Commentary: Outrage fueled the ascension of Murdoch's TV empire -- a boon for entertainment but not news

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When Rupert Murdoch stepped down as the chairman of Fox Corp. and News Corp. on Thursday, he left his son, Lachlan Murdoch, a media empire forged atop controversy and incitement.

Pushing boundaries and harnessing outrage has been a hallmark of the Fox brand since its inception in 1986, whether it’s the contrarian stance of the hosts on Fox News or characters of “The Simpsons” on the broadcast network, the in-your-face brashness of Laura Ingraham or Peggy Bundy of “Married ... With Children.” For better or worse, Fox has changed how we watch television and consume news by breaking the rules in both spaces. But what’s largely been good for the creative expansion of entertainment TV has been devastating for journalism as a whole.

Murdoch launched the Fox network with the intention of competing with the Big Three television networks — ABC, CBS and NBC. The fledgling network had to distinguish itself against more conventional network series like “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.” Already a print tabloid mogul, Murdoch turned to his superpower: provoking audiences into paying attention. The result was a raunchy comedy about a dysfunctional American household, minus the sharp political or social satire of “All in the Family.” “Married ... With Children,” described as indecent by anti-obscenity activists, lasted 11 seasons, beginning in 1987.

Bart Simpson came skateboarding onto the scene in 1989, celebrating and lampooning a whole underserved sector of the nation: underachievers. Critics decried this deviation from animated families such as “The Flintstones.” Now “The Simpsons” is one of the longest-running shows in the history of television.

The Fox network also played a major role in diversifying what we saw on TV. “The Arsenio Hall Show,” syndicated on many Fox affiliates, featured the first Black late-night TV show, while the network’s 1990 sketch comedy show “In Living Color” mainstreamed irreverent Black comedy. The brainchild of Keenen Ivory Wayans, the show and its dancing Fly Girls (including Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez) broke through at a time when much of America was still wringing its hands over the creeping influence of hip-hop in white suburbs.

Love them or hate them, those goading and/or raunchy shows challenged the homogeneity of broadcast TV, paving the way for everything from “Malcolm in the Middle” to “black-ish,” “Key & Peele” to “Atlanta.”

The advent of Fox News in 1996 marked Murdoch’s foray into the cable news world, and it arrived with the goal of filtering the headlines through a conservative lens. Fox employed many of the same provoking tactics that worked for it in the broadcast space, but journalism is not entertainment, or at least it shouldn’t be. That didn’t stop Murdoch’s new venture from mixing the right-leaning politics of his tabloid empire (the Sun in Britain and the New York Post in America) and the confrontational nature of the Fox network’s buzziest shows into a 24/7 feed.


Host Bill O’Reilly was a master at stoking outrage as the network’s first star commentator, providing a caustic tirade against “the mainstream, liberal press.” After O’Reilly was taken down by numerous sexual misconduct lawsuits, disciples like Tucker Carlson carried the torch, doubling down on the us-versus-them stance and peddling conspiracy theories and lies to make the show even juicier.

But documents recently made public from various lawsuits filed against the news network, including one against Carlson that led to his axing, show that many at Fox knew that hosts and their guests were propagating falsehoods about the 2020 election, while repeatedly telling viewers that Fox was the only trustworthy source in the media.

Doing whatever it takes to build a loyal following has been profitable for the crown jewel in Murdoch’s empire, but it’s had drawbacks (beyond ripping down trust in the media and dividing the country). Earlier this year, Fox News agreed to pay $787.5 million in a settlement to Dominion Voting Systems after the latter filed a lawsuit claiming the network defamed it in the weeks after the 2020 election. The network also is dealing with a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit brought by another voting machine company, Smartmatic.

Still, in a statement Thursday from Fox, the elder Murdoch doubled down on a narrative that seems made for TV: He’s an underdog fighting for the little man instead of a billionaire who inherited his father’s media empire. “Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class,” said the statement. “Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.”

The paradoxical statement could have been the basis for a great “In Living Color” skit if only it had arrived 27 years earlier, but today, there’s nothing funny about Murdoch or his impact on American journalism.


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