July 25, 2024

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Rupert Murdoch Put His Son in Charge of Fox. It Was a Dangerous Mistake.

The chief executive of Fox News, Suzanne Scott, reacted swiftly to the threat of the coronavirus in late February: She ordered the bright, open new offices disinfected, installed hand sanitizer stations around the office and boldly canceled the company’s major ad sales event.

But her influence doesn’t extend to the most important part of Fox News: its programming in prime time.

There, for two crucial weeks in late February and early March, powerful Fox hosts talked about the “real” story of the coronavirus: It was a Democratic- and media-led plot against President Donald Trump. Hosts and guests, speaking to Fox’s predominantly elderly audience, repeatedly played down the threat of what would soon become a deadly pandemic.

The person who could have stopped the flow of misinformation was Scott’s boss, Lachlan Murdoch, the chief executive of the Fox Corp. But he wasn’t paying much attention. The 48-year-old heir to his family’s media fortune was focused instead on buying a streaming company called Tubi for $440 million, a person who has spoken to him said. The acquisition would drive “long-term growth,” he proudly announced in a news release on March 17.

That same day, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 5,600.

Critics sometimes compare Fox, in its loyalty to Trump, to “state TV,” but that description is off. State TV implies command and control. The most-watched news channel in America has become, since the fall of its powerful founder, Roger Ailes, much more like the Trump White House: a family business where it’s not entirely clear who is in charge.

Coronavirus has tested leaders across governments, communities and businesses. Some have risen to the challenge, others have disappointed.

Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.

Murdoch is likable and handsome. But even his allies told me they no longer think he has the political savvy or the operational skills his job demands.

His father has urged him to develop a politically astute kitchen cabinet that he can rely on, and remains concerned that he hasn’t, according to two people who have spoken to the elder Murdoch. Lachlan has delegated much of the running of the company to Viet Dinh, a high-powered Republican lawyer without much experience in the media business, people who work with them said. Dinh earned more than $24 million in salary and stock last year as the company’s chief legal officer.

People close to Lachlan Murdoch describe him as a laid-back executive who doesn’t spend his days watching Fox and is sometimes surprised to learn of a controversy it has generated.

“People act like Fox is a virus — beyond our control,” said Bill Kristol, who worked for the Murdochs for 15 years and appeared on Fox until 2012. “There are people who run it, who have responsibility for it, and they could be held accountable.”

Through a spokesman, Steven Rubenstein, Lachlan Murdoch declined to comment on any aspect of his performance.

The Murdochs have always been hands-off leaders, and the peculiar challenge for generations of their public relations employees has been deciding whether to portray them as culpable or out-of-touch for various on-air debacles. But since the powerful Ailes was ousted amid a sexual harassment scandal in 2016, the network seems more and more like an asylum in the firm control of its inmates.

Soon after Lachlan Murdoch won an internal family struggle to take charge in 2018, he appointed Scott, who’d risen through the ranks, as chief executive of Fox News. It was good public relations: She was the first woman to run the company, which was reeling from the Ailes scandal. And she was a safe insider whom the Murdochs liked, even if she lacked a powerful profile inside and outside Fox.

The job, at that point, didn’t matter all that much. Trump had given the network’s prime-time hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others, unusual access and political relevance — not to mention huge ratings. The hosts, in turn, were far more responsive to him than to their nominal bosses, providing a platform for the president and his supporters to air their grievances about the rest of the media.

Scott, in turn, could focus on cleaning up a toxic workplace, managing the less-watched daytime programming and take credit for the ratings.

The arrangement seemed a happy one. But then, the coronavirus happened.

By January, Lachlan Murdoch knew the virus was coming. He’d been getting regular updates from the family’s political allies and journalists in his father’s native Australia, an Australian News Corp. staff member told me. The Fox host he’s closest to, Carlson, had been a rare voice on the network urging Trump to act more urgently. Even Hannity had hosted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, early on his show and warned of the risks.

