Today
Sun 5 December 2021

CJ Werleman reports on a tumultuous year for the Australian-born media mogul who has done more than any individual to push the anti-democratic agenda that culminated in Trump

No single individual has done more damage to democratic institutions, political discourse, and social cohesion in the United States, Australia and UK than the media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose cable news networks, tabloids and broadsheets spew toxic, divisive and deliberately misleading right-wing propaganda dressed up as news and information.

If Western democracies are somehow able to survive what has become a once in a century stress test by fending off ascendant authoritarianism and illiberalism, a product of political driven hate, fear and deception, then it will be in part because citizens in these countries have risen up to vanquish the Murdoch media empire.

Murdoch’s reach and fortune have never been more under siege than they are at this current moment, with threats to his news business emerging from both likely and unlikely places, including the orbit that gravitates around Donald Trump – a man Murdoch helped rise to the White House and then once there shielded his incompetence, negligence, corruption and scandals from the kind of universal public scrutiny that would have brought a premature end to any of Trump’s predecessors. 


Toxified by Trump

For the past four years and more, Murdoch has hitched his wagon to the Trump carnival but now that carnival has bit the Australian born media mogul firmly in his rump behind.

After dominating the US cable news ratings for the past two decades, Murdoch’s news flagship Fox News has fallen behind its rival CNN consistently in the ratings for the first time since the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington DC, according to AP Reports, mostly because Trump supporters don’t believe the right-wing propaganda channel “isn’t Trumpy enough for his diehards”.

In the week ending Sunday 6 November, CNN averaged 1.73 million viewers in Nielsen ratings, doubling its viewership from a year ago, with Fox News (1.56 million) struggling to maintain a lead over perennial and typically distanced third place getter MSNBC (1.53 million).

But it’s not only traditional rivals chipping away at Fox News’ audience and dominance but also a pair of far-right, conspiratorial and tabloid trashy upstarts – One America News (OAN) and Newsmax. Both these stations aim to corner Trump supporters who somehow believe Fox News has now joined the “liberal lamestream media” because it accurately called Arizona for Vice President Joe Biden at 9pm EST on election day.

“This could lead to the most profound change in news consumption that America has seen in decades,” observes Axios.

Then there is the threat from Trump himself, who has peppered Murdoch and Fox News with venomous tweets since his election loss, accusing the network of falsely declaring Biden president-elect, pandering to Democrats, “ratings collapse,” and “forgetting what made them successful”.

“Many Fox News viewers adore President Trump,” Joe Klein, a former president of CNN’s US operations, told Bloomberg last month. “If Trump undertook a concerted ongoing anti-Fox News campaign, that would have a real impact on Fox’s numbers because those Trump loyalists will do as they’re told.”

It’s also been reported that Trump plans to take on the Murdoch empire and Fox News by launching a subscription-based digital media channel that would stream online and mimic Fox Nation, a $6-a-month online service launched two years ago.

“He plans to wreck Fox. No doubt about it,” a source with detailed knowledge of Trump’s intentions told Axios last month.


The Master of Fake News

Murdoch’s news empire is also facing an unprecedented attack to the way it conducts its business in Australia, where Murdoch controls 70% of newspaper readership. Indeed, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is leading calls to drag Murdoch before a Royal Commission, while also urging a consumer boycott of RealEstate.Com.Au, a property listing site that is majority-owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.

“Money is the only language [Murdoch] understands and @realestate_au is the financial heart of his empire,” tweeted Mr. Rudd.

Mr. Rudd has also gathered more than 600,000 signatures on a petition demanding government regulations to curb Murdoch’s near total dominance of Australia’s news media landscape, calling the media baron a “thug and bully” who is “bad for democracy”.

Last month, Rudd explained to Byline Times that “what we’re simply having is opinion reporting dressed up as news, and we end up where Trump took us, which is ‘everything, therefore, is fake news’. And if we get to that stage in our democracies – the British democracy, the American democracy, the Australian democracy – we start to be in terminal trouble”.

To that end, it’s reasonable to conclude Murdoch has brought American democracy to the brink of “terminal trouble” during the Trump presidency and COVID-19 pandemic, with Fox News helping spread the virus by undermining its audience’s faith in science and public health experts. In fact, one study showed that those who relied on Murdoch owned cable news network and/or right-wing-media-ecosystem writ large “came to believe that vitamin c was a possible remedy, that the Chinese Government created the virus in a lab, and that government health agencies were exaggerating the dangers in the hopes of damaging Trump politically”.

According to Media Matters, Fox News has undermined public health measures in more than 1,000 Coronavirus related segments since 1 September alone by “describing health measures as unconstitutional or unlawful; highlighting persons, groups, or organisations actively fighting against any health measure; and accusing progressive politicians or activists of hypocrisy regarding the enforcement of, or adherence to, any health measure”.

A slew of Fox News watchers have now filed lawsuits against the network, blaming its spreading of disinformation for their COVID-19 infection or death of family members.

With the COVID-19 vaccine now on the near horizon, however, and as the bulwarks of American democracy – namely state election officials and the entire judicial system – withstand Trump’s anti-democratic effort to throw out the result of the election, the US may have narrowly escaped terminal catastrophe for now, but the threat of the Murdoch news empire remains ever present.

That said, Murdoch’s future has never looked so perilous or uncertain. All that’s required to vanquish his oversized influence and control once and for all is to change the channel, as millions of Americans have already begun doing.


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