Although now acknowledged to be a major player in the American media, Rupert Murdoch was born in Australia (March 11, 1931), and first made an international impact in Britain. He thrust himself into the U.S. market with his purchase of the New York Post newspaper in 1974. In the decades that followed, Murdoch expanded his reach into both entertainment and news. His News Corporation now controls the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, among scores of entertainment/news vehicles. In recent years he has begun to make moves that indicate which of his sons will take over his empire.
As this powerful octogenarian fades into the sunset, he can look back at a giant impact on his adopted country. Beginning with the Post, he is in large part responsible for the elections of New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, provided pivotal support for Ronald Reagan, and oversaw the emergence of Fox News as a popular voice for American conservatives. At one point, he owned the Major League baseball Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite this massive record, however, media critic Rik Kirkland argues that Murdoch’s influence in the realm of media has been overstated. News Corp. has struggled to respond to the challenge of the internet, making some ill-advised ventures like the purchase of MySpace, which quickly fell out of favor.
Kirkland argues that Murdoch’s conservatism is more populist in nature than it is traditional. He has a long suspicion of government, aggravated by taxes that threatened his control of his father’s Australian newspaper properties. Murdoch’s involvement in British politics included support for figures such as Tony Blair, a moderate Labor Party prime minister. Murdoch’s politics, according to Kirkland, are much like the cartoon figure Homer Simpson, another Fox property. They are rooted in the working class, suspicious of ideological solutions, and more pragmatic than ideological.
And yet, the strongest ideological vehicle on the American political media scene may well be Fox News. The cable network was developed under Republican political operative Roger Ailes as an alternative voice to mainstream liberal media. Ailes died in 2017, soon after being ousted in a sexual harassment scandal. Ailes took over Fox News in 1996 and made it into a powerful conservative voice. Culture critic Jeffrey P. Jones argues that Fox is not a cable network about politics as much as a news network that is politics.
According to Jones, Fox delivers its audience performance art. It’s a regular social drama, complete with patriots such as the Tea Party, and a plethora of threats, including the Black Panthers, illegal immigrants, and socialists, creating what Jones calls “news linked to an ongoing struggle.” When Sarah Palin appeared on Fox to argue against death panels in the Affordable Care Act, she was able to convince 40 percent of the American public to be alarmed about a non-existent threat.
Fox News provides an audience wedded to ideological drama. This messaging–describing what is proper conservative doctrine and how it is threatened–has become the standard for Republicans. Even after the upheaval of sexual harassment scandals that banished Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, Fox News continues to deliver drama regularly taken in by American’s largest cable audience.
Nearing the end of his career, Murdoch is both credited and blamed for its emergence as a prime player on the American political scene.