Is Fox News Cleaning Up Its Act? Or Just Trying to Make the Murdochs Richer?

Rupert Murdoch and his sons could be doing the right thing, or simply trying to expand their media empire

Rupert Murdoch Fox News

Fox News has taken drastic steps to clean up its image in recent months: Dumping employees accused of sexual harassment and racist comments, backing down from a right-wing conspiracy theory, and siding with a mainstream media reporter over a Republican candidate accused of body-slamming him.

Even Monica Lewinsky, who wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that the network and founder Roger Ailes made her life a “nightmare” in the ’90s, said there  are “positive signs that the younger generation at Fox — James and Lachlan Murdoch — seem to want to change the culture Mr. Ailes created.”

But Lewinsky is one of many who is a little skeptical about the networks’ motives for changing its ways. She and others believe Rupert Murdoch and his sons, Lachlan and James, might be cleaning up their corporate culture only to impress British media regulator Ofcom as parent company 21st Century Fox seeks its blessing to take over UK pay-TV giant Sky.

Loyola journalism professor Kate Pickert said Fox News’ recent moves are “all high-profile and could be designed to neutralize public criticisms” in the middle of an important business deal. But she feels the company had no choice but to change after sexual harassment allegations drove out Ailes last year and Bill O’Reilly last month. (Ailes died earlier this month.)

“The network deserves credit for acting, but it only did so with Bill O’Reilly because the New York Times wrote about old cases and advertisers began boycotting his show. What matters more is the work environment for Fox News employees. We really don’t know if this is changing and it will be some time before we can judge whether there has been a culture shift that impacts employees,” Pickert told TheWrap.

A company insider noted, however, that Ailes was out within weeks of public allegations of sexual harassment against him last summer — before the Sky News deal was in play. A recent statement by 21st Century Fox said that the “transformed leadership at Fox News brings it closer in line with a long-held commitment to a diverse workplace.”

But not all the developments have been behind the scenes. This week, Fox News notably retracted an article about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich that fueled baseless right-wing theories. Sean Hannity, the network’s biggest star, objected and kept fueling the theory until finally agreeing not to talk about it anymore on his Fox News show.

Meanwhile, though Fox News has long been accused of a Republican slant, a Fox News crew sided with a Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, who said Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte “body slammed” him on Monday. Gianforte’s campaign derided Jacobs as a “liberal journalist.”

But Pickert said the network’s changes to its culture aren’t likely to result in sweeping changes to its coverage.

“As far as Fox News’ coverage, I don’t see that shifting dramatically anytime soon. The network still occupies a highly profitable niche, appealing to viewers who want a news and opinion perspective that leans right,” Pickert said.

Fox News declined to comment for this story.

Ailes ran Fox News for 20 years but stepped down last year after a series of sexual harassment allegations that he denied up until his death last week. In the 10 months since he resigned, Fox News has fired Bob Beckel over an accusation that he made an offensive remark to an African-American employee, parted ways with a longtime executive accused of racist comments, fired cash cow O’Reilly and accepted the resignation of former co-president Bill Shine, who was accused in some of the lawsuits plaguing the company of permitting a culture that included harassment and discrimination. (O’Reilly and Shine have denied the accusations. Beckel has not responded to requests for comment.)

Fox News has also added female executivesordered sensitivity training for all employees, brought in human resources guru Kevin Lord to make sure things run smoothly going forward and announced plans to gut the entire floor of offices occupied by Ailes to create a state-of-the-art open newsroom as part of a renovation of its New York City headquarters.

Sean Hannity, who is essentially the last of the old guard, recently tweeted that it would be the “total end” of Fox News “as we know it” if the network lost Shine. Then the network lost Shine.

When Shine, a direct protégé of Ailes, stepped down, a number of conservative sites posted articles with headlines such as, “Is Fox about to become CNN?” Another worried about “the left-wing takeover of Fox News” and suggested Lachlan and James Murdoch are significantly more liberal than their father.

The Hill media columnist Joe Concha told TheWrap he doesn’t really care why Fox News is cleaning up its image. What’s important is that it is.

“Maybe the executives don’t like that the company is being portrayed in the media as having this horrible culture. Yes, there is obviously a business aspect to this but also, what choice does 21st Century Fox have? I see them as taking real steps here,” Concha said.

Fox bid $14.4 billion for all of Sky, of which it already owns a 39 percent stake. The deal was cleared by the European Commission earlier this year but remains a sensitive subject after a previous attempt in 2011 was blocked by a phone hacking scandal at one of the Murdoch family’s British newspapers. The scandal revealed close ties between politicians, police and the employees of the paper.

It remains to be seen if Fox News plans to continue to work on its culture if the Sky Deal goes through. The only people who know for sure are named Murdoch.