Michael Wolff is the sour savant of American media. His brand is omniscience, providing the insider’s last word on the power players and their pratfalls. His technique: a cascade of beady insights and casual character assassination, never letting a fact get in the way of a story that’s too good to check.
In recent years Wolff has churned out a series of books on the Trump presidency, one of which, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018), was a runaway hit with its perfect marriage of scurrilous method and incorrigible protagonist. Wolff is not a Murdoch virgin, having written about the media strongman before, but his 2008 book The Man who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch was an epic flop. The problem for Wolff was that he was hindered by unprecedented access – he does much better with souped-up hearsay – and in the pre-Succession days in which that first book was written, far fewer cared about the inside track on an ageing businessman’s media empire. Timing is everything in the fickle waves of the modern attention span.
This time Murdoch has given Wolff a great gift-wrapped present by announcing on 21 September that he was stepping down as chairman of Fox and News Corp, a few days before the release of Wolff’s latest book, The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire. Murdoch’s cantankerous parting shot at unnamed elites who “have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class” seemed to validate Wolff’s withering account of the titan’s last chapter, in which the 92-year-old is beleaguered by his warring children and the insoluble dilemma of owning a network whose malfeasance brought a stain on his legacy and a gusher of irresistible profit.
This is Wolff’s dominant thesis: that after Murdoch’s seven decades of calling the shots with prime ministers and presidents in his native Australia, the UK, and finally the US, he came to exercise less power over his own news network than Donald Trump, the chaotic, lying child-man whom he very much despised. Murdoch might command Fox presenters to keep Trump off the air and start hyping Ron DeSantis as the next Republican leader, but his two most successful prime-time hosts knew better. Both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were aware that the audience of Fox, inextricably bound to Trump, was the golden goose you anger at your peril. “F***ing no Trump?” Wolff quotes an expostulating Hannity. “Are they f***ing out of their minds? You want to tell me what Fox is without Trump? Trump is running and we’re what? For Ron DeSantis?” The network veteran, “seeing everything at stake, was not going to let that happen”.
Women always get the worst of it in Wolff’s narratives. In this one he describes how “in the variegated ecosystem of Fox misogyny”, the network host Laura Ingraham is a ratings-challenged “drunk”; the Fox News presenter turned Trump surrogate Kimberly Guilfoyle sinks into a private plane seat, he alleges, wearing no underwear; the publicist Irena Briganti, whose role is to dribble dirt about Fox traitors to a receptive liberal media, is known, says Wolff, as the “fat beast”. (Full disclosure: Wolff once wrote a “downfall” piece about me looking like a “bag lady” in 2001, based on an encounter at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City that didn’t happen. I retaliated with a squib in Talk magazine that commented on Wolff’s “baleful masturbatory glare”. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Manhattan publishing world was not once a fun place to work.)
Wolff carves his book up into short chapters that purport to get inside the heads and motivations of each of the key players in the Fox dramatis personae. These are Roger Ailes, the network’s demonic original creative force who was ultimately felled by sexual harassment allegations in 2016 and died soon afterwards; the ungovernable Fox primetime hosts, most prominently the preppy, hate-frothing Carlson and Trump “fellater” Hannity; and the Murdoch kids (“wannabe little Kings” in Ailes parlance), “hapless” Lachlan, “hot-headed” James and peacemaker Liz.
As for Murdoch himself, Wolff relentlessly hammers his declining powers, calling him an old man so many times I lost count. Murdoch is portrayed as a geezer-superman, mumbling, drifting and stumbling his way through his last undignified years as he embarrasses himself with abbreviated third and fourth marriages, plus one close shave of a near-marriage. (I suspect Viagra has a lot to answer for.) Wolff’s senescent protagonist spends a great deal of time obsessing about reeling back to the C-suite a dilettante Lachlan who much prefers spear-fishing in Australia to being an engaged Fox Corp CEO in New York City.
This suits Wolff’s achingly laboured King Lear thesis, but also makes him too susceptible to the self-aggrandising spin of his sources. According to him, it was the ever-self-righteous James, desperate to break clear of his father’s thrall, who pushed Murdoch into selling Fox’s entertainment assets to Disney at the top of the market in 2019. But the brilliant timing of that deal, driven by Murdoch’s unsentimental foresight that his company was now too small to compete with the digital behemoths and that the streaming boom was anyway likely to implode, had all the hallmarks of “the old man” at his most dazzlingly prescient. It also provided the added benefit of getting rid of the recalcitrant James, who now had nothing to run.
I am told Murdoch (who has always mumbled) deftly played off Disney’s Bob Iger against Comcast’s Brian Roberts to bid up the price before walking away from the poker table with $71.3bn. (Each of his six children reportedly received $2bn.) The billionaires who attend the annual Sun Valley media conference consider the Fox unload to Disney to be “classic Rupert”, one of the best business stings of all time.
