THE FALL: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, by Michael Wolff
Michael Wolff’s new book is a chronicle of very recent events that starts with something that hasn’t happened yet: the death of Rupert Murdoch, who as of this writing is 92 and very much alive. A prologue in the form of a deadpan mock obituary — by far the most sober and judicious stretch of pages in this cornucopia of innuendo and convoluted prose — sets up a headlong tumble through 18 months of uncertainty and upheaval at Fox News and among its custodians in the Murdoch family. A story of chaotic corporate stewardship and generational conflict unfolds in the shadow of a looming actuarial certainty.
Wolff knows what you might be thinking: “Yes, yes,” he acknowledges, “here is quite a bit of the raw inspiration for ‘Succession,’ that roman à clef soap opera about you-know-who and his family and their empire.” But despite the obvious parallels between the Roys and the Murdochs, Wolff offers “The Fall” as “a TV newsroom sitcom” rather than a family tragedy. A gritty reboot of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” you might say.
In Wolff’s view, playing the saga for laughs is a risky choice: “To treat the Fox phenomenon and the Murdoch family as a cultural confection ripe for comedy,” he writes, “may be dangerously close to liberal sacrilege.”
Maybe. You could also argue that laughing at Fox News — and at Donald J. Trump, the subject of Wolff’s recent best-selling trilogy and a major offstage character in “The Fall” — has been a cherished liberal pastime for years. Not that Wolff, who likes to play peekaboo with his own ideological leanings, has anything but contempt for a media mainstream (The Times very much included) that he sees as imprisoned by soggy left-leaning sentiments.
In any case, it’s not that he thinks Fox (or Trump) is a joke, but rather that his professed ability to suspend political judgment allows him to be amused by the inner workings of power rather than appalled by its outer manifestations.
He is less interested in the “public position” of Fox News than in its “private life”; or, as he puts it elsewhere, “what is in its heart, or churning in its stomach.” This psychoanatomical method — picking brains and poking at entrails — is more or less how he approached the Trump administration in “Fire and Fury” (2018), “Siege” (2019) and “Landslide” (2021). Like Trumpland, Murdoch World presents him with a sprawling, raucous spectacle, equal parts farce, melodrama and gangland potboiler.
“The Fall” updates “The Man Who Owns the News,” Wolff’s 2008 portrait of Murdoch, and refracts the public record through a lens of gossip, backbiting and trash talk. He rarely quotes a named source (Roger Ailes, who died in 2017 and whom Wolff recalls fondly in a prologue, is a notable exception) — a defensible practice, perhaps, when dealing with so many backstabbers and underminers.
But he doesn’t rely on clearly individuated anonymous sources either. Instead, assertions of fact and judgments of character emerge through a hazy collective consciousness. Lachlan Murdoch is a “chucklehead”; his brother James is a “hothead”; Laura Ingraham is a “drunk”; Sean Hannity is “a moron.” Who says so? In the last case, it’s Ailes, but otherwise it’s impossible to tell. “Family and friends.” “Close Murdoch retainers.” When Kimberly Guilfoyle settles into a private plane on the way to Ailes’s funeral, Wolff writes: “What was also clear, if you wanted it to be, was that she was wearing no underwear.” In this case the source seems to be the reader’s own dirty mind.
If you’ve been following the news, you know the story told in “The Fall,” and you know how it ends. What suspense there is arises from questions that start out trivial and end up moot. How much will Fox pay to settle a lawsuit brought by Dominion, one of the voting-machine companies at the center of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election? What Fox star will be fired? In case you’ve already forgotten, the answers are $787.5 million and Tucker Carlson.
As we wait for those shoes to drop, Murdoch’s fourth marriage, to the former model Jerry Hall, is coming to an end, and his relationships with the children from his second marriage — James, Lachlan and Elisabeth — are in a state of perpetual churn. There isn’t quite enough drama to be wrung out of the month-by-month narrative of a year and a half, so Wolff rehashes earlier episodes of palace intrigue and family dysfunction and offers a pocket history of Fox in the Trump era.
Apart from the ascendance of Trump himself, those years saw the ouster of Roger Ailes and the sale of Murdoch’s movie and non-news television holdings to Disney. In Wolff’s telling, Ailes, who had run Fox as a toxic, highly profitable personal fief within Murdoch’s empire, was brought down not by the women he had harassed and demeaned, but by Rupert’s sons, who, along with their other siblings, each pocketed $2 billion in the Disney deal.
The source of their vendetta was the dissonance between their genteel liberal values and Fox’s bellicose conservatism. James, portrayed here as a blustering idealist, is quoted as wanting to make the channel “a force for good.” Wolff treats this sentiment almost like a punchline, as evidence that the Murdoch children are “comically at odds with the Fox brand.”
That’s true of Rupert, too, whose politics Wolff characterizes as Reagan-Thatcherite boilerplate: “generally anti-left, pro-business, suit-and-tie stuff.” Under Ailes, Fox News turned into something else, a volcano of cultural paranoia and racial resentment often euphemized as populist. Wolff’s pages on Carlson, while often insightful, tend to skate over how heavily Carlson’s appeal leans on overt white supremacist language. But he isn’t wrong in noting that, by firing Carlson in the wake of the Dominion settlement, Fox “effectively accepted the liberal case against itself.”
Throughout these pages, Murdoch is quoted heaping scorn on Trump (“an idiot,” a “fool,” “plainly nuts”); the real subject of “The Fall” is the schism between the former president and the network that had served as his de facto propaganda arm. “Who was bigger? The Fox monopoly backed by the will (and money) of the most powerful man in the history of media, or the former president and television personality who had become the most famous man on the planet?”
This isn’t just a two-man contest. One of Wolff’s motifs is the mutual contempt between Ailes and the Murdochs. He regarded them as “snobs” and not “real Americans.” They — including Rupert — increasingly regarded the network as an embarrassment, albeit a profitable one. “The money continued to roll in — and Fox continued to poison every aspect of the Murdoch family’s presence in the world.”
In turning against Trump, Murdoch was also pushing back against Fox itself. “With Murdoch committed to the no-more-Trump cause,” Wolff writes, “it seemed here was a real test about who was stronger: owner or newsroom.”
“Or, really, owner or audience.”
Like Rupert Murdoch’s death, the 2024 presidential election hasn’t happened yet. Neither have any of the Trump trials that may precede it. Without predicting how all that will go — why scoop himself? — Wolff bets against Fox, and backs up the wager with some convincing media analysis. Cable news is a shrinking platform with an aging audience, and Murdoch, the last of the old-school press barons, isn’t known for his mastery of digital media. As Wolff observes, “the Fox world, the Fox power, the Fox effect, the Fox heavy foot on 21st-century America had come because of its conservative mind-share monopoly” — a dominance challenged by “a younger, techy right-wing world.”
The fall of Fox News — or at least the end of its hegemony — may thus be inevitable, even without the Murdoch drama. The dirt-dishing and tea-spilling makes for queasy fun, and the clash of big personalities is diverting, but compared to the gaudy circus of Trumpworld, this show feels a little tame. It’s not Shakespeare, or “Succession,” or even a sitcom. It’s just business.
THE FALL: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty | By Michael Wolff | 298 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $29.99