Peter Bart: Will Fox News Crises Finally Provide Answer To Question Who Is Rupert Murdoch?

What is Rupert Murdoch up to? At age 92 he confronts the challenge of re-energizing Fox News, yet his stewardship remains as enigmatic as his politics.

Hollywood remembers that for 30 years Murdoch owned, then dismembered, a major movie company, yet never made clear whether he liked or hated movies. He stalwartly runs what is technically a family company, yet his relations with family (and with marital candidates) remain volatile.

So who is Rupert? A key player for a generation in worldwide journalism, he would not be a comfortable mix with attendees at this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Roger Ailes, the first head of Fox News, once explained to me, “Rupert is a great man, whoever he is.” Murdoch supported Ailes in building a news colossus, then empowered his self-destruction.

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If few understand Murdoch, few can define Tucker Carlson either. That’s why Murdoch created him, associates argue, and now is nimbly discarding him.

“Rupert goes where the money is,” explains one billionaire long-term associate. “There are no control buttons on morality or truth.” Intriguingly, the tapes from the Dominion lawsuit offered insights into the opinions of top news stars but revealed little of Rupert’s convictions.

Gurus of the news business predict that he, and son Lachlan, will sustain the hard-right point of view at Fox News, but with a tilt toward moderation, emulating shifts at the Wall Street Journal.

Battered for bias during the early Donald Trump years, the Journal’s news coverage is now favorably rated by readers for sharpness and objectivity. By contrast, its editorials and editorial features are at once hard-right Trumpian, yet anti-Trump.

Cultural historians likely will take a critical view of Rupert Murdoch’s long-term impact. His newspapers worldwide have weathered a repetition of scandals and bitter litigation.

It was revealed last week that Murdoch’s newspaper group paid a large sum to Prince William in 2020 to settle claims of phone hacking. That revelation stemmed from court filings of Prince Harry, who is suing Murdoch’s News Group on other Royal Family issues.

The revelations were a reminder of previous hacking scandals that resulted in the closing of News of the World, once a major Murdoch profit maker. In that scandal Murdoch’s reporters hacked the phone of a murdered 13-year-old British girl.

The Fox empire having reached a $787.5 million settlement in the Dominion Voting Systems suit now faces a $2.7 billion suit from Smartmatic, another voting technology company.

The New York Post, once a respected if doddering liberal newspaper, has sustained itself as a lively if shrill voice of the right. The Journal has meanwhile fortified its digital initiatives and guarded its bottom line.

By contrast, Fox News, in its dedication to cultural divide, has drifted into a disaster zone of litigation akin to its onetime hero, Trump. Some advertisers have taken cover as viewers search for less combative bastions.

On the entertainment side, some in Hollywood believe Murdoch left 20th Century Fox as a far weaker player than when he found it. There’s also debate as to whether Disney overpaid for the assets, prompting its need for drastic cuts at this moment.

Meanwhile, Murdoch continues his power games, triggering confusion about his personal role in decision making. During his movie reign I found myself seated directly in front of Murdoch for an important screening of a new Fox movie titled Speed.

When the film ended, Murdoch got to his feet. “Well, that’s a movie,” he said.

A key associate glanced at me, mumbling, “And that’s a more specific opinion than he usually offers.”

Thankfully, Rupert doesn’t have to see movies any more.

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