No one is better versed in Washington intrigue than American journalist Michael Wolff. His bestselling trilogy on the Donald Trump administration, beginning with Fire and Fury, exposed the chaos and division that stalked the White House. Now, he’s turned his eye to the final years of Rupert Murdoch in his new book, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty. He tells UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers about Murdoch’s hatred of Trump, his failed endorsement of Ron DeSantis, and the inevitable demise of Fox News. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Freddie Sayers: I was struck reading your book that the world of media politics is changing extremely quickly. In the old days you knew where the power lay — with the big networks, the party establishment, the stars, the newspaper. And now, it’s harder to tell. The characters you cover are in many ways figures from the past.
Michael Wolff: I think this has been the case for some time. Virtually everyone in this business has been challenged in some profound way — and often they’ve been disappeared. They were there, they were important, and then they were gone. One of the interesting things about Rupert Murdoch, of course, is that he has been there for so long — for 70 years. He has held more power and influence far longer than anyone else in our time. But now, the sands are not only shifting but dissolving beneath him.
FS: This week, he finally announced his retirement at the grand old age of 92.
MW: That is partly because at that age, the end comes inevitably — but there are also other factors. It’s not just that he’s aged out of the game. The game has changed, and the game is changing in so many ways against him.
FS: We tend to think of Murdoch as a sort of omnipotent puppet master. But your book presents him as a man overtaken by events. You talk about him mumbling a lot, making the wrong calls, being bullied by his children. He’s actually a rather forlorn figure. And it seems from your account that he’s been like that for some time.
MW: His sell-by date probably ran out some time ago. But he holds on because he’s Rupert Murdoch — because all of the people around him think, “well, he’s Rupert Murdoch, he must still be Rupert Murdoch”. And I think in many ways, that’s not true.
I guess you could say he is reaping what he sowed — and it’s not pleasant for him, especially when it comes to Fox News. Donald Trump won the election largely because of Fox News, and it is confounding — wounding even — to Murdoch that he might have made a man he detests the President of the United States. The ultimate reality is that Fox News and Donald Trump are his legacy.
The tragic irony is that Murdoch never had much to do with Fox News. He started it in 1996 after being rebuffed in his efforts to buy CNN. But he’s never been that interested in television: he never watches it, he certainly isn’t a television executive. He hired Roger Ailes to start Fox News and to grow it — and Roger sat at the top for more than 20 years. It was Roger’s network, not Rupert’s. Although Rupert was happy to collect the incredible amounts of money that rolled in.
FS: All this paints a very different picture from Succession, the hit TV show, in which the Rupert Murdoch character played by Brian Cox is always in the newsroom. He is obsessed with cable TV. But what you’re saying is that the real Murdoch wasn’t stoking the fires of Fox News — in fact, he was embarrassed of it. It’s in many ways a disappointing revelation.
MW: Rupert Murdoch is a newspaper man. It’s the only thing he really is passionate about — that, and the family dynasty. When you see Rupert with a newspaper, it’s like this physical love affair: the way he handles it, the way he folds it, the way he marks it. You know, it’s nearly erotic. The other parts of his empire, such as television, have made him enormous amounts of money — because he’s a very astute media guy, a business guy. He can see the audience, he can see where the money is flowing. But it’s not him. His love doesn’t flow there.
Now, the bulk of his newspaper holdings — apart from The Wall Street Journal — are no longer profitable. They are declining assets. And it would be very hard to argue that a future without Rupert Murdoch will include his family still holding on to those newspapers.
FS: Has the departure of Tucker Carlson undermined Fox News? Would you say it’s losing its grip on the Right-wing narrative?
MW: You have to see this against the wider media background: cable television, which was the great media cash cow for 25 years, is a declining business. Its decline won’t be as fast as newspapers — but it is just as inevitable. One of Murdoch’s daughters has been arguing they should sell Fox News because it is only growing less valuable.
FS: Do you think that Donald Trump will win his war against Fox News? He has already boycotted two Fox-sponsored Republican debates. Is he bigger than the network?
