No part of the American news media did more to elevate Donald Trump from the gossip pages of the tabloids, through reality TV, to the White House, than the newspapers and TV channels owned by Rupert Murdoch. But this week, the Murdoch media began the process of relegating the 45th president back to the status of a blowhard celebrity.
Trump has been a common presence on the New York Post’s “Page Six” column since the 1980s. As Murdoch’s right-wing partisan TV network, Fox News, grew to become America’s biggest cable news channel in the early 2010s, Trump became a regular commentator. Fox gave Trump a huge political platform, and when he became president, Trump rewarded the network with interviews and promoted its programmes to his tens of millions of social media followers.
This week, however, both Fox and the Post have turned on Donald Trump (in line with every other major title) in refusing to support his claim, early on Wednesday morning (4 November), that he had won the 2020 presidential election and that the late-counted postal votes going to Joe Biden were a “fraud”. Trump made the claim from a podium flanked by a screen that had, prior to his speech, been showing Fox News.
But Trump supporters became incandescent when Fox then called Arizona as a probable win for Biden, long before the count was finished. Biden’s lead in the state has since narrowed considerably. Armed protestors gathered outside an election facility in Phoenix, Arizona, chanting “Fox News sucks!”
The Post has railed against the pundits and pollsters who had predicted a landslide for Biden. But in its reporting of the race, it nevertheless stated that “Joe Biden stood on the precipice of the presidency”.
The Trump campaign has tried desperately to influence Fox’s reporting. The Financial Times reports that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, called Murdoch to appeal for Fox to retract its call on the Arizona result, while a source told Vanity Fair that Trump himself called Murdoch “to scream” about the result.
Murdoch’s apparent refusal to intervene is part of a pattern. Political allies enjoy the media tycoon’s support only for as long as they are useful. Losers are dropped without hesitation.
This happened in the UK when Murdoch helped propel New Labour to victory under Tony Blair, but abruptly turned the UK’s most popular tabloid – the Sun – against Labour after Gordon Brown became leader in 2007.
To what extent Murdoch’s media interests influence elections by backing certain politicians – and to what extent he simply falls in behind likely winners – is a moot point. What is certainly true is that Murdoch’s political power has always served his corporate interests.
For example, Murdoch used the Sun to campaign stridently for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, when the tabloid sold nearly four million copies a day. Two years later, Thatcher ignored competition concerns and allowed him to take over the Times and Sunday Times.
And from 2010 onwards, David Cameron’s government – which had received endorsement in that year’s general election from the Murdoch-owned Sun, Times, Sunday Times and News of the World – did its best to support Murdoch’s bid for News Corp to take full control of Sky.
But while Murdoch may have decided that Trump is no longer useful to him, it could also be that the president’s conduct in this election is also simply too egregious to support. CNN and Fox were the only two networks to stay live with the president’s press conference on 5 November, as other networks cut away over fact-checking concerns about the claims the president was making.
Even social platforms, which maintain that they are not publishers, are flagging Trump’s election fraud claims as “misleading” – and under Twitter’s rules, it could suspend Trump’s account altogether.
[see also: The attention economy is still working for Trump]
The American media may be politically divided, but it clearly agrees on the huge role it has to play in ensuring the peaceful transition of the presidency in the US. Even the conservative Fox News commentator (and Trump supporter) Tucker Carlson has argued that while it is not the media’s role to call the election, nor is it the sitting president’s. In a piece for Fox News last week, Carlson wrote: “Our system works. It has worked before. If people air concerns, resolve the concerns. Don’t call them names, don’t sweep those concerns under the rug, don’t shut it down artificially with unelected news anchors. Let our system work. Only by doing that will we have a country we are going to want to live in 20 years from now.”
As Donald Trump is discovering, the allegiance of the Murdoch media was never to him, but to the power he held, and the value it represented to their audiences.