Murdoch has the power if he wants Trump to move on

Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch in 2019. (Kristin Callahan/Ace Pictures via ZUMA Press/TNS)
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Timothy L. O’Brien Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Rupert Murdoch told News Corp.’s shareholders that former President Donald Trump needs to get over himself.

“The current American political debate is profound, whether about education or welfare or economic opportunity,” he said at Wednesday’s annual meeting. “It is crucial that conservatives play an active, forceful role in that debate, but that will not happen if President Trump stays focused on the past. The past is the past, and the country is now in a contest to define the future.”

Murdoch is the founder and executive chairman of News Corp., and its primary U.S. holdings are Dow Jones & Company, which publishes the Wall Street Journal; the New York Post; and book publisher HarperCollins. Murdoch also met with shareholders of another one of his companies, Fox Corp., last week. Fox, of course, owns lots of things named Fox, including Fox News. Murdoch didn’t mention Trump at the Fox gathering.


It might have been healthy, and a public service, for Murdoch, Fox’s chairman, to share his thoughts about Trump with institutional investors such as Vanguard Group Inc., Blackrock Inc. and Dodge & Cox that fund Fox’s operations. Fox News has spent years amplifying the dangerous and damaging garbage Trump continues to peddle, and it’s the single most influential media platform supporting him. But such is life.

And Murdoch could still do a lot if he truly wants Trump to move on or move aside. In addition to Murdoch’s chairmanships at both companies, his family trust owns about 41% of Fox’s shares and 38% of News Corp.’s stock. His son Lachlan is executive chairman and chief executive officer of Fox and co-chairman of News Corp. In other words, the paterfamilias retains enormous sway over his business affairs. To get Trump and his cultists to change their stripes, he could stop allowing some of Fox’s most influential anchors and broadcasters to spew poisonous talking points.

Perhaps family dynamics get in the way. Lachlan outlasted his siblings, in part, by adopting his father’s conservative politics, and he handles the day-to-day operations at the Murdoch companies, not his father. Lachlan also appears to be simpatico with Fox News and its flamethrowers. Maybe Rupert Murdoch wants to stay out of his son’s way so Lachlan can manage as he sees fit.

Yet Rupert Murdoch chose to go public with his advice for Trump. To help Trump leave the past behind and embrace a more truthful future, he could instruct some of the stars of his evening talk shows to do the same.

For example, Fox News’s most popular host, Tucker Carlson, recently ginned up a three-part documentary for Fox Nation that lied about federal agents directly inciting insurrectionists to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. The documentary also offered contrivances such as the siege being started by left-wing agitators or being a trap set by the FBI. It also offered the evidence-free assertion that “millions of Americans” were seeing “their core constitutional rights” violated through investigations into the Jan. 6 events.

Carlson has acknowledged that he maintains a loose relationship with the truth and “sometimes lies” on his show. Fox News’s lawyers have argued in court that nobody should take Carlson’s evening show at face value because the host doesn’t offer facts. He offers words that are “loose, figurative or hyperbolic.”

None of Carlson’s circus act is “news.” Much of it isn’t even fact-based “opinion” or “commentary.” It’s propaganda. It’s also the sort of stuff Trump latches onto. Short of changing Fox News’s name to Fox Propaganda, Murdoch could simply offer clearer counsel to Trump’s enablers at his media properties.

That approach would make business sense, too. Dominion Voting Systems Inc., a company that Trump’s advisers falsely accused of rigging the 2020 presidential election, sued Fox News for defamation in March, contending that it was harmed when the network aired bogus claims about it. Fox News has argued that it is protected by the First Amendment. Dominion sued Fox Corp. last week, seeking records from Murdoch and his son about their involvement in the Fox News broadcasts about the company. A tighter leash and tighter standards at Fox might spare the Murdochs, their companies and their investors from some of this in the future.

Contrary to what Murdoch told shareholders on Wednesday, the past really isn’t the past yet — particularly because some of his companies revel in reshaping it and bending reality to serve purposes other than the truth. Trump knows that, and he’s likely to ignore Murdoch’s advice. So it’s time for one of corporate America’s most powerful stewards to hold himself to a new and higher standard.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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