The timing seemed propitious: Eager to entice new subscribers, CNN + was about to unfurl a multi-part exposé of Fox News and its 91-year-old patriarch, Rupert Murdoch. It would be juicy material for the new streaming platform, with newsies on the left hammering their rivals on the right. How could it fail?
It did. Upon making its heralded bow, CNN + last week was abruptly shut down by its new corporate parents at Warner Bros. Discovery, who had just glimpsed her business plan. The doc on Murdoch, meanwhile, still awaits its moment with his allies savoring the delay.
“The events again demonstrate that Murdoch’s minions are able to pursue a defined strategy while their rivals seem lost in the fog,” observes the CEO of a rival media company.
This view seems reinforced by the documentary – the one that didn’t run – which is based on a multi-part “investigation” in the New York Times (not a friend of Murdoch). Its theme: From the outset Murdoch was motivated to build, not a mere news channel, but a tribal culture – one that would lead to political power as well as profits.
That aim gained further momentum from Murdoch’s successful streaming platform Fox Nation, a mix of pop culture and ideological messaging, with over 1 million subscribers. CNN + would have been its rival, but, even in its infancy, CNN’s platform seemed more like the by-the-numbers news provider that Ted Turner had originally envisioned in the late 1970s.
In entrusting Fox News to Roger Ailes in 1996, Murdoch guaranteed its tilt to the hard right and, hence, ultimately, to Donald Trump. Having started by producing entertainment shows, Ailes envisioned building a tribal following that could be mobilized as an advertising and political force.
Even in his early relationship with Ailes, however, Murdoch remained fixed on the bottom line, worrying that his Fox News tribe could become increasingly insular – a concern that some Fox advertisers feel is now being realized. Mike Lindell might peddle his political pillows but most other ad buyers covet shelter from the culture wars.
This is especially true as the chasm between the universe of Fox News, on the right, and MSNBC and CNN on the left, continues to broaden. The Fox oracles obsess about immigration and crime, while wobbling on the war in Ukraine, as their rivals focus on the January 6 insurrection and the cloud of Trumpism. Some commentators have compared Tucker Carlson’s pro-Putin perorations to the pro-Hitler sentiments of the Chicago Tribune‘s Robert McCormick and other US publishers on the eve of World War II.
CNN’s new corporate parents may potentially redefine its mission, but Murdoch seems bent on pursuing his original scenario. Some four years after selling his stake in Sky to Comcast, he is reactivating his presence in the UK with TalkTV, a new opinion channel. While Fox Nation offers US viewers a taste of Sean Hannity and Carlson, Talk TV is resuscitating Piers Morgan Uncensoredwith Trump as Morgan’s initial guest.
This agenda seems consistent with the playbook outlined in The Murdochs: Empire of Influence, the doc that had been set to run on CNN +. In describing the show, the New York Times reported that it chronicled the Murdoch dynasty in the style of Succession, HBO’s impactful drama. The saga of the Murdochs is a tale of “greed, betrayal and back stabbing,” said the Timeswhich had supplied the original material.
At age 91, Rupert is still the man in charge while Lachlan, a son, is officially his media CEO. There are periodic reports of defections by other Murdoch progeny, like James and Elisabeth, but they are vague in their specifics. Having opportunistically disposed of his Fox film assets to Disney, Rupert can focus anew on the singular product that clearly means the most to him: power.