One thing Wolff is clear-eyed about is what he sees as the disastrous fallout of Ailes’ dishevelled exit from Fox News. Throughout his long media reign Murdoch had always avoided allowing strong leaders to gain their own power base in his companies, preferring more biddable low-profile technocrats to run his newspapers and TV networks.
I know this at first-hand. In 1981 Murdoch fired my late husband Harold Evans, the celebrated editor of the Sunday Times, after making him editor of the (daily) Times when he bought the group from Thomson newspapers with a guarantee of editorial independence (on which he swiftly reneged).
Yet in the case of Ailes, Fox News’ founding CEO, Murdoch broke that “no tall poppies” rule. He came to be trapped by Ailes, an evil genius who incarnated the soul of Fox and built it into a colossus that minted so much money it made him untouchable. To Ailes – an obese, blue-collar haemophiliac whose success with women in high school probably rivals Harvey Weinstein’s – Fox viewers were “his people”, living in a permanent 1965 “before the Voting Rights Act” and dreaming of the American glory days of unreconstructed sexism, racism and homophobia. This was the network’s (and Ailes’ own) indelible DNA.
Some of the best aperçus in Wolff’s book are supplied by Ailes, who understood prime-time values better than anyone before or since. A personal favourite: “TV is a blonde world, fire anyone who thinks they can change that.” Ailes plucked his stars from the broadcasting C-list and turned them into the slave creatures of Fox. “Most people on TV,” he told Wolff, “are morons who can talk the talk. Hannity is a moron who talks like one.” But once the all-powerful Ailes was ejected from Fox – a coup, Wolff posits, by the Murdoch sons, who exploited the opprobrium of the sexual harassment scandal – the network was rudderless. Murdoch now had to step in as CEO and was suddenly directly accountable for Fox’s nightly predations against the truth. Without Ailes he lacked the protective fig leaf of deniability.
He needed it.
Wolff’s narrative plays out in the 18 months leading up to the resolution of the Dominion Voting Systems libel suit against Fox, which repeatedly aired claims that Dominion’s machines had been rigged against Trump in the 2020 election. The suit turned into an existential threat for the simple reason that Fox had nothing to substantiate what it was alleging. A sewage-stream of embarrassing emails, texts and depositions dug up in discovery revealed how many Fox producers and presenters knew that what they were broadcasting was wrong despite multiple demands by Dominion for correction.
One of the more preposterous on-air allegations, made by Trump’s off-the-wall lawyer Sidney Powell, was that the vote was hacked and ballots switched from Trump to Joe Biden, thanks to Dominion technology developed in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chavez – crazy, as Murdoch himself put it. Perhaps the most damning moment of culpability occurred in Murdoch’s own deposition, when he confirmed that he could have exerted some control over the network, in particular by telling Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to stop Trump stooge Rudy Giuliani spewing falsehoods on air. “I could have,” Murdoch said in the court documents. “But I didn’t.” Those shiny profit margins were just too great.
There are no heroes in Wolff’s book, but he could have had one in John Poulos, the CEO of Dominion. It is baffling that Wolff’s editor did not make him report on the other side of this death match. The story of how an unassuming but flinty 48-year-old Canadian Cool Hand Luke, head of a modest-sized voting company, kept his nerve until he’d dealt mighty Murdoch unprecedented legal and reputational humiliation is the only thing to cheer for in the whole grim, snarly Wolffian morass. At a Truth Tellers summit I hosted in May in London (in honour of my husband), Poulos told of his sense of wonderment when, as the Delaware jury waited for opening statements in the trial, his lawyer received a piece of paper across the table and slid it over to Poulos. The note had a number and the words “yes or no”? The number: $787.5m, more than the value of Dominion itself. A last-minute settlement was reached.
Fiction, I suspect, is a better place than Wolff’s book to look for an understanding of how Murdoch’s trajectory ends. The admirable buccaneer gusto of his earlier years, from betting the farm on Sky News, to busting the print unions at Times Newspapers, to inventing a new TV network in the US, always co-existed with an amorality, ruthlessness and cynicism that corroded Murdoch’s soul. For all the creative verve he deployed to amass the newspapers and TV stations in his empire, the true achievement of his seven decades of power was to degrade journalism on three continents and in doing so undermine the health of democracy itself.
In all its ugliness, Fox News is not, as Michael Wolff would have it, Roger Ailes’ runaway distortion of what his boss ordered up. It is Rupert Murdoch’s very own Dorian Gray portrait. And Donald Trump, on the rise once again, is Murdoch’s Frankenstein monster.
Tina Brown is a former magazine editor and author of books including “The Palace Papers” (Penguin)
The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire
Little, Brown, 320pp, £25
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[See also: Is this the end of newspapers?]
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts