Fox News has traditionally treated bigotry as a core part of its business model. But since the political rise of President Donald Trump, the network’s commentators have adopted talking points that had previously been the province of hardcore white supremacists. The reported manifesto of the gunman who murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, TX, on Saturday is all but indistinguishable from transcripts ripped from its prime-time shows. This shift is not an accident but a programming decision, one the network has pursued even as its hosts’ racist rhetoric has triggered costly ad boycotts.
Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch are ultimately responsible for this toxic programming. Rupert, chairman of parent company Fox Corp., laid the foundation for the shift. He then ceded much of the day-to-day authority to Lachlan, who maintained that heading as the Fox Corp.’s executive chairman and CEO.
Fox is feeding its audience a poisonous stew of bigoted, xenophobic conspiracy theories because that is what the Murdochs want the network to do.
A New York Times Magazine investigation found that in recent years, the Murdochs’ media empire has been “instrumental in amplifying the nativist revolt that was reshaping governments not just in the United States but also across the planet,” with their outlets fueling xenophobia and ethnonationalism to achieve political aims in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia.
In the United States, that meant taking advantage of a rare opportunity to reshape Fox News following the removal of network co-founder Roger Ailes and the swift departures of longtime network hosts Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, and Megyn Kelly.
Stepping in as acting CEO to replace Ailes, Rupert responded to the vacancies by giving Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham their own prime-time shows.
As prime-time hosts, Carlson and Ingraham turned their shows into clearinghouses for white supremacist talking points about an “invasion” of migrants, screeds about the systematic “replacement” of white Americans by people of color through immigration, and dire warnings that if something wasn’t done soon, the nation would be imperiled.
In short, Rupert thrust two of the network’s most anti-immigrant personalities into its biggest spotlight and they’ve performed as expected, moving the network closer to Lachlan’s reported goal of solidifying the family’s empire as “an unabashedly nationalist, far-right and hugely profitable political propaganda machine.”
The result has been programming that courts high viewership from Fox’s core audience but also repeatedly led major companies to pull their ads rather than risk associating their brands with bigotry.
Lachlan has been the public face of the company, defending Fox amid criticism from other journalists and advertiser boycotts.
Ingraham’s show drew controversy and bled advertisers throughout 2018, particularly after she tweeted an attack on Parkland, FL, school shooting survivor David Hogg, compared detention centers for immigrant children to “summer camps,” and warned that thanks to immigration, “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like.”
Asked about the criticism the network was taking during a November appearance at The New York Times’ DealBook conference, Lachlan claimed that the “biggest critics of Fox News are not watching Fox News” and argued that people should be more tolerant of the opinions of the networks' hosts.
Just a month later, Carlson embroiled the network in a firestorm after he argued that immigration makes the United States “poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” When the dust had settled, two dozen companies had pulled future spots on his show and its ad load was slashed.
The cycle repeated itself earlier this year.
In March, as Fox prepared for an unprecedented early sit-down with ad buyers, controversies involving bigoted comments by Carlson and fellow Fox host Jeanine Pirro brought more devastating headlines and fleeing advertisers.
Two months later, Lachlan again defended the company, telling Wall Street analysts that the ad boycotts were having no effect and that even if they did, “it wouldn't affect the way we program that channel.”
And now there’s a national debate over how Fox’s inflammatory programming was echoed in a white supremacist terrorist’s manifesto -- one that has triggered not internal reflection at the network, but a circling of the wagons. Earlier this week, Carlson delivered another defensive rant on his show, asserting that the idea that white supremacy is a problem in America is a “hoax” and a “conspiracy theory used to divide the country.” The Murdochs stayed silent.
The Murdochs appear to have been every bit as supportive of their hosts’ bigoted commentary in private as they are in public. After Carlson drew criticism for claiming that immigrants make this country “dirtier,” Lachlan reportedly sent him “personal text messages of support.” Rupert reportedly criticized Ingraham last year -- for apologizing for her comments about Hogg, which he thought made her appear “weak in the face of negative public sentiment.”
So the Murdochs are the reason Fox’s weeknight prime-time block features segments that are distinguishable from white supremacist YouTube videos only in their production values. The harder question to answer is why. The family has built an international media empire that wields substantial political power on three continents.
Are they actual nationalists who truly agree with Carlson and Ingraham that an invading force of minorities is putting the nation at risk? Or are they simply motivated by instrumentalism, happy to have their employees make those arguments because it bolsters their influence over right-wing governments which then support policies that bolster their own economic standing?
In the end, it hardly matters: Fox has spent the last few years diving ever deeper into a cesspool, and there’s no sign the network plans to change course.