WaxWord: The 92-year-old media mogul wasn’t willing to lie when he was deposed under oath
It’s a big word that holds up so much of what passes for moral, ethical and legal behavior in our democratic society.
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And in its absence, it defines so much of the Trump era, which is the same as the Fox News era. A lack of shame. An ability to lie, bald-faced, to American voters from the White House podium. A willingness to lie, knowingly, straight into the camera, to millions of Fox News viewers. From the White House to the anchor chairs.
But finally, it seems, Rupert Murdoch himself wasn’t willing to lie when he was deposed under oath in the $1.6 billion Dominion lawsuit that puts his entire company at risk. The Fox Corp. chairman admitted that the notion of election fraud in 2020 was a lie, and he let his news anchors defend it anyway.
“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” Murdoch said, according to the filing.
“Fox has a role in making sure people can agree on a basic set of facts,” he said, admitting it was wrong for Fox hosts to “endorse” lies if they knew them not to be true. “Yes. We broadcast the facts. We hope people believe what we are broadcasting.”
Wow. Finally. Why did Rupert tell the truth?
WaxWord spoke to a half-dozen top media executives, a few of whom know Murdoch personally. Some were enraged that Murdoch had the audacity to admit to allowing lies on his network in pursuit of ratings and profits. Others were impressed that the 92-year-old mogul chose not to lie, not to take the Fifth — and to be truthful under oath.
“What’s gone awry is the disinformation and the lying, and the lying to keep an audience and grow an audience,” said a leading media executive who knows Murdoch personally. “And in this case it felt desperate: ‘I have to keep them [viewers] at any cost.’ That moment is one that I believe that Rupert thinks about. And deep down is ashamed of.”
The executive continued: “I respect the fact that under oath he told the truth. He said he could have stopped it. That doesn’t make him a hero. But he did tell the truth. Which is almost why it’s such a story. I think it was an authentic moment. He made a decision — ‘I’m going to tell the truth.’”
“What Rupert did was not just admirable, but was necessary,” conservative pollster and political analyst Frank Luntz told TheWrap. “He told the truth. I think this is a pivotal moment. And that everyone in this process should use this to reestablish the truth as the ultimate arbiter, and to be the ultimate mission.”
He added: “I think this is a really good development. Because media… is really broken and I question if it can be repaired.”
Others were far less charitable. Media is broken, they said, and Murdoch is a central cause of that.
“Under oath he admits that his people are peddling lies — and that he wishes he had done something about it?” said one angry former news executive. “He should be shunned everywhere he goes. He should be cast out by the media moguls and the Allen & Company conference and every citizen who cares about democracy… He shouldn’t be seated at restaurants. He shouldn’t be invited to or welcomed at events. He should be ostracized for the big lie and the damage that his network has done to our country.”
But, the former news chief concluded more realistically: “He’s a billionaire. He’s 92. He’s untouchable. And he doesn’t give a s–t about democracy or even a multibillion-dollar judgment or settlement.”
The reality may lie somewhere in between. As many of those interviewed noted, Murdoch is a contrarian — unpredictable and someone who loves to defy expectations.
“He is complicated,” said a top media executive who is familiar with the company and Murdoch himself. “There’s a part of Rupert that is upstanding. Anyone who’s done a deal [with him] will tell you he’s an honorable counterpart. But when ethics get in the way of power and business, he often chooses power and business. But that’s not the whole story.”
This person noted the contradiction in Murdoch: “He runs a paper [the New York Post] that is not allowed to say ‘climate change.’ But he’s the same person who had an offsite with Tony Blair and committed to being carbon neutral.”
Meanwhile, all the breathless reporting that Fox News faces an “existential threat,” as one law professor told CNN reporter Allison Morrow this week, is overblown, said these insiders.
Not a single veteran media executive — and I spoke to a half dozen, some of who still run empires — believe that Fox News will face any threat at all to its existence.
“Short term will be zero impact on Fox News,” said one top crisis PR executive. “They will maintain their approach — and most likely retain their entire audience. You’re looking at one of the few aging, reliable audiences, most of whom will stick with them regardless of controversy, if they are even aware of it.”
As to whether the revelations will alienate Fox News’ audience, another former head of news broadcast network agreed: “I cannot imagine it making the slightest bit of difference,” said this former news chief. “As they’ve laid it out clearly, they’re serving their audience what they want. This is what everyone suspected they were doing all along — but now we can see it.”
He noted: “If they were to lose the case, they’d be a little more circumspect about running out-and-out lies.”
But a great swath of the right-leaning audience might not even be aware of what the Dominion lawsuit has revealed. “The group of people watching Fox News are not hearing this — this is not penetrating,” said the executive who knows Murdoch. “Years ago this would have penetrated all over America — there would have been an assessment. But that isn’t penetrating that group. The new America has… no agreed-upon set of facts.”
Luntz was much more optimistic. “Cable news hosts are going to be more careful in what they say and how they say it. Not limited to Fox,” he said. “When they realize that not only viewers are at stake, but that the legality of what they do can be put in jeopardy, it will teach talent to take their positions seriously and responsibly.”
Luntz was in the minority among those I talked to. Much more prevalent was a sense of resignation and dread that even this will not change the status quo.
Among them was the top crisis PR executive who said nothing will change at Fox until Murdoch is no longer with the living.
This person’s view: “Once Rupert is no longer around, there will be real-life succession, and the question will be: How long it will take, and what types of adjustments and tweaks will they make, when you have battle of siblings?”
Sharon Waxman, is the founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of TheWrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times. Twitter: @sharonwaxman