‘It's just business.’ People Who Sow Hate for Profit.
Murdoch, Trump, Carlson: They've all done their damage. One of them stands apart.
The post will start by mentioning similarities in how Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and Rupert Murdoch, separately and as a group, have damaged modern society.
But then I’ll get to an important difference that sets Murdoch apart and identifies him as the most malign force in contemporary public life.
People in Murdoch’s home country of Australia have lived under his media influence for as long as they can remember. A recent conservative Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, said last year that Murdoch “has done more to undermine American democracy than any other individual alive today.” One of Turnbull’s predecessors, the progressive Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, called Murdoch’s media influence “a cancer on democracy.”
Turnbull and Rudd have been political rivals for decades and disagree on many things. (Turnbull is from the Liberal party, which in Australia means the conservatives. Rudd is from the Labor party and is now Australia’s ambassador to the US.) They have both dealt with Murdoch first-hand. And they see him the same way.
Their view is correct. Our modern dystopia is less profoundly the Age of Trump than it is the Age of Murdoch.
The Fox-viewing community and people in the press have naturally focused on Tucker Carlson in the past few days, as he is pushed off-stage. Everyone has had to reflect on Donald Trump and his carnage over much of the past decade, and perhaps in the years ahead. But more people should recognize Rupert Murdoch as the man who has most cynically done the most harm over the longest period to modern Western societies and their ideals.
1) One big similarity: They all have the talent to incite.
How can we tell these three apart?
Let’s start with what they have in common. The most obvious is that all three have a keen sense for the worst in human nature, and how to play to it and rev it up. This was an instinct shared by Roger Ailes, the Murdoch-empowered creator of Fox News.1
—Tucker Carlson has done so in immediately familiar ways. Last year Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times had a detailed and revealing timeline of how Carlson had built cable’s largest audience by exploiting grievance in general, and white racist resentment in particular. As Confessore put it:
His show teaches loathing and fear.
Night after night, hour by hour, Mr. Carlson warns his viewers that they inhabit a civilization under siege — by violent Black Lives Matter protesters in American cities, by diseased migrants from south of the border, by refugees importing alien cultures, and by tech companies and cultural elites who will silence them, or label them racist, if they complain.
Carlson encouraged his viewers to publicly harass people wearing masks during the pandemic. He incessantly promoted the outright racist “great replacement” theory. His pro-Russian commentary about warfare in Ukraine has regularly been cited in Russian state media. Nicholas Confessore said that Carlson’s show “may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.” If I were the story’s editor I would have cut “may be.”
And this is just Carlson’s demeanor in public, apart from further backstage behavior or remarks that might turn up in ongoing lawsuits.
—As for Donald Trump, he has famously excelled at incitement, especially when he had the power of the US government on his side. Every society has had haters among its citizens, and demagogues among its leaders. Trump got further by exploiting resentment than has any other national figure in US history.2
—And then there is Rupert Murdoch, who made these others possible. Without him, Ailes could not have built his empire. Without him, Trump could not have bypassed other “filters” to reach the national political stage. Without him, Tucker Carlson would not have had his audience. One by one, Murdoch has shown them who is boss by putting them in their place. (He cashiered Ailes and Carlson, and began shifting Fox’s loyalty from Trump to whoever comes next.)
2) Another big similarity: They’re all faking it, to a certain degree.
—Let’s start with Trump. The distortions of his personality may have been there from the start. That is what his relative Mary Trump has convincingly pointed out, and it is what the psychotherapist Peter Kramer has explored in his new book Death of the Great Man, as discussed here.
As for Trump’s racial views, they’ve also been there for a while. We all know about the racial discrimination complaint that Trump, his father, and their company settled with the US Justice department 50 years ago, and about Trump’s infamous call for the death penalty against the wrongly convicted Black teenagers known as the “Central Park Five” in 1989.
So both narcissism, and prejudice, may come naturally to him.
But did Trump give a damn about abortion before he learned that right-wing audiences did? About Christianity or religion in any form? Or “morality” as defined anywhere but Lord of the Flies? About places in America outside the place where he has most craved approval, Manhattan? About Jewish issues or Israel, when making his antisemitic cracks? About the welfare of soldiers or veterans, when dismissing them as “losers”? About the Republican party platform, during most of his adult life as a Democrat?
He didn’t care about any of these. He probably never cared about Russia or China except as profit possibilities. He began to care about MAGA talking points when he saw that they would rile people up. In his prime he had a live-performer’s knack for reading a crowd, and could sense what the crowd was waiting to hear. So that’s what he’d say. What he “believes,” who knows.
—Next we have Carlson. Anyone who encountered him in his pre-Fox days knows what a different person he was. A prep-school kid. A genuinely talented writer and reporter. Someone who had failed often enough, and visibly enough—shows cancelled at several networks, widespread ridicule for his stint on Dancing with the Stars—to be somewhat humbled.
Here's a sample from an excellent New Republic piece in 2010 by Jason Zengerle, showing why people in media were asking “what happened” to Carlson even way back then:
Carlson is, at heart, a fairly traditional journalist--and an excellent one at that. It may be hard to remember now, staring back through the thick haze of cable-news smackdowns, but, before Carlson embarked on a TV career--and, at various points, even during that TV career--he was a great writer and reporter. His 1999 profile of George W. Bush for Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk painted a portrait of the then-Texas governor—stubborn, profane, callow—that should have told voters everything they needed to know about why he would be such a terrible president. The piece he wrote for Esquire about traveling to Africa with Sharpton, Cornel West, and other civil rights activists was at once viciously hilarious and bracingly humane, like David Foster Wallace’s or Michael Lewis’s best reportage. At The Weekly Standard, where he worked for much of the 1990s, he was one of the rare writers less consumed with scoring political points than producing quality journalism.
In the years since, the hateful metastasis of Carlson’s on-air role has supported a cottage industry of articles about why and how he changed. For instance: in the CJR, in The Atlantic, and again in The Atlantic. Some of them explore whether Carlson’s hateful public persona reflects his “real” views.
Who knows. It doesn’t matter. Maybe Carlson has come to believe some of the things he’s been saying for years. Maybe he’s unearthing what’s been part of him all along. Either way, the texts and emails revealed by Dominion make clear that a lot of his on-air bombast has been just an act. Like Trump during his rise, he knew what his audience was aching to hear. And he delivered.
—Finally we have Rupert Murdoch. Every bit of evidence suggests that he is the most cynically cold-blooded and money-minded of the three.
Let’s go into why that matters and what Murdoch has done.