One of the precious few salutary aspects of the Trump presidency is that it has forced some members of the mainstream media—and even a few conservatives—to face up to the rot inside the Republican Party and among its boosters. Exhibit A of right-wing decay is Rupert Murdoch, who, more than any single individual, has plotted the course of the GOP for the past 20 years. Liberals, such as yours truly, have been crowing for decades about the dangers of treating his media properties as legitimate news sources rather than as the purveyors of hate-filled lies and propaganda that they clearly are. Now, finally, these arguments are getting some traction.
This welcome reality check began with the campaign by Murdoch-owned media outlets to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller. As the independent prosecutor was readying his indictments against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and two others, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page demanded that Mueller resign, and a pair of its op-ed writers suggested that President Trump give everyone under investigation a blanket pardon. At the same time, a New York Post op-ed insisted that Manafort’s fellow indictee, onetime foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, had done “nothing illegal” when he apparently colluded with the Russians during the election.
Meanwhile, it is all a mere coincidence, one supposes, that Murdoch’s flagship property, Fox News, found itself in the position of embracing and excusing one right-wing sex offender after another at the same time that it was revealed to be a den of right-wing sex offenders itself. With the recent accusations of child molestation against Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore, the network’s top-tier “talent”—Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham—have all questioned the veracity of the Washington Post report, which cited four on-the-record victims and more than 30 sources, and then changed the subject to the sins of either Harvey Weinstein or Bill Clinton. The Fox News anchors might as well have been taking their orders directly from Breitbart impresario Steve Bannon. Six advertisers abandoned Hannity after his defense of Moore, perhaps leading him to rethink his public position on Moore’s “consensual” sex life. Still, Hannity happily cheered on a campaign by his acolytes to attack and destroy Keurig coffee machines, following the withdrawal of the company’s advertising from his show. All of this demonstrates the fact that Murdoch has decided to throw in with the crazies, perverts, and Nazi sympathizers who populate Trump’s base, with no limits as to how low he will go. And lo and behold, it works. During this period, Fox News secured its prime-time ratings lead over MSNBC, with Hannity handily beating Rachel Maddow, whose numbers had surpassed Fox’s for three months in a row.
Murdoch’s deep dive into the gutter has forced the remains of the conservative establishment to choose between jumping on the Trump bandwagon or forfeiting their cozy sinecures. Those in the latter camp have lamented the descent of The Wall Street Journal into the same Trump-infested sewers in which Fox and the New York Post have long immersed themselves. But their expressions of outrage are more than a little late to the party. The Journal’s editorial page has been dishonest for decades, even before Murdoch bought its parent company, Dow Jones, for $5 billion in 2007. Witness the Journal’s shameless pimping for supply-side economics, its hysteria about Whitewater, and the myriad falsehoods it published in support of the invasion of Iraq. But its dishonesty was of a kind that was viewed as consistent with post-Reagan conservatism, especially neo-conservatism. Now Murdoch has taken away the neocons’ meal tickets on the op-ed page and distributed them to Trump-friendly hacks. Even more important, he’s apparently ordered the rest of the newspaper to go along as well.
Recent rumors had the Journal’s top editor, Gerald Baker, on the outs, because he had lost the confidence of the newsroom after instructing his staff to give Trump and company the benefit of the doubt and Politico leaked his suck-up conversations with the president, Ivanka, and others in the administration. Politico quoted a former Journal senior editor saying of Baker, “I think he puts his thumb on a lot of things or makes it known that he didn’t like certain stories or that kind of thing.” Another Journal refugee told The Guardian, “Political editors and reporters find themselves either directly stymied by Gerry’s interference or shave the edges off their stories in advance to try to please him (and, by extension, Murdoch).” Baker clearly knows who pays his salary, and it is not the “dozens of reporters, editors, and copy staff [who] have left the paper in the past year” cited by The Guardian. Times have changed, however. These days, onetime neocon attack dog Jennifer Rubin mourns the passing of what “was long thought to be the crown jewel of fiscal conservatism.” She quotes neocon generalissimo William Kristol and foreign-policy analyst Robert Kagan, who calls the Journal’s editorial page “an angry mouthpiece for an angry mob led by an angry demagogue.” This is certainly accurate today, but it was also true 14 years ago when these same people led the cheer leading for Bush’s ruinous invasion of Iraq and smeared the war’s opponents as disloyal. The neocons have now found their own country invaded by a lying, depraved, psychopathic con man. I say: Good for them for standing up to our common enemy, but I would also suggest that they take a long, hard look in the mirror once it’s over.
Nation columnist Eric Alterman has been writing for the magazine since 1983.