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Updated Apr 26, 2023, 11:08am EDT
mediabusinessNorth America

Rupert Murdoch’s management grows erratic

REUTERS / Mike Segar
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The News

Tucker Carlson’s abrupt firing is a tectonic moment in American media and a crisis for the far right.

But it’s also the latest in a series of abrupt, erratic decisions that have left 92-year-old, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which stretches across two publicly traded companies and around the world reeling.

Consider the following:

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  • Last October, Murdoch launched a plan to merge his two public companies, News Corp and Fox Corp.
  • In November, Semafor reported that News Corp would oust Matt Murray, the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, and replace him with Sunday Times editor Emma Tucker.
  • Later that month, the editor of the Australian, Chris Dore, abruptly resigned.
  • In January, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch announced that they had withdrawn their proposal to potentially re-combine Fox Corp and News Corp amid widespread skepticism from shareholders.
  • On March 20, Murdoch announced through New York Post columnist Cindy Adams that he would marry Ann Lesley Smith, a former dental hygienist turned conservative radio host. (“I was very nervous. I dreaded falling in love — but I knew this would be my last. It better be. I’m happy,” he told Adams.)
  • On April 4, Murdoch called off the engagement.
  • On April 18, Murdoch — who had fought to go to trial with Dominion Voting Systems — abruptly reversed course and green lit a massive $787 million settlement with the voting services company.
  • And on April 24, he abruptly pushed out Tucker Carlson, the highest rated host on Fox News, kingmaker in conservative media, and a personal friend of Lachlan Murdoch.

Some moves, like Emma Tucker’s takeover of the Journal, have been painfully slow. But the sudden moves, the endless leaks, and the general sense of an out-of-control train has also raised questions in the middle and top ranks of the company about the elder Murdoch’s state of mind, temperament, and what the changes suggest about the path forward for the media empire he built.

“There’s a long list of pretty drastic steps from him this year,” one person familiar with the details of today’s firing told Semafor. “People asking questions about whether an octogenarian should exert influence over the country should also ask whether a nonagenarian should exert influence over America’s most powerful media conglomerate.”

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Max’s view

Fox News allies Monday were already spinning Carlson’s firing as the product of wise leadership seeking to tamp down the flames of American division. But that explanation makes no sense. Carlson’s most divisive causes, like defending January 6 rioters, were hardly new. And three people who worked closely with Murdoch for years laughed off the notion that the nonagenarian had experienced a sudden attack of conscience, after standing by Carlson for years despite complaints from top Republican leaders including Mitch McConnell, multiple major advertiser boycotts, and even internal clashes between the host and top members of Fox News brass.

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Some Fox employees pointed Monday to the lawsuit by Carlson’s former producer alleging rampant sexism on the show. The other subject of her allegations, producer Justin Wells, was also fired Monday. Others suggested that emails from Carlson deriding management that had emerged in the Dominion lawsuit — and perhaps other, redacted ones — were the last straw.

But while both reasons may be true, they’re not new revelations: Fox has tolerated employee grumbling about executives for years. Carlson was famously independent of his nominal boss, news division CEO Suzanne Scott, who along with Lachlan Murdoch made the decision late last week to fire Carlson.

What does seem to have changed was the rate at which Rupert Murdoch is making aggressive moves on the fly. The Dominion settlement was hashed out quickly, just a few hours before the Fox chairman was set to take the stand.

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And two people close to Fox told Semafor that Carlson was blindsided by Monday’s decision, which he was told about in the morning immediately before Fox announced the move publicly.

Even small details about Murdoch’s recent behavior have been somewhat perplexing.

I was surprised when, after finding his email in the Dominion discovery documents earlier this year, the News Corp CEO seemed willing to respond to questions on the record. He gamely responded to several queries I had about the television show Succession and Elon Musk’s stewardship of Twitter.

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Room for Disagreement

There’s another shoe to drop, writes Josh Marshall, who pointed out that the backlash to Carlson’s firing showed that “this isn’t the kind of decision Fox would make in some kind of weighing the pros and cons performance review. There would need to be some big, fat near-existential reason behind it.”

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Notable

  • Longtime Fox observers know that while Carlson’s ouster may seem big today, the network was built to withstand the loss of major stars. The departures of major ratings-getters Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly seemed like big losses for the network at the time. But they were quickly replaced by The Five and Carlson respectively, which both proved to be ratings juggernauts in their own right.
  • Trump world is also reeling from the loss of Carlson, who was seen as one of the president’s biggest allies on the network. But some people close to Trump are quietly relieved that Carlson is no longer on the air, closing off the possibility that he could boost Trump’s rivals in the 2024 GOP primary.
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