Back in 1983, then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) was fixing eggs for her kids when she looked down and got an idea about President Ronald Reagan. She called him “Teflon-coated” because nothing bad stuck to him. The same could be said about Rupert Murdoch. He’s the Teflon mogul.
This year, Fox News, which Murdoch controls, signed Bill O’Reilly to a $25 million-a-year contract even though the company knew that O’Reilly had recently settled a sexual harassment claim for $32 million. That tidy sum was just the latest of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlements, the grand total being about $45 million, which, until he revives his career, has to remain some kind of record.
Not only was 21st Century Fox aware of the settlements, it even helped O’Reilly come up with some of the money and included, in the new contract, that he would be fired if new allegations arose. Not too long before, Fox News forced out its president, Roger Ailes, who also, it turned out, was a serial harasser. In sum, Murdoch presided over a smarmy frat house where sexual harassment was rampant, and, for the longest time and through herculean effort, the network managed to look away.
Somewhat in the same vein, Murdoch did not know that reporters at one of his British newspapers, the News of the World, were hacking into the phones of various newsworthy people. Murdoch, a newspaperman to his bones, apparently never wondered where the scoops were coming from. One of the hacked phones belonged to a murdered school girl. This was too much even for Fleet Street, but Murdoch, three monkeys in one, apparently never saw, heard or said anything.
Murdoch’s lifelong passion has been newspapers, but his real power base is Fox News. The network is to Republicans what the Daily Worker was to American communists — the only trusted news source. With the possible exception of the way the once isolationist Chicago Tribune dominated the Midwest, there has never been anything like it. In the most recent presidential campaign, fully 40 percent of Trump voters said their main source of news was Fox News. Just 8 percent of them relied primarily on CNN — enough, nevertheless, to send Donald Trump baying at the moon about fake news.
These figures are not only bad news for Fox News’s competitor, but they are also bad news for the Republican Party. Fox News has been a force in converting the party of Lincoln into the party of Trump. The network’s allegiance to Trump approaches mindless adoration. It once had the occasional nighttime skeptic, notably Megyn Kelly, but she is gone. In her stead has come Laura Ingraham, who spoke for Trump at the convention, and an even-more abrasive Tucker Carlson. As for the dominant Sean Hannity, he apparently so fears Breitbart News that he went soft on Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. (Even Trump withheld judgment.)
Moore has become the GOP’s litmus test. The refusal or hesitancy to denounce him is a consequence of where Murdoch’s Fox News has led the party. The GOP has gone so far to the right that it is about to veer off a cliff. The Fox News audience is old, white and in a cane-stomping rage at the way America is going. It believes in the media mendacity that Trump proclaims, and Fox News incessantly echoes. Aside from Fox News, it will trust only similar sources.
But look. Look, in fact, at Virginia. In last Tuesday’s election, the repudiation of Trump was beyond argument. Non-whites went Democratic in a big way. So did the more affluent suburbs, young people and women. What’s left for the GOP is rural, less educated, less affluent and, to be charitable, less young. On the back of any envelope, it’s a bad business plan.
Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump have long been friends. Murdoch has occasional access to the Oval Office, where he advises Trump — the amoral leading the immoral. Trump is 71; Murdoch is 86, and the median age of a prime-time Fox News viewer is 68. Anyone can see where this is going. The grim reaper has become a Democratic poll watcher.
Murdoch came to the United States from Australia to fulfill his gargantuan ambitions. He bought New York magazine by deceiving his friend Clay Felker. He buckled to China and booted the BBC from his Asian TV network. He has undoubtedly realized his ambitions but will be remembered not for what he built, but for what he destroyed — American political comity and a sensible Republican Party. No amount of Teflon can change that.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.