But as the crisis took hold, there were more than two weeks of statements like Laura Ingraham’s assertion on Feb. 27 that Democratic criticism was “more unsettling” than the virus and Hannity’s allegation on March 9 that political opponents were trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” Finally, after an obscure Fox Business host, Trish Regan, ranted that the coronavirus issue was “another attempt to impeach the president,” the network pivoted.

The damage Fox did appears likely to extend beyond the typical media hits and misses. I asked Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Public Health Institute, who appeared on Fox News recently, whether he believes people will die because of Fox’s coverage.

“Yes,” he said. “Some commentators in the right-wing media spread a very specific type of misinformation that I think has been very harmful.”

The communications chief at Fox News, Irena Briganti, said, “The cherry picking of clips from our opinion programs is the definition of politicizing this serious threat, as is irresponsibly attacking Fox News in the middle of a pandemic that has evolved considerably over the last few weeks.” She added, “Suzanne Scott’s exceptional leadership of Fox News Media throughout this crisis is unprecedented, and she is committed to both protecting our employees while keeping the audience informed 24/7 on all our platforms and providing an important public service.”

There are a lot of theories about what went wrong at Fox: that the network’s dug-in hostility toward climate science spilled over to medicine, or that its executives cared about ratings above all else. But interviews with 20 current and former Fox staff members and Murdoch family associates in recent days paint a different picture: The network is in thrall to the president and largely beyond the control of the family that owns it.

When Lachlan Murdoch started to hear complaints about the coronavirus coverage on Fox, a person who has spoken to him said, he mistook it for the usual partisan noise.

“Everyone saw it as part of the normal rough and tumble for all things Trump — everyone but Fox goes after him, Fox defends him,” this person said.

Now, Fox is consumed by internal finger-pointing.

Network executives are blaming Trump, their own powerful hosts or Meade Cooper, the executive vice president who theoretically runs prime time programming, people familiar with their conversations said. Scott’s internal critics say it’s telling that only the little-known Regan lost her show — while the stars remain untouchable. And Scott has been furiously, belatedly, trying to get hold of the programming, insisting that Fox & Friends — the show on which Jerry Falwell Jr. suggested that the North Koreans were to blame for the virus — now always have a doctor involved in the show.

The finger-pointing extends to the very top. Lachlan Murdoch never called Hannity, whom he had just signed to a new contract, about his coverage. The closest Fox executives have come to taking decisive action appears to be boasting, off the record of course, that they have taken decisive action. Their explanations collide almost comically. A person who spoke to Rupert Murdoch says that the 89-year-old chairman reached out to Hannity to tell him to take the virus “seriously.” But other executives said they had no knowledge of the call, and Hannity said in a statement that “this is absolutely false and never happened.”

One level down, Briganti has complained that Carlson is casting himself to reporters as a heroic truth-teller in contrast with other hosts, according to two people who heard directly of the conversations.

But little seems to have changed in the Fox ethos. Fox’s shift to more serious coverage of coronavirus followed Trump’s own, and the hosts are now embracing his new strategy for rallying their shared base. Along with trying to persuade their audience to be safe (particularly in the less-watched daytime programming), they’re sharing unproven positive health news. And they’re recapturing partisan momentum by picking a fight about race and political correctness, emphasizing the Chinese origins of the virus, with no apparent concern for inciting bias against Asians.

On Saturday night, Scott sent another memo to the company’s rattled staff: The fourth case of coronavirus had been reported in Fox News’ headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

“We are continuing to take every necessary precaution and to follow every protocol which includes deep cleaning all surfaces these employees were in contact with, in addition to the daily sanitizing and disinfecting that has been performed multiple times a day throughout all areas of the building.”

Employees on Sunday were exchanging panicked texts about whether they should go to work on Monday. But one person who surely wasn’t exposed inside Sixth Avenue was Lachlan Murdoch. He hasn’t been seen in the company’s New York headquarters for weeks.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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