The abrupt uncoupling of the Republican kingmaker Rupert Murdoch from his Fox News empire may have represented a ground shift in the media landscape in the US, but politically at least, very little is likely to change, analysts say.
That could be good news for those on the right of the Republican party, who can expect the network to head into the 2024 presidential election – even without its long-time figurehead – continuing to amplify the worst of the political bias and disinformation upon which it made its name.
“They’re going to continue the same business formula, which is whipping up hysteria around manufactured crises. They’ll continue to foster outrage and division, and gin up support for conservative causes. I don’t see any of that changing dramatically anytime soon,” said Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg school for communication.
“Looking at the big picture, with Rupert Murdoch stepping down, don’t expect change. I agree that he was a politico, a very influential political figure in his own right, and certainly he had personal relationships that might not continue with Lachlan [Murdoch’s son, the Fox Corp chief executive].
“But the actions of Fox News are going to be primarily dictated by economic concerns and maximizing shareholder value, and they’re doing quite well at the moment. They’re still the most watched cable news network, they’re incredibly profitable. So I don’t think they’re going to mess with their formula.”
Pickard’s view is shared by other analysts, who see a “business as usual” approach as the network continues to deal with the fallout from the $787.5m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems for peddling Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
That episode cost Fox its most-watched rightwing host, Tucker Carlson, who left in April after pushing the worst of the falsehoods, and complaining he was fired as part of the settlement. Fox and Dominion both say he wasn’t.
Fox still faces another, potentially more costly defamation lawsuit from a second voting machine manufacturer, Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7bn in damages for multiple fabrications broadcast about the company. The legal turbulence has profound implications for Fox’s future, experts say.
“The huge Dominion settlement, and the underlying misconduct that the defamation litigation revealed, is inextricably intertwined with the network’s fortunes going forward,” said Carl Tobias, Williams chair in law at the University of Richmond school of law.
“Because the Smartmatic litigation, which involves strikingly similar allegations of misconduct revealed in Dominion’s lawsuit, could impose similarly damaging reputational and economic harm on Fox, with concomitant loss of viewers, Lachlan Murdoch must seriously consider settling with Smartmatic.
“The departure of Tucker Carlson may suggest that Fox has learned from the Dominion debacle and perhaps attempted to restrict peddling of misinformation that the Dominion litigation uncovered, but that remains unclear.”
Others believe Rupert Murdoch will continue to wield significant power at News Corp, the parent company of his global media operations, and Fox itself, despite the Australian-born billionaire announcing in a six-paragraph farewell statement on Thursday that he was transitioning to “chairman emeritus” of the companies.
Preston Padden, a veteran media industry executive who served Murdoch in several roles, including as the president for telecommunications at News Corp and as a senior vice-president at Fox Broadcasting Company, made such a claim on X, formerly Twitter, in a post referring to efforts by US ethics groups to have Fox’s US broadcast licenses revoked by the federal communications commission (FCC).
“Given [Murdoch’s] statement that ‘I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change,’ the fact that the trust he controls has a controlling stock interest in Fox, the fact that his son remains chair and CEO, and the fact that the same cadre of executives who knowingly and repeatedly presented false news remains, this announcement has zero impact on the FCC filings,” he wrote.
Padden, who gave testimony in the Dominion case, is one of three former senior Fox executives who have become vocal critics of Murdoch and the network, writing in a blog post earlier this year that they regretted their defense of the channel. “We never envisioned, and would not knowingly have enabled, the disinformation machine that, in our opinion, Fox has become,” they wrote.
Pickard, meanwhile, said the tried and tested political playbook that Fox has followed for so long will continue to encourage Republican politicians, and help the network fend off the rise of fledgling channels seeking a greater slice of conservative and rightwing viewership.
“Fox News will continue to fear they’re being outmaneuvered by these upstarts, One American News Network, or Newsmax, but there’s just no comparison, no real competition,” he said.
“They’ll continue to play this central role in rightwing political discourse whether we’re talking about Fox News and its audience, Fox News and the Republican party, Fox News and Trump. These relationships are all mutually beneficial, mutually reinforcing.
“They’re going to make crass business decisions in terms of how they’re serving their audience. You’re still going to see this endless parade of Republican politicians on Fox News, and Fox News will continue to amplify their talking points, along with plenty of white grievance and disinformation and conspiracies, but very little journalism.”
Ultimately, Pickard believes, it makes little difference which Murdoch name is on the chairperson’s office door.
“We need to ask questions about the effect this has on democracy, and the corrosive, toxic effects that Fox is having on political discourse in civil society writ large,” he said.
“It’s a very dramatic, personality-driven narrative of Rupert Murdoch stepping down. But at the end of the day, Rupert Murdoch is a symptom of these larger political-economic relationships, and I feel that’s what we really need to draw attention to.”