20th century popular culture has long romanticized earnest “speaking truth to power” journalism with films such as The Paper and All the President’s Men where muck-racking journos stick it to The Man. This romantic view forgets the roots of fake news, the 19th century “yellow press”.
Fast forward to the 1950s where an ambitious 21 year old Australian took over the family paper, the Adelaide News. Young Murdoch sensed that the post-war press in the Anglosphere was boring, self-conscious and ready to be “jazzed up”. That’s exactly what he accomplished by moving to the UK and relaunching The Sun and The News of the World, complete with naked breasts on page 3 and constant prying into politicians’ private lives, with a sprinkling of the occasional fake news.
A true visionary, Murdoch understood 2 fundamental elements that fueled the building of a global media empire unequalled since: the US is key due to size and access to capital, and images trump paper. The New York Post and Fox studios acquisitions paved the way to the quixotic yet successful of the 4th network in 1985. In the UK he built Sky into a cash machine but remained a newspaperman at heart.
Murdoch’s papers’ formula can be seen as the framework that was later adapted when he sensed an opening in the cable TV universe. Just as he had done on Fleet Street in the UK in the 60s, Murdoch went for brashness, non-stop jugular commentaries and news as entertainment. It’s no surprise that Fox News Channel launched in 1996, 2 years into the Gingrich revolution.
Prior to Fox News and aside from a number of newspapers and magazines such as The National Review, the conservative movement in the US never had control over a mass medium of that magnitude. Over the course of 2 decades, and until his ouster, Roger Ailes and Murdoch built it into the force it is today, that of a reality bending echochamber, acting as the vortex for a vast right wing alternate universe, complete with endorsement deals and speaking gigs.
Fox News is such an integral part of the political process that the GOP is now known to consider the “Fox News primary” when looking at prospective candidates. Murdoch fundamentally upended the political system and although he will never own up to it, gave us Donald Trump. His Fox News fostered the symbiotic relationship and revolving door between conservative politicians and the network acting as a nexus. Countless GOP elected officials, for example Jason Chaffetz, have almost perverted the system in its entirety by acting like their elective offices serve as a warm-up act, an audition for their true career goal, that of overpaid pundit on Fox News.
This is where Rupert Murdoch truly is the dark overlord of Fake News: he is the paymaster, the casting director of a revolving ensemble of characters who playact as elected representatives of the American people but are anything but. Chaffetz is a good example of a seemingly striving all-American, who methodically built his political career towards the end game of being a Fox News employee, not govern for his fellow constituents. Devin Nunes is another proud member of this fraternity of faux politicians, real pundits-in-waiting, wholly uninterested in governing and in DC to collect government paychecks while they accrue enough “mileage” to be credible actors in Rupert Murdoch’s play.
Given the full picture of Rupert Murdoch’s role in crippling the democratic process, it’s therefore extremely unusual that very few take him to task. Aside from Dan Gillmor who’s been tracking the ripple effects of the Murdoch “touch” on American democracy, the silence is deafening.
Since it can be reasonably argued that Trump is the symptom, not the cause, of what ails American democracy, is this silence sustainable ?