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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lloyd Green

The Fall review: Michael Wolff spills the goss on Murdoch, Trump and Fox

Rupert Murdoch is driven from his apartment in London, back in 2011.
Rupert Murdoch is driven from his apartment in London, back in 2011. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

In September, Rupert Murdoch ceded direct control of Fox and News Corp to Lachlan Murdoch, his oldest son. At 92, Rupert became chairman emeritus. He is off the stage but remains in the wings. From there, he can peer over his boy’s shoulder without saying goodbye. Synchronously, the Fox-watcher and Trump-chronicler Michael Wolff delivers The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, a bookend to The Man Who Owns the News, published in 2008.

Wolff says he may be “the journalist not in his employ who knows [Murdoch] best”. In his new book, he aims to demonstrate this – albeit with murky sourcing.

The Fall shines a spotlight on Murdoch’s relationship with Donald Trump. It also highlights the late Roger Ailes’s takes on Trump, the media and the personalities of Fox News. Laura Ingraham fares particularly poorly but no one emerges unscathed. In Wolff’s telling, Murdoch frequently wishes Trump were dead, despite the fact Murdoch helped create the monster who made him even richer.

“Of all Trump’s implacable enemies, Murdoch had become a frothing-at-the-mouth one,” Wolff writes. “Trump’s death became a Murdoch theme: ‘We would all be better off …?’ ‘This would all be solved if …’ ‘How could he still be alive, how could he?’ ‘Have you seen him? Have you seen what he looks like?’”

According to Wolff, Jerry Hall, Murdoch’s ex-wife, shares such disgust but also internalizes the financial facts.

“Well, do something, Rupert!”, Hall purportedly exclaimed at dinner in winter 2022. In the next breath, though, she returned to earth. “But he can’t … He’ll lose money.”

Wolff writes: “Money. ‘This lawsuit could cost us fifty million dollars,’ [Murdoch] said quietly, but clearly.”

Then, Fox faced a defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems in connection with the 2020 election, Trump’s lies about voter fraud and their broadcast by Fox News. Dominion sought $1.6bn, then settled for $787.5m. The lawyers got that one wrong. But Hall’s point remained.

“Fox News tolerated, and actually exalted Trump, for the ratings, and the unprecedented sums it produced for a news company,” in Wolff’s words.

In a typically salacious passage, about the same dinner in 2022, Wolff says Murdoch was also caught in a convoluted conversation concerning Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a rival to Trump for the Republican nomination.

“Someone at Fox – possibly Tucker Carlson – was saying that Trump was saying that DeSantis was gay.”

“Rupert, why are you such a homophobe?” Wolff says Hall exclaimed, adding: “He’s such an old man.”

Gossip makes the world go round. It is not always evident that Wolff was in the room when it happened. Quotation marks abound, but whether the author was an actual witness is another matter. He describes his material as “conversations specifically for this book, and other conversations that have taken place over many years … scenes and events that I have personally witnessed or that I have recreated with the help of participants in them”.

Said differently: at times, reality may take a back seat to titillation.

More interesting and quotable than Murdoch is the late Roger Ailes. Here, by contrast, Wolff appears to be a participant in conversation. In one exchange, Ailes, a friend of Trump and a client of Rudy Giuliani, casts a ton of doubt on Trump’s chances of election in 2016 and fitness for office should he win.

“What would he do if he became president?” Ailes snickered. “Donald, for instance, is barely pro-life, no matter what he says now. Just imagine how many abortions he’s paid for. And he thinks guns are for trailer trash. But he’s a Fox favorite, so that doesn’t matter – he’s one of us.

“Of course, on top of being ignorant, he’s incompetent. Donald? He’s Richie Rich. He’s richer than you but he’s not smarter than you – in fact, he’s clearly a dumb motherfucker.”

Ailes’s impressions are not too far from those held by Steve Bannon, who became Trump’s campaign chair then White House strategist. They are just more graphic.

Jeremy Peters of the New York Times has quoted Bannon rating his former boss among the worst presidents, along with James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore, two who failed to halt the march to civil war. Bannon also likened Trump’s history-making escalator ride, to announce his campaign at Trump Tower in 2015, to Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film.

“That’s Hitler, Bannon thought”, as Trump descended to the cameras and microphones.

It’s tough to know Trump and love him.

Wolff also shares drama surrounding Sean Hannity, a Fox News primetime star who Murdoch apparently called a “crack-pot”.

“I don’t like brains, and you’re not a brain,” Wolff says Ailes told Hannity, then a radio host, as he was plucked from obscurity. Hannity referred to his patron as the “kingmaker”. As he saw it: “The history of our time is due to Roger Ailes.”

In Wolff’s pages, Ingraham, another primetime host, is depicted as a cipher. Out-dazzled by Hannity and Carlson, she assumed no distinct conservative identity or issues other than anxiousness – as Wolff sees it. In a bid to win Murdoch’s approval and carve out an independent persona, Wolff says, Ingraham began to tout DeSantis as an alternative to Trump. Hannity could only shake his head.

“And they say I’m the dumbass,” he sneered, of a co-host who once clerked for a supreme court justice, Clarence Thomas.

Heading into an election year, Fox remains in limbo. It sponsors the Republican debates – which Trump boycotts. It covers Trump’s events – until Trump plugs Tucker, the star Fox defenestrated after Dominion, who is now operating out of his home studio, on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Navigating the next 13 months will be difficult for the Murdochs – and for America.

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