MW: Let’s look at what’s happened so far. Rupert Murdoch, feeling guilty or trying to burnish his legacy, decided that he would try to undermine Donald Trump by inventing the candidacy of Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is a Fox bubble — and he has failed terribly. The result has been that Donald Trump is probably a more popular primary candidate than anyone in modern history. Despite four indictments, and despite New York State having taken away his business, he is still almost inevitably headed for the Republican nomination. He may well be president again. This is all in spite of Fox News.
FS: If you were a betting man, would your money be on Biden or Trump?
MW: You can logically argue that Trump should not win. He’s always been a minority figure. His campaigns are run in the most chaotic and disorganised fashion. In 2020, weeks before the election, his campaign was $200 million in debt. This has never happened before. So he should not win, except for the fact that in very close races, exogenous factors usually determine the outcome. Will Biden fall over a couple of times? We wait and see. But the important thing to remember is that Trump certainly could become president again.
FS: Your relationship with Trump is most unusual — and it illuminates some of his strangeness and maybe some of his genius. You are not thought of as a diehard Republican, to put it mildly. And yet he invited you into his circle, he gave you exclusive interviews, and even after you had written about him in a not very flattering way, he kept getting back in touch. Do you still speak to him?
MW: He threatened to sue me and tried to stop the publication of my book. So yes, we’re still in touch. But in a somewhat peculiar way. I think that he’s come to see these books as a positive chronicle — if only because they’ve sold so many copies. Therefore, they must be good. Not too long ago, one of the Trump people said to me: “The only metric we pay attention to is how much attention he’s getting: good, bad, doesn’t make any difference.” So I guess I’m part of that attention matrix.
FS: Allow me to suggest a second theory. Maybe there is still a part of Donald Trump, just as there was a part of Rupert Murdoch, which craves the approval of the liberal establishment. He’s a New Yorker. You’re the Vanity Fair guy: the esteemed journalist of showbiz. Is that fair?
MW: To be perfectly honest, when it comes to Donald Trump, it doesn’t really matter who he’s talking to. He can talk to anyone. The important thing is that he’s talking and someone is listening.
FS: For some people, this will be almost disappointing to hear. We’ve discussed these two outsized, Right-wing characters — Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump — and what you’re saying is that at some level both of them still want to be liked by the mainstream. Does this make them phony conservatives?
MW: Well, I think that is probably true. In a way, it’s more surprising in the case of Murdoch than Trump, who grew up in the bosom of the New York establishment, even if for much of that time he played the buffoon. By contrast, for most of his career, Murdoch has insisted: “I am the outsider.” But clearly, somewhere along the way, he became the establishment — although I’m not sure Rupert himself exactly appreciates this. He became one of the most powerful forces in politics, business, and, of course, the entertainment industry.
FS: Despite having been president, Donald Trump is still mysteriously considered anti-establishment. He’s outside the Citadel. Why is this?
MW: I think part of the genius of Donald Trump — although I’m not sure he planned it out in this way — is that his stature has only increased through conflict. If you spend 14 years as a reality television star, I think you understand that you have to have conflict at every turn — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s real conflict or not, you just have to find an enemy. Challenging “the establishment” is a very convenient way for Donald Trump to keep being Donald Trump.
FS: Let’s focus now on the current president, Joe Biden, because at times your characterisation of Murdoch — slightly too old for the job, slightly overwhelmed by the complexity of the modern world — reminded me of him. Do you think that America has an old man problem?
MW: Biden looks terrible. He looks like an old man, he walks like an old man, he talks like an old man. I’ve been covering politics for a long time, and Joe Biden, even as a young man, had the air of an old man — certainly in the way he spoke. I think that, under the circumstances, he has actually done a pretty good job. And I think that’s what Joe Biden feels: “I’ve done a good job. So, screw it, I’m 80 and I might fall over at any given moment, I’m gonna do it.”
FS: Do you think liberals are to blame for the rise of Trump — and for the political mess that the US seems to find itself in?
MW: The liberal establishment has clearly not been up to competing with these rising conservative outliers. It has been unable to respond in any effective manner. I don’t think they have a clear voice. I don’t think that they have a clear mission. I think that they’re caught in their own sense of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction.