Immediately before Michael Wolff published The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire, the emperor himself, driver of its expansion and its bitter divisions, stepped aside. Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was anointing his eldest son, Lachlan, as his successor, which per Wolff’s narrative will have been a bitter blow to everyone, including Lachlan.Wolff’s latest book joins an oeuvre that is remarkable for its access: in 2008, he wrote a biography of Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, for which the mogul gave him 50 hours of interviews. Never mind that it’s the longest Murdoch has ever spoken to a journalist, it’s probably the longest he’s ever spoken to a friend. “We really got along. He’s inexhaustible on the subject of the media, and I, too, am inexhaustible on that subject. We had a very good time,” says Wolff. So long as they were doing business or gossip, that is. “He’s very hard to talk to personally; he can’t reflect on his own past and his own experience. He can talk about his family; he was weirdly transparent about his children. But about himself, what he might be feeling, no.”Ten years later, Wolff, who is now 70, produced what will probably be his defining work, the trilogy about Donald Trump’s White House: Fire and Fury, Siege and Landslide. The books distilled qualities evident since Wolff’s first piece in the New York Times Magazine ran in 1974: an exquisite eye for detail and mischief, expert pacing and a peculiar ability to get people to talk to him, even if they know – as by now they must – that he’s going to stitch them up like kippers. “I’m always surprised,” he says. “I have no real explanation except that people like to talk about themselves. I think of myself as a writer, not a journalist, and what does that mean? It means I’m not there to challenge anybody, I’m there to see what the experience is, and to try to put that on paper. I try to fade into the background.”Anyway, back to Lachlan, who takes over the company “theoretically”, Wolff tells me, over video call from an austere-looking room in Manhattan. He’s “a Hamlet figure. Does he want this job? I think many people who have worked with him and his siblings would say, in an ideal world, probably not.”Could Murdoch have stepped aside because of Wolff’s warts-and-all exposé? Does that sound like the kind of thing he would do? “From my point of view, I would say it’s not a coincidence,” Wolff says, picking his words judiciously, like a seasoned, picky traveller at a hotel buffet. “Obviously I speak to people inside the empire on a constant basis, and the feeling is that the book was a bus headed right at them. It’s a fairly vivid description of the problems of a 92-year-old running a public company, and he runs two significant public companies.” These are, of course, the Fox Corporation and News Corp, which, in fact, represent the rump of Murdoch’s empire, after the $71bn (£58bn) sale of 21st Century Fox – the film and television arms of the corporation – to Disney in 2019. But nevertheless that rump continues to change the shape of politics in the US and elsewhere. “The book created the environment where he was going to have to do more explaining than he wanted to do.”Just how many warts are there in Wolff’s book, though? The story it describes is, at root, quite sad: Murdoch wanted a rolling news channel and created Fox News in 1996, putting it under the control of the late Roger Ailes, for a number of reasons of which managing, controlling, manipulating and tamping down Murdoch’s warring sons were not the least. Murdoch was never even that into TV news, apparently, preferring print, but what he’d made ultimately delivered a new politics, culminating in Trump, whom Murdoch loathed.But Disney bought all the important bits of the business, leaving Murdoch with the thing he hated: Fox News (give or take what’s still a considerable newspaper empire; Wolff is not that interested in print, at least for the purposes of this book). So now Murdoch can’t get rid of Fox, because it’s all he has, and he can’t even change it, because it’s just making too much money.You’d call it Mephistophelean, except Murdoch didn’t sell his soul, he sold something he actually cared about – his news credentials. My sympathy for him would be greater if the devil only had plans for the Murdochs, but these new politics affect us all. If I had one criticism of Wolff’s overarching analysis, it’s that if you consider the UK for five seconds, it falls apart: Murdoch was never riding the tiger of Fox News here, he was tending the Sun and, for many years, the News of the World, his babies, and he still managed the slow-motion transformation of our politics, to a toxic sink where immigrants are to blame for everything and a blond sociopath could sweep into power on buffoonery. But I guess we just have to get used to our new place in the world, where nobody considers us for five seconds. And if I’m complaining, imagine what Australians have to say about their media’s virtual omission from the Murdoch story – they’ve been dealing with this family for a century.“There’s another theory inside the company,” Wolff says, about the abdication: “This is a Murdoch ruse. He doesn’t want to testify in the Smartmatic case.” Fox Corporation is being sued for $2.7bn for spreading the conspiracy theory that voting machines were rigged in the 2020 election; a similar case brought by Dominion resulted in an astronomical payout by Fox. Wolff reveals in the book that Murdoch thought the suit would cost $50m. By the time the firm walked away this April, it had cost $787.5m.Obviously it’s hard to even consider the Murdochs now but through the lens of Succession. Which one’s meant to be Kendall again, and did he win? “The superstructure of Succession takes a lot from the Murdoch story,” Wolff says. “But the Murdochs really don’t figure into any of the characters in an exact way. In no way. They aren’t those people. Murdoch, in the flesh, is incredibly conflict averse. Never engages. Very courtly. Very polite. In person, not in the least bit bullying or demanding or even functionally a know-it-all.” (According to The Fall, James Murdoch is “a prick”. I liked the brevity.)Wolff doesn’t fawn in front of big money and even expresses sympathy for the Murdoch heirs, who each got $2bn from the Disney deal. “When you have $2bn, that money owns you. You have to go to work for it. It essentially creates a full-time job which you very well may not want but you would be stuck with.” But he does surrender to its logic. “Theoretically,” Wolff says, “Rupert Murdoch didn’t have to go along with this. He could have said, ‘No, I’m closing Fox down. Or I’m going to let James run it.’ But temperamentally, after 70 years in this business, I think that it was beyond expectations for him to give up this incredibly powerful profit machine. Fox News has made more money than any other news business ever. And I’m sure he goes to bed at night thinking, ‘That’s something I’ve accomplished.’”Between that and Wolff’s fascination with the players at Fox News, first Ailes – with whom he had an affectionate lunching friendship – then Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, as well as sundry female anchors with fun-sounding drink and nymphomania problems, he emerges with an engaging but vexingly neutral narrative. “I’m not particularly interested in politics,” he says. “I think that the real issues are about people’s personal motivations. I think even if that’s in a political setting, which Fox is clearly, in fact what’s pushing these characters forward is not politics, it’s something else, it’s something a lot more basic.”So, ratings, yes? “What’s the overarching motivation of people on television? It’s to stay on television. People who have been on television can’t live with not being on television. Their lives diminish. They become incredibly bitter and angry.” Yes, but do I really care whether or not Carlson is patting his jowls every night and staring down screen mortality? Or is it more important that he actively created the environment for overturning Roe v Wade, because that’s the bit of his life that intersects others’?When you’re talking to Wolff, you have to turn down the bit of your brain that raises objections like that, just as he turns down that bit of his own brain.He was telling me about Ailes, the architect of Fox, always vehemently opposed by both James and Lachlan Murdoch (the only thing they could ever agree on), who was brought down by sexual harassment accusations in 2016 and died the next year. Ailes created the behemoth by recognising that some viewers didn’t want progress; they wanted to stay in 1965. “He made a business of the left-behinds. That’s interesting, from a business standpoint, because the left-behinds previously had no commercial use. He figured out how these people could be monetised, and that changed everything.” Once they’d been monetised, they were a calculable entity, looking for a political home.Ailes had another interesting mantra: it’s not enough to make conservatives happy; you have to make liberals angry. Which, again, feels like an important insight, but Wolff’s response to “alt-right” provocation feels … well, you decide: “I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed every moment I ever spent with Roger. You know, he had these political views that were reprehensible. He would get on these rants and you knew that if you let him go all the way down, at the end of the day the Jews would be killed. You would have to veer him off if you didn’t want to hear that. I remember, once, he was on a rant, and I interrupted him to ask about his son. His son was born when he was 60. I myself at that age was considering having another child. So we had this lovely conversation which precluded having to talk about some ugly politics.”Did more baby Wolffs result from this conversation? “No, my wife persuaded me to have a baby when I was 60, but he helped. Not only has it not been a disaster, then I had another after that.” (This family is with his second wife, the 43-year-old journalist Victoria Floethe. He has three children with his first wife, the lawyer Alison Anthoine.) And what is the consequence, the hangover, from checking your moral compass at the cloakroom while you dodge antisemitic necropolitics over linguine?Wolff’s adventures in Trumpland landed him in hot water from all quarters: the president tried and failed to block publication; numerous sources complained about Wolff’s reporting of off-the-record conversations, or the conversation simply not unfolding the way they remembered it; and then there were people lodging my kind of objection, which is essentially, “Come on, this isn’t a game.” But now the dust has settled, Trump is “no longer upset. I’ve been to Mar-a-Lago to have dinner with him and Melania. He calls me from time to time. And it’s as though we are – actually, I don’t know what we are. We’re friends? That can’t possibly be. But we have some relationship.”He quotes a lot of people as thinking Trump is a moron, but does he think Trump is a moron? “I certainly think he’s unlike anyone that I or, I would go so far as to say, any of us have had any experience with. Sometimes he can certainly sound like a moron. He can sound as if he knows literally nothing about anything. But on the other hand, obviously he does know something. He has keen instincts. Obviously on some level he’s a genius. So I guess you can be a moron and a genius.”How would Wolff write himself; what’s his motivation? “It’s partly that I’m a storyteller. But I would also say that I’ve spent my time trying to get rich. On quite a number of occasions I’ve set out to get rich beyond my wildest dreams and never succeeded. It makes me interested in people who have. Most journalists have accepted the fact that riches are not for them. But I never accepted that.”I then ask how he’d feel if Trump gained a second term in 2024, and he says he’d feel like he had to get back to work. Any anxieties about the future of democracy at all? “I feel that American democracy is pretty damn strong, that it can probably withstand Donald Trump. It can withstand Fox News. America survives, it grows, it prospers. Could that end? I guess it could. Would we know it ends when it ends, or would we only know that in hindsight?”“I’m a fundamentally optimistic person, who keeps having children,” he says. Maddening. A lot of fun. Still maddening.The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire by Michael Wolff is published by The Bridge Street Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. More
Donald Trump said Comcast, the owner of NBC and MSNBC, “should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason’” and promised to do so should he be re-elected president next year.In response, one progressive group said the former US president and current overwhelming frontrunner in the Republican 2024 presidential nomination race had “gone full fascist”.The Biden White House said Trump threatened “an outrageous attack on our democracy and the rule of law”.The US media was “almost all dishonest and corrupt”, Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform on Sunday, “but Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC News, and in particular MSNBC … should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason’.”Listing familiar complaints about coverage of his presidency – during which he regularly threatened NBC, MSNBC and Comcast – Trump added: “I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I win the presidency of the United States, they and others of the lamestream media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events.”Trump also used familiar terms of abuse for the press: “the enemy of the people” and “the fake news media”.Observers reacted to Trump’s threat to NBC, MSNBC and Comcast with a mixture of familiarity and alarm.In a statement, Andrew Bates, White House deputy press secretary, said: “President Biden swore an oath to uphold our constitution and protect American democracy. Freedom of the press is a fundamental constitutional right.“To abuse presidential power and violate the constitutional rights of reporters would be an outrageous attack on our democracy and the rule of law. Presidents must always defend Americans’ freedoms – never trample on them for selfish, small and dangerous political purposes.”Elsewhere, Paul Farhi, media reporter for the Washington Post, pointed to Trump’s symbiotic relationship with outlets he professes to hate, given that only last week Trump was “the featured interview guest last week on Meet the Press, the signature Sunday morning news program on … NBC”.Others noted that on Monday night, the former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, a key witness for the House committee that investigated the January 6 attack on Congress, which Trump incited, was due to be interviewed on MSNBC.“Female political or media antagonists really cause blood to come pouring out of Trump’s eyes,” wrote Howard Fineman, a columnist and commentator.Sounding a louder alarm, Occupy Democrats, a progressive advocacy group, said Trump had gone “full fascist” with an “unhinged Sunday-night rant”.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotion“There you have it, folks,” it said. “While Trump and his Republican enablers love to falsely accuse Democrats of ‘weaponizing’ the government against Trump, Trump himself is now openly threaten[ing] to weaponize the presidency to completely remove entire news channels from the airwaves simply because they expose his rampant criminality.”Juliette Kayyem, a Kennedy School professor and CNN national security analyst, pointed to a previous warning: “To view each of Trump’s calls to violence in isolation – ‘he attacked Milley’ or ‘he attacked NBC’ or ‘he attacked the jury, the prosecutor, the judge’ – is to miss his overall plan to ‘introduce violence as a natural extension of our democratic disagreement’.”Trump’s rantings were also coupled with threats to Gen Mark Milley, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff whose attempts to cope with Trump were detailed in an Atlantic profile last week.They come after a Washington Post poll gave Trump a 10-point lead over Joe Biden, who beat him in 2020, in a notional 2024 general election matchup.The Post said the poll was an “outlier” but Trump dominates the Republican nomination race and generally polls close to Biden despite facing 91 criminal charges – for election subversion, retention of classified information and hush-money payments – and civil threats including a defamation trial arising from an allegation of rape a judge said was “substantially true”.Another new poll, from NBC, showed Trump and Biden tied at 46% but Trump up 39%-36% if a third-party candidate was added. A “person familiar with White House discussions” about the prospect of a candidacy from No Labels, a centrist group, said it was “concerning”, NBC said. Biden, the report added, was “worried”. More
The abrupt uncoupling of the Republican kingmaker Rupert Murdoch from his Fox News empire may have represented a ground shift in the media landscape in the US, but politically at least, very little is likely to change, analysts say.That could be good news for those on the right of the Republican party, who can expect the network to head into the 2024 presidential election – even without its long-time figurehead – continuing to amplify the worst of the political bias and disinformation upon which it made its name.“They’re going to continue the same business formula, which is whipping up hysteria around manufactured crises. They’ll continue to foster outrage and division, and gin up support for conservative causes. I don’t see any of that changing dramatically anytime soon,” said Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg school for communication.“Looking at the big picture, with Rupert Murdoch stepping down, don’t expect change. I agree that he was a politico, a very influential political figure in his own right, and certainly he had personal relationships that might not continue with Lachlan [Murdoch’s son, the Fox Corp chief executive].“But the actions of Fox News are going to be primarily dictated by economic concerns and maximizing shareholder value, and they’re doing quite well at the moment. They’re still the most watched cable news network, they’re incredibly profitable. So I don’t think they’re going to mess with their formula.”Pickard’s view is shared by other analysts, who see a “business as usual” approach as the network continues to deal with the fallout from the $787.5m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems for peddling Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.That episode cost Fox its most-watched rightwing host, Tucker Carlson, who left in April after pushing the worst of the falsehoods, and complaining he was fired as part of the settlement. Fox and Dominion both say he wasn’t.Fox still faces another, potentially more costly defamation lawsuit from a second voting machine manufacturer, Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7bn in damages for multiple fabrications broadcast about the company. The legal turbulence has profound implications for Fox’s future, experts say.“The huge Dominion settlement, and the underlying misconduct that the defamation litigation revealed, is inextricably intertwined with the network’s fortunes going forward,” said Carl Tobias, Williams chair in law at the University of Richmond school of law.“Because the Smartmatic litigation, which involves strikingly similar allegations of misconduct revealed in Dominion’s lawsuit, could impose similarly damaging reputational and economic harm on Fox, with concomitant loss of viewers, Lachlan Murdoch must seriously consider settling with Smartmatic.“The departure of Tucker Carlson may suggest that Fox has learned from the Dominion debacle and perhaps attempted to restrict peddling of misinformation that the Dominion litigation uncovered, but that remains unclear.”Others believe Rupert Murdoch will continue to wield significant power at News Corp, the parent company of his global media operations, and Fox itself, despite the Australian-born billionaire announcing in a six-paragraph farewell statement on Thursday that he was transitioning to “chairman emeritus” of the companies.Preston Padden, a veteran media industry executive who served Murdoch in several roles, including as the president for telecommunications at News Corp and as a senior vice-president at Fox Broadcasting Company, made such a claim on X, formerly Twitter, in a post referring to efforts by US ethics groups to have Fox’s US broadcast licenses revoked by the federal communications commission (FCC).“Given [Murdoch’s] statement that ‘I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change,’ the fact that the trust he controls has a controlling stock interest in Fox, the fact that his son remains chair and CEO, and the fact that the same cadre of executives who knowingly and repeatedly presented false news remains, this announcement has zero impact on the FCC filings,” he wrote.Padden, who gave testimony in the Dominion case, is one of three former senior Fox executives who have become vocal critics of Murdoch and the network, writing in a blog post earlier this year that they regretted their defense of the channel. “We never envisioned, and would not knowingly have enabled, the disinformation machine that, in our opinion, Fox has become,” they wrote.Pickard, meanwhile, said the tried and tested political playbook that Fox has followed for so long will continue to encourage Republican politicians, and help the network fend off the rise of fledgling channels seeking a greater slice of conservative and rightwing viewership.“Fox News will continue to fear they’re being outmaneuvered by these upstarts, One American News Network, or Newsmax, but there’s just no comparison, no real competition,” he said.“They’ll continue to play this central role in rightwing political discourse whether we’re talking about Fox News and its audience, Fox News and the Republican party, Fox News and Trump. These relationships are all mutually beneficial, mutually reinforcing.“They’re going to make crass business decisions in terms of how they’re serving their audience. You’re still going to see this endless parade of Republican politicians on Fox News, and Fox News will continue to amplify their talking points, along with plenty of white grievance and disinformation and conspiracies, but very little journalism.”Ultimately, Pickard believes, it makes little difference which Murdoch name is on the chairperson’s office door.“We need to ask questions about the effect this has on democracy, and the corrosive, toxic effects that Fox is having on political discourse in civil society writ large,” he said.“It’s a very dramatic, personality-driven narrative of Rupert Murdoch stepping down. But at the end of the day, Rupert Murdoch is a symptom of these larger political-economic relationships, and I feel that’s what we really need to draw attention to.” More
Michael Wolff’s new book, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, was eagerly awaited even before the Guardian published the first news of its contents on Tuesday.Since then, other outlets have reported more revelations familiar in tone and sometimes in cast list from the gadfly author’s blockbusting trilogy of Trump tell-alls: Fire and Fury, Siege and Landslide.In response, Fox News pointed to a famous impersonation of Wolff by comedian Fred Armisen when it said: “The fact that the last book by this author was spoofed in a Saturday Night Live skit is really all we need to know.”Nonetheless, what have we learned about Rupert Murdoch, Fox and US politics from The Fall so far? Here are some key points:Murdoch did not expect Dominion to prove so costlyDominion Voting Systems sued Fox News for $1.6bn, over the broadcast of Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud in 2020. According to Wolff, in winter 2022, an irate Rupert Murdoch told friends of his then-wife, Jerry Hall, “This lawsuit could cost us fifty million dollars.” When the suit was settled, in April, it cost Fox a whopping $787.5m.Murdoch thought Ron DeSantis would beat TrumpMurdoch reportedly predicted the Florida governor would beat Trump for the Republican nomination next year, siphoning off evangelical voters because “it was going to come out about the abortions Trump had paid for”. But it seems Murdoch’s radar was off again: a few months out from the first vote in Iowa, notwithstanding 91 criminal charges, Trump holds gigantic polling leads over DeSantis, whose campaign has long been seen to be flatlining.Murdoch wishes Trump dead …Murdoch, Wolff says, directs considerable anger Trump’s way, at one point treating friends to “a rat-a-tat-tat of jaw-clenching ‘fucks’” that showed a “revulsion … as passionate … as [that of] any helpless liberal”. More even than that, Wolff reports that Murdoch, 92, has often wished out loud that Trump, 77, was dead. “Trump’s death became a Murdoch theme,” Wolff writes, reporting the mogul saying: “‘We would all be better off …?’ ‘This would all be solved if …’ ‘How could he still be alive, how could he?’ ‘Have you seen him? Have you seen what he looks like? What he eats?’”… but Lachlan just wipes his bottom on himRupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan Murdoch, is in pole position to take over the empire. According to Wolff, the younger man is no Trump fan either. As reported by the Daily Beast, Wolff writes: “In the run-up to the 2016 election, the bathrooms at the Mandeville house featured toilet paper with Trump’s face, reported visitors with relief and satisfaction. [Lachlan] told people that his wife and children cried when Trump was elected.”Rupert has choice words for some Fox News starsThe Daily Beast also reported on the older Murdoch’s apparent contempt for some of his stars. Considering how, Wolff says, Sean Hannity pushed for Fox to stay loyal to Trump, the author writes: “When Murdoch was brought reports of Hannity’s on- and off-air defence of Fox’s post-election coverage, he perhaps seemed to justify his anchor: ‘He’s retarded, like most Americans.’”Hannity may have been on thin iceAlso reported by the Daily Beast: Wolff says Murdoch considered firing Hannity as a way to mollify Dominion in its defamation suit, with Lachlan Murdoch reportedly suggesting that a romantic relationship Hannity had with another host could be used as precedent, given the downfalls of media personalities including Jeff Zucker of CNN.DeSantis may have kicked Tucker Carlson’s dogAccording to the Daily Beast, and to a lengthy excerpt published by New York magazine, Wolff writes that in spring of this year, Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, visited another leading Fox host, Tucker Carlson, and his wife, Susie Carlson, for a lunch designed to introduce Murdoch’s favored Republican to his most powerful primetime star. What Wolff says follows is worth quoting in full:
The Carlsons are dog people with four spaniels, the progeny of other spaniels they have had before, who sleep in their bed. DeSantis pushed the dog under the table. Had he kicked the dog? Susie Carlson’s judgment was clear: She did not ever want to be anywhere near anybody like that ever again. Her husband agreed. DeSantis, in Carlson’s view, was a ‘fascist’. Forget Ron DeSantis.
