wealthy right-wing news ghoul Rupert Murdoch has finally turned against Donald Trump. As evidence for this contention, they are citing the thematic similarities between the post-election coverage in three Murdoch-owned outlets—the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News—all of which have evinced frustration with Republican underperformance this week.
While it’s certainly possible that some of these people—especially Sarah Ellison, who literally wrote the book on Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal—are much better sourced than I am and are working from inside information, it’s also possible that they are just connecting some dots. If it’s the latter, then: Come on, people, get a hold of yourselves! While I understand that many are excited that the Democrats did better than expected, and while I also understand the human impulse to extrapolate other unlikely outcomes from there—and while I also absolutely believe that Rupert Murdoch dislikes Trump—it is premature to think that Murdoch has “turned” on the former president, and it is wishcasting to presume that he—or his son Lachlan, or any other Murdoch whose wealth and influence relies on their ability to stoke and manipulate populist resentments—ever will.
First, let’s acknowledge that, yes, many of the talking heads on Fox News are now pointing out, correctly, that many Trump-aligned candidates fizzled out this week; and, yes, the Wall Street Journal did publish an editorial calling Trump a loser; and, yes, the New York Post did run a cover dubbing the ex-president “Trumpty Dumpty” and depicting him as a sentient egg sitting on a wall which he “couldn’t build.” But, sick nursery-rhyme burns aside, to me these disgruntled postmortems read less like slavish editors following Murdochian diktat and more like news organizations recognizing that they would look like stupid idiots if they tried to immediately spin the midterm results in Trump’s favor.
What else are they supposed to be saying? That the GOP in fact did well on Tuesday? That the election was stolen again? For one thing, thanks to many expensive lawsuits filed by various righteously aggrieved parties whose reputations were impugned after the 2020 presidential election, conservative media organizations are now much less likely to circulate dumbass stolen-election theories just to soothe Trump’s ego. But, for another thing, it doesn’t take a mandate from the owner’s office for editors at all three of these outlets to recognize that Trump’s candidates blew it. The fact that they’re all moving stories to that effect is not necessarily a sign of Murdoch whispering in their ears.
But is Murdoch whispering in their ears? Probably not literally, because that would be weird and creepy, but in a figurative sense it’s certainly possible: There are enough extant stories and rumors about the mogul’s disdain for Trump that I have to give them some credence, and it would then follow that right now might strike Murdoch as a very good time to kneecap a man whom he views as personally embarrassing and a liability to his political interests. But, look, Rupert Murdoch did not live to be this old, rich, and mean by rashly shivving tremendously popular reactionary populist politicians. Midterm results notwithstanding, by all indications Trump remains beloved by huge segments of the GOP base and therefore the Murdoch audience—people who did, after all, overwhelmingly go for Trump-endorsed and Trump-esque candidates in the primaries, even as pretty much every rational analyst alive was saying loudly that these candidates were unelectable in the general election. Murdoch alone can’t sway the base to dump Donald Trump, which is why I do not think he is actually going to try.
In November 2020, you will recall, when Fox News was a mite reluctant to dub Trump the winner of an election he had lost, viewers fled the network in droves, to the point where ex–morning news goober Greg Kelly over on Newsmax was pulling better ratings than his time-slot counterpart on Fox. After working very hard to win those viewers back, in part by cutting ties with many of the network’s more reasonable personalities, Murdoch will not risk losing them again by rashly presuming they are as sick of Donald Trump as he is.
Even if Murdoch is willing to take that risk, though, it’s not at all clear that his most prominent employees are—or that he could make them parrot his exact opinions even if he wanted to. One of the effects of Fox News getting rid of many of its smartest, most sensible reporters, anchors, and analysts is that the network’s programming is now dominated by relatively dim people who seem to actually believe Fox’s partisan narratives—witness the evident on-air confusion, late on election night, about why “crime” was not itself enough of an issue to convince voters to go for every single Republican—and/or people who are so personally invested in those narratives that they will never let them go. Tucker Carlson without nativist, anti-woke Trumpism is just the has-been bowtied Crossfire guy. Sean Hannity without Trumpist conspiratorial rage is basically just the first half of “& Colmes.”
What this means is that while Fox News’ on-air personnel might not all be personally beholden to Trump, many of them are very much invested in the weird positions and policies for which the ex-president is still the most prominent and effective exponent. The network itself is too! I mean, Fox News bid farewell to Shep Smith, Chris Stirewalt, Chris Wallace, and numerous other actually credible people while putting Jeanine Pirro on The Five and giving Jesse Watters his own nightly primetime show. The network is sort of backed into a corner here! Yes, you’re going to see Fox News and other Murdoch properties boost Ron DeSantis in the weeks and months to come—but as long as the network is emotionally and intellectually tied to Trumpism, and as long as Trump himself is unwilling to cede the spotlight, then it will find it difficult if not impossible to wholly abandon the movement’s namesake.
If the base abandons Trump of its own accord, Murdoch will eagerly follow. Until then, I predict that he and his outlets will soon stop licking their wounds over the election results and lean back into pressing the same old crime, immigration, and culture-war buttons in order to galvanize turnout for the Georgia Senate runoff. Anyway, it’s unclear if even Rupert Murdoch himself has enough juice to tell Fox’s most prominent opinion hosts what to say or whom to support, and it’s unclear whether they would listen to him if he tried—which I’m not sure he has—and it’s unclear whether their audiences would even listen to them if they tried. In his monologue on Wednesday night’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson acknowledged the midterms were embarrassing for Republicans—but he also said that the reasons for the red fizzle were “a lot more complicated than [just] Trump.” Well, yes, but also, that is not the sort of thing you would expect to hear from someone who had been instructed to throw Trump to the wolves. That’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from politically astute cynics who know that Donald Trump is the wolf—even now.