Michael Wolff reports on the personal and generational change that Fox News is undergoing:
Fox News is a business [James Murdoch] should not be in, he had told people before, despite its major contribution to 21st Century Fox’s bottom line — 20 percent of its profits came from Fox News last year, the biggest-earning division in the company. Presumably, he meant the in-your-face world of conservative cable news with its mega personalities. Indeed, James regarded many of the people at Fox News as thuggish Neanderthals and said he was embarrassed to be in the same company with them.
But, likewise, it would be hard to imagine how James could have been regarded with more contempt by many of the people at Fox News. James was rather exhibit No. 1 of the liberal elite entitlement that Fox had so profitably programmed against. “Fox [News] is an important brand, but it needs to develop, and, to some extent, be reformed,” James said when I interviewed him 10 years ago in his office as the chief executive of the Murdoch-controlled Sky TV in Britain, whose significantly less-partisan news operation he extolled as a ratings and journalistic model.
With the departure of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, whose ouster James Murdoch reportedly championed over the wishes of his father, Rupert Murdoch, that reformation can now begin. (“If the expulsion of Ailes, and, even more dramatically, O’Reilly, mean anything, it means most of all that James is in charge. And, most immediately, this means that Fox News, that constant irritant in James’ view of himself as a progressive and visionary television executive, will begin to change.”)
Quite apart from O’Reilly, Fox’s prime-time audience — 68 years old on average — won’t be around forever, and there is reason to doubt that the angry-man, white-grievance routine will work with a younger generation.
In addition to cleaning house to remove those executives who tolerated and enabled Ailes and O’Reilly, James Murdoch has the ability to “normalize” Fox News. It can drop the homogeneity of the Fox-female type — tight-fitting dress, high heels, short skirts to accommodate the “leg-cam” shots, (preferably) blond hair (over the front of the shoulder, please) and exaggerated movie-style makeup. Fox might even hire a non-white host to anchor a weekday show. TV is a visual media, but no other cable news organization has so standardized and exploited female hosts’ appearance.
More important, Fox News could cease being the unofficial mouthpiece of the Trump administration, offering the president softball interviews and an echo chamber for his worldview (e.g., illegal immigrants are all criminals, America is out to get Christians). When President Trump makes 180-degree turns on a slew of issues, the Fox News hosts shouldn’t be darting and dashing to catch up or denying that the president has reversed himself. Fox News should treat the president’s invented conspiracy theories as, well, invented conspiracy theories. In short, it need not be a right-wing, populist echo chamber in service of the administration, regurgitating the same themes and vilifying the same figures night after night.
James Murdoch, whose father might be the most successful American immigrant ever, can lay off the hysteria about illegal immigration and massive voter fraud (another Trump fictional story line). It’s irresponsible, racist and false to portray native-born Americans as victims of a tidal wave of immigration.
In tone, Fox News can drop the ideological bully-boy routine. (The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: “Fox announced that it was filling the vacuum left by O’Reilly’s departure with Tucker Carlson, another combative host whose specialty appears to be making guests he disagrees with squirm. This conversation-as-blood-sport approach goes back at least to ‘The McLaughlin Group’ and ‘Crossfire,’ two political talk shows that spiced up substantive discussions with contentiousness, but it became a prime-time staple in the O’Reilly era.”) Opinion hosts can have opinions without setting up guests, ridiculing them and constantly interrupting.
At the very least, under a new generation of leaders the pretense that the prime-time shows are “news” shows at all should be dropped. Their entertainer hosts periodically complain that they should not be held to journalistic standards because they are not true journalists. Fine. Remove the “Fox News” logo and the news-desk set. Call it “Fox Nighttime” — or would that shatter the pretense that the right-wing worldview is too often not factual? The actual news division should be staffing candidate debates and doing after-debate interviews, not the evening hosts who proceed to help along their favorites in a sort of post-debate extended political ad.
In short, James Murdoch doesn’t have to run a cheesy propaganda outfit that exploits women and sows xenophobia and white resentment. (The retrospectives of O’Reilly’s problems with race remind us that on any other outlet he would have been canned years ago, quite apart from the sexual harassment allegations.) James Murdoch has every right to be embarrassed by the product Fox News currently puts on the air and to worry that it has contributed to the nasty, hyper-polarized political culture. He is right to see that younger Americans, even very conservative ones, do not harbor the same sense of cultural grievance and racial resentment that the current viewers do. It’s the future audience that James Murdoch must plan for. If he’s going to be in charge, he can make Fox News (which is a smaller part of 21st Century Fox than one might think) into a respected news operation, one that is current with the times and is a positive contribution to the political debate.