Carlson saw a presidential run as a way to escapeCarlson has said he “knows” his removal from Fox after the Dominion settlement was a condition of that deal. Dominion and Fox have said it wasn’t. On Wednesday, New York magazine published Wolff’s reporting that Trump openly considered making Carlson his vice-presidential pick. But Wolff also fleshes out rumours Carlson considered a run for president himself – reported by the Guardian – and says the host seriously pondered the move “as a further part of his inevitable martyrdom – as well as a convenient way to get out of his contract”. This, Wolff says, left Rupert Murdoch “bothered” – and “pissed at Lachlan for not reining Carlson in”.Wolff is no stranger to gossip …… often of a salacious hue. Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chief, features prominently throughout The Fall, a font of off-colour quotes and pungent opinions, including that Trump, whom he helped make president, is a “dumb motherfucker”. Ailes died in disgrace in 2017, after a sexual harassment scandal. According to a New York Times review, Wolff describes the Fox-host-turned-Trump-surrogate Kimberly Guilfoyle “settl[ing] into a private plane on the way to Ailes’s funeral”, adding: “What was also clear, if you wanted it to be, was that she was wearing no underwear.”Jerry Hall called Murdoch a homophobeSticking with the salacious, the Daily Beast noted a focus on “Murdoch’s attitude towards homosexuality”. Hall, the site said, is quoted as responding to a discussion of someone’s sexuality by asking: “Rupert, why are you such a homophobe?” Repeating the charge, the former model reportedly told friends: “He’s such an old man.” More
Rupert Murdoch loathes Donald Trump so much that the billionaire has not just soured on him as a presidential candidate but often wishes for his death, the author Michael Wolff writes in his eagerly awaited new book on the media mogul, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty.According to Wolff, Murdoch, 92, has become “a frothing-at-the-mouth” enemy of the 77-year-old former US president, often voicing thoughts including “This would all be solved if … ” and “How could he still be alive, how could he?”The Fall was announced last month and will be published in the US next Tuesday. The Guardian obtained a copy.Wolff has written three tell-all books about Trump – Fire and Fury, Siege and Landslide – and one about Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News. In his second Murdoch book, he says he may be “the journalist not in his employ who knows [Murdoch] best”.Wolff also describes his source material as “conversations specifically for this book, and other conversations that have taken place over many years … scenes and events that I have personally witnessed or that I have recreated with the help of participants in them”.After Trump entered US politics in 2015, winning the White House the following year, he, along with an increasingly extreme Republican party, Fox News and other properties in Murdoch’s rightwing media empire formed a symbiotic relationship.But Murdoch has long been reported to have soured on Trump – a process which, according to Wolff, saw Murdoch personally endorse the Fox News call of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night in 2020 that fueled Trump’s campaign of lies about voter fraud, culminating in the deadly January 6 attack on Congress.By the beginning of this year, Wolff writes, what Murdoch “adamantly didn’t want … was Trump.“Of all Trump’s implacable enemies, Murdoch had become a frothing-at-the-mouth one. His relatively calm demeanor from the early Trump presidency where, with a sigh, he could dismiss him merely as a ‘fucking idiot’ had now become a churning stew of rage and recrimination.“Trump’s death became a Murdoch theme: “We would all be better off …? “This would all be solved if …” “How could he still be alive, how could he?” “Have you seen him? Have you seen what he looks like? What he eats?”Trump has regularly claimed to be exceptionally fit for his age, claims backed by doctors when he was in the White House. He also claims to be more mentally fit for office than Biden, his 80-year-old successor, claims many observers increasingly doubt.After Trump left office, Wolff writes, Murdoch “like much of the Republican establishment … had convinced himself that Trump was, finally, vulnerable. That his hold on the base and on Republican politicians had weakened enough that now was the time to kill him off, finally.”But now, as another election year approaches, Trump is in rude political health.Notwithstanding 91 criminal charges – for state and federal election subversion, retention of classified information and hush-money payments – and assorted civil cases, Trump leads the Republican primary by vast margins in national and key state polling, the overwhelming favourite to win the nomination to face Biden in another White House battle. More
The personal is political. The phrase was popularized by 1960s second-wave feminism but it sums up Elon Musk’s ideological journey. Once a “fundraiser and fanboy for Barack Obama”, to quote his biographer, Walter Isaacson, the sometime world’s richest man now plays thin-skinned, anti-woke warrior – a self-professed free-speech purist who in fact is anything but.His rebranding of Twitter to X having proved a disaster, he flirts with antisemites for fun and lost profits. He threatens the Anti-Defamation League with a multibillion-dollar lawsuit. The ADL never suggested the name “X”. That was a long-term fetish, now a clear own-goal.Like the building of Rome, Musk’s march to the right did not take only one day. A series of events lie behind it. Musk is a modern Wizard of Oz. Like the man behind the curtain, he is needy. According to Isaacson, outright rejection – and gender transition – by one of Musk’s children played an outsized role in his change. So did Covid restrictions and a slap from the Biden White House.In March 2020, as Covid descended, Musk became enraged when China and California mandated lockdowns that threatened Tesla, his electric car company, and thus his balance sheet.“My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” he wrote in an intra-company email.But Musk jumped the gun. Moloch would take his cut. In the US, Covid has killed 1.14 million. American life expectancy is among the lowest in the industrialized west. Thailand does better than Florida, New York and Iowa. For their part, Ohio, South Carolina and Missouri, all Republican-run, trail Thailand. Bangladesh outperforms Mississippi. Overall, the US is behind Colombia and Croatia. Under Covid, Trump-voting counties became killing fields.But in May 2020, amid a controversy with local government in California, Musk tweeted, “take the red pill”. It was a reference to The Matrix, in which Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves, elects to take the “red pill” and thereby confront reality, instead of downing the “blue pill” to wake happily in bed. Ivanka Trump, of all people, was quick to second Musk: “Taken!”Musk’s confrontation with California would not be the last time he was stymied or dissed by those in elected office. In summer 2021, the Biden administration stupidly declined to invite him to a White House summit on electric vehicles – because Tesla was not unionized.“We, of course, welcome the efforts of all automakers who recognize the potential of an electric vehicle future and support efforts that will help reach the president’s goal. And certainly, Tesla is one of those companies,” Biden’s press secretary said, adding: “Today, it’s the three largest employers of the United Auto Workers and the UAW president who will stand with President Biden.” Two years later, the UAW has gone on strike. At midnight on Thursday, 13,000 workers left the assembly lines at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.For all of his talk of freedom, Musk sidles up to China. This week, he claimed the relationship between Taiwan and China was analogous to that between Hawaii and the US. Taiwan is “an integral part of China that is arbitrarily not part of China”, Musk said. Such comments dovetail with Chinese talking points. He made no reference to US interests. He is a free agent. It’s not just about Russia and Ukraine.Musk’s tumultuous personal life has also pressed on the scales. In December 2021, he began to rail against the “woke mind virus”. If the malady were left unchecked, he said, “civilization will never become interplanetary”. Musk apparently loves humanity. People, however, are a different story.According to Isaacson, the outburst was triggered in part by rejection and gender transition. In 2022, one of his children changed her name to Vivian Jenna Wilson, telling a court: “I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape or form.” She also embraced radical economics.“I’ve made many overtures,” Musk tells Isaacson. “But she doesn’t want to spend time with me.” His hurt is palpable.James Birchall, Musk’s office manager, says: “He feels he lost a son who changed first and last names and won’t speak to him anymore because of this woke mind virus.”Contradictions litter Musk’s worldview. Take the experiences of Bari Weiss, the professional contrarian and former New York Times writer. In late 2022, she was one of the conduits for the Twitter Files, fed to receptive reporters by Musk in an attempt to show Twitter’s bias against Trump and the US right. On 12 December, Weiss delivered her last reports. Four days later, she criticized Musk’s decision to suspend a group of journalists, for purportedly violating anti-doxxing policies.“He was doing the very things that he claimed to disdain about the previous overlords at Twitter,” Weiss charged. She also pressed Musk over China, to his dismay. He grudgingly acknowledged, she told Isaacson, that because of Tesla’s investments, “Twitter would indeed have to be careful about the words it used regarding China.“China’s repression of the Uyghurs, he said, has two sides.”“Weiss was disturbed,” Isaacson writes.Musk is disdainful of Donald Trump, whom he sees as a conman. This May, on X, Musk hosted a campaign roll-out for another would-be strongman: Ron DeSantis. A glitch-filled disaster, it portended what followed. The Florida governor continues to slide in the polls, Vivek Ramaswamy nipping at his heels.Musk remains a force. On Monday, he is slated to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the indicted rightwing prime minister of Israel who will be in New York for the United Nations general assembly. Like Musk, Netanyahu is not a favorite of the Biden White House. Misery loves company. More
Christiane Amanpour has reported all over the world, so she recognizes a democracy on the brink when she sees one.Last week, as she celebrated her 40 years at CNN, she issued a challenge to her fellow journalists in the US by describing how she would cover US politics as a foreign correspondent.“We have to be truthful, not neutral,” she urged. “I would make sure that you don’t just give a platform … to those who want to crash down the constitution and democracy.”It’s an important call to action. But so far, the American press is failing to meet its responsibility to adequately emphasize the stakes of the coming election. Here’s some of what is going wrong:
News organizations have turned Biden’s age (granted, a legitimate concern) into the equivalent of a scandal. In story after story, headline after headline, they emphasize not his administration’s accomplishments, but the fact that he’s 80. A New York Times headline during his recent diplomatic mission to Asia epitomized this, turning the president’s joke about jet lag into an impression of a doddering fool: “‘It is evening, isn’t it?’ An 80-Year-Old President’s Whirlwind Trip.” Ian Millhiser of Vox nailed the problem: “I worry the ‘Biden is old’ coverage is starting to take on the same character as the 2016 But Her Emails coverage – find something that is genuinely suboptimal about the Democratic candidate and dwell on it endlessly to ‘balance’ coverage of the criminal in charge of the GOP.”
The evidence-free Biden impeachment efforts in the House of Representatives are presented to news consumers without sufficient context. In the first round of headlines last week, most news outlets simply reported what speaker Kevin McCarthy was doing as if it were completely legitimate – the result of his likely high crimes and misdemeanors. The Washington Post presented it seriously: “Kevin McCarthy directs House committees to open formal Biden impeachment inquiries,” adding in a credulous line: “The inquiry will center on whether President Biden benefited from his son’s business dealings … ” No hint of what is really happening here. In this case, the New York Times was a welcome exception: “McCarthy, Facing an Ouster and a Shutdown, Orders an Impeachment Inquiry.” That’s more like it.
Trump continues to be covered mostly as an entertaining sideshow – his mugshot! His latest insults! – not a perilous threat to democracy, despite four indictments and 91 charges against him, and despite his own clear statements that his re-election would bring extreme anti-democratic results; he would replace public servants with the cronies who’ll do his bidding. “We will look back on this and wish more people had understood that Biden is our bulwark of democratic freedoms and the alternative is worse than most Americans can imagine,” commented Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen, and an expert in authoritarian regimes.
So, how can the press do better as the election approaches?Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to speak to the staff of Guardian US about this in their Manhattan headquarters, with the top US editor Betsy Reed leading the discussion and with the Guardian’s London-based editor-in-chef, Katharine Viner, sitting in the first row.I identified what I called the big problem and the big solution.The big problem is that the mainstream media wants to be seen as non-partisan – a reasonable goal – and bends over backwards to accomplish this. If this means equalizing an anti-democratic candidate with a pro-democracy candidate, then so be it.Add to this the obsession with the “horse race” aspect of the campaign, and the profit-driven desire to increase the potential news audience to include Trump voters, and you’ve got the kind of problematic coverage discussed above.It’s fearful, it’s defensive, it’s entertainment – and click-focused, and it’s mired in the washed-up practices of an earlier era.The big solution? Remember at all times what our core mission is: to communicate truthfully, keeping top of mind that we have a public service mission to inform the electorate and hold powerful people to account. If that’s our north star, as it should be, every editorial judgment will reflect that.Headlines will include context, not just deliver political messaging. Overall politics coverage will reflect “not the odds, but the stakes”, as NYU’s Jay Rosen elegantly put it. Lies and liars won’t get a platform and a megaphone.And media leaders will think hard about the big picture of what they are getting across to the public, and whether it is fair and truthful. Imagine if the New York Times, among others, had stopped and done a course correction on their over-the-top coverage of Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign. We might be living in a different world.The Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out last week that the media apparently has failed to communicate something that should be a huge asset for Biden: the US’s current “Goldilocks economy”. Inflation is low, unemployment is low and there’s virtually no hint of a recession. But many Americans, according to surveys, are convinced the economy is terrible.Two-thirds of Americans are unhappy about the economy despite reports that inflation is easing and unemployment is close to a 50-year low, according to a new Harris poll for the Guardian. Many are unaware of, or – because of mistrust in the government or in the media – simply don’t believe the positive economic news.“There’s a really profound and peculiar disconnect going on,” Krugman said on CNN.Media coverage surely is partly to blame. When gas prices spike, it’s the end of the world. When they steady or fall, it’s the shrug heard ‘round the world. It illustrates one of journalism’s forever flaws – its bias for negative news and for conflict.Can the mainstream press rise to the challenge over the next year?“When one of our two political parties has become so extremist and anti-democratic”, the old ways of reporting don’t cut it, wrote the journalist Dan Froomkin in his excellent list of suggestions culled from respected historians and observers.In fact, such both-sides-equal reporting “actively misinforms the public about the stakes of the coming election”.The stakes really are enormously high. It’s our job to make sure that those potential consequences – not the horse race, not Biden’s age, not a scam impeachment – are front and center for US citizens before they go to the polls.As Amanpour so aptly put it, be truthful, not neutral.
Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture
This article was amended on 15 September 2023 to correct a misspelled name. More
X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, announced it will allow political advertising back on the platform – reversing a global ban on political ads since 2019. The move is the latest to stoke concerns about the ability of big tech to police online misinformation ahead of the 2024 elections – and X is not the only platform being scrutinised.Social media firms’ handlings of misinformation and divisive speech reached a breaking point in the 2020 US presidential elections when Donald Trump used online platforms to rile up his base, culminating in the storming of the Capitol building on 6 January 2021. But in the time since, companies have not strengthened their policies to prevent such crises, instead slowly stripping protections away. This erosion of safeguards, coupled with the rise of artificial intelligence, could create a perfect storm for 2024, experts warn.As the election cycle heats up, Twitter’s move this week is not the first to raise major concerns about the online landscape for 2024 – and it won’t be the last.Musk’s free speech fantasyTwitter’s change to election advertising policies is hardly surprising to those following the platform’s evolution under the leadership of Elon Musk, who purchased the company in 2022. In the months since his takeover, the erratic billionaire has made a number of unilateral changes to the site – not least of all the rebrand of Twitter to X.Many of these changes have centered on Musk’s goal to make Twitter profitable at all costs. The platform, he complained, was losing $4m per day at the time of his takeover, and he stated in July that its cash flow was still in the negative. More than half of the platform’s top advertisers have fled since the takeover – roughly 70% of the platforms leading advertisers were not spending there as of last December. For his part, this week Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, saying, “based on what we’ve heard from advertisers, ADL seems to be responsible for most of our revenue loss”. Whatever the reason, his decision to re-allow political advertisers could help boost revenue at a time when X sorely needs it.But it’s not just about money. Musk has identified himself as a “free speech absolutist” and seems hell bent on turning the platform into a social media free-for-all. Shortly after taking the helm of Twitter, he lifted bans on the accounts of Trump and other rightwing super-spreaders of misinformation. Ahead of the elections, he has expressed a goal of turning Twitter into “digital town square” where voters and candidates can discuss politics and policies – solidified recently by its (disastrous) hosting of Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign announcement.Misinformation experts and civil rights advocates have said this could spell disaster for future elections. “Elon Musk is using his absolute control over Twitter to exert dangerous influence over the 2024 election,” said Imran Ahmed, head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a disinformation and hate speech watchdog that Musk himself has targeted in recent weeks.In addition to the policy changes, experts warn that the massive workforce reduction Twitter has carried out under Musk could impact the ability to deal with misinformation, as trust and safety teams are now reported to be woefully understaffed.Let the misinformation wars beginWhile Musk’s decisions have been the most high profile in recent weeks, it is not the only platform whose policies have raised alarm. In June, YouTube reversed its election integrity policy, now allowing content contesting the validity of the 2020 elections to remain on the platform. Meanwhile, Meta has also reinstated accounts of high-profile spreaders of misinformation, including Donald Trump and Robert F Kennedy Jr.Experts say these reversals could create an environment similar to that which fundamentally threatened democracy in 2020. But now there is an added risk: the meteoric rise of artificial intelligence tools. Generative AI, which has increased its capabilities in the last year, could streamline the ability to manipulate the public on a massive scale.Meta has a longstanding policy that exempts political ads from its misinformation policies and has declined to state whether that immunity will extend to manipulated and AI-generated images in the upcoming elections. Civil rights watchdogs have envisioned a worst-case scenario in which voters’ feeds are flooded with deceptively altered and fabricated images of political figures, eroding their ability to trust what they read online and chipping away at the foundations of democracy.While Twitter is not the only company rolling back its protections against misinformation, its extreme stances are moving the goalposts for the entire industry. The Washington Post reported this week that Meta was considering banning all political advertising on Facebook, but reversed course to better compete with its rival Twitter, which Musk had promised to transform into a haven for free speech. Meta also dissolved its Facebook Journalism Project, tasked with promoting accurate information online, and its “responsible innovation team,” which monitored the company’s products for potential risks, according to the Washington Post.Twitter may be the most scrutinised in recent weeks, but it’s clear that almost all platforms are moving towards an environment in which they throw up their hands and say they cannot or will not police dangerous misinformation online – and that should concern us all.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionThe wider TechScape David Shariatmadari goes deep with the co-founder of DeepMind about the mind-blowing potential of artificial intelligence in biotech in this long read. New tech news site 404 Media has published a distressing investigation into AI-generated mushroom-foraging books on Amazon. In a space where misinformation could mean the difference between eating something delicious and something deadly, the stakes are high. If you can’t beat them, join them: celebrities have been quietly working to sign deals licensing their artificially generated likenesses as the AI arms race continues. Elsewhere in AI – scammers are on the rise, and their tactics are terrifying. And the Guardian has blocked OpenAI from trawling its content. Can you be “shadowbanned” on a dating app? Some users are convinced their profiles are not being prioritised in the feed. A look into this very modern anxiety, and how the algorithms of online dating actually work. More
After he was indicted for the third time, Donald Trump reacted with his now-standard, twin-pronged approach: first, expressing outrage and denying the charges, and second, asking his many loyal supporters for money.But the former US president, who faces four charges over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, also found defenders among rightwing media in America which has often fervently defended him, sometimes flying in the face of reality to do so.In the minutes after the Trump indictment was filed in federal district court in Washington, conservative commentators rapidly scrambled to his defense. Rightwing pundits lined up to compare the charges to “criminalizing thoughts” and the dropping of “fifteen dozen” atomic bombs – and that was just on Fox News.Rightwing TV channel Newsmax, which has drained some of Fox News’s audience in recent months, brought on Rudy Giuliani, an unnamed co-conspirator in Tuesday’s indictment, who railed for seven minutes about Hillary Clinton’s emails and Biden being a “crooked president”.In America’s rightwing media ecosystem it was a largely united front. News outlets repeatedly pressed the idea that Trump’s free speech was being criminalized: that the former president had done nothing more than talk about the election being stolen.The effort, perhaps deliberately, ignored prosecutors’ allegations that Trump had convened false slates of electors and attempted to block the certification of the election on January 6.“This is like lawfare, they call it,” Jesse Watters, Fox News’s newly-installed prime-time host, railed in the moments after the indictment was announced. “Legal warfare. If this was political, this would be, like, a political war crime. This is overkill. This is political germ warfare. These are political war crimes. It’s an atrocity. It’s, like, not just dropping one atomic bomb, you drop 15 dozen.”Those claims were made on Fox News’s The Five show, which Watters co-hosts. By the time he got to his 8pm show, he hadn’t calmed down.Watters assembled a panel of experts, which included Alina Habba, a former Trump attorney who now works for Trump’s political action committee and Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law.In the wake of the 2020 election Trump “did exactly what you would want a president to do”, Lara Trump said.“He upheld and defended the constitution of the United States by trying to ensure that we indeed had a free and fair election. That was his whole goal, that’s what he wanted to ensure was going on,” she said.“[And] what about his first amendment freedom of speech.”Sean Hannity, a friend of Trump who was disciplined by Fox News in 2018 for appearing on stage at a Trump campaign rally, brought John Lauro, a Trump attorney, on to his 9pm show.“This is the first time, in the history of the United States, that the Justice Department has weaponized and politicized political speech,” Lauro claimed.Newsmax, meanwhile, went where Fox News – the channel recently settled a lawsuit after repeating the kind of claims that Giuliani lobs out incessantly – apparently feared to tread. The right-wing channel hauled on an emotional Giuliani, who referenced his own book as he criticized Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the indictment.“You don’t get to violate people’s first amendment rights, Smith,” Giuliani said. “No matter who the hell you are, no matter how sick you are with Trump derangement syndrome.”There were some calmer voices of dissent in conservative media. One anyway: the Wall Street Journal.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionIn an op-ed the editorial board of the Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, criticized Trump’s behavior in the aftermath of the 2020 election, but worried that the indictment “potentially criminalizes many kinds of actions and statements by a president”.“You don’t have to be a defender of Donald Trump to worry about where this will lead,” the editorial board wrote.“It makes any future election challenges, however valid, legally vulnerable to a partisan prosecutor.”Away from the non-rightwing media, the interpretation was largely covered in a sober fashion in the US. The mainstream newspapers New York Times and the Washington Post stuck to a undramatic descriptions of the charges, while ABC News reported on the “sweeping indictment” Trump faces – noting it was his third in the last four months.None of that mattered among conservatives.One America News Network pivoted to Hunter Biden – always a source of interest among right-wing news – with an OANN correspondent pushing an emerging conspiracy theory that the Trump indictment was timed to coincide with Biden Jr’s tax charges trial.Elsewhere, a senior editor of the Blaze website suggested that the Republican-led House should force a government shutdown – which could see about 800,000 federal employees furloughed or forced to work without pay – in the hope that the case against Trump would collapse.Perhaps the most berserk take, however, was the one pushed by Trump’s own campaign.“The lawlessness of these persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes,” the campaign posted to Truth Social.On a day when the rightwing media seemed willing to do and say anything to defend their man, none of them was willing to go as far as that. 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