Opinion

Fox News brings Trump to his knees

What Rupert Murdoch gives, Rupert Murdoch can take away

With some exceptions, many leading lights of the Republican Party have spent the last four years cowering before President Trump, worried that getting on his bad side would put an end to their political careers. It turns out there is one man impervious to Trump's bullying and bluster, however — Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News.

The New York Times on Wednesday reported that Fox's Tuesday night decision to call the Arizona race for Joe Biden sent Trump into a rage. Jason Miller called Fox executives and asked them to retract the call, then went on Twitter to accuse the network of something akin to Electoral Fraud.

He wrote: "There are still 1M+ Election Day votes out there waiting to be counted - we pushed our people to vote on Election Day, but now Fox News is trying to invalidate their votes!"

The efforts to change Fox's call didn't end there. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, called network owner Rupert Murdoch to ask for a retraction. No dice. Trump himself also tried to intervene with Murdoch.

"According to a source, Trump phoned Fox owner Rupert Murdoch to scream about the call and demand a retraction," Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman reported. "Murdoch refused, and the call stood."

The president's obsession with Fox's call of Arizona — which was still ongoing as of Thursday morning — was a bit odd. Whether or not the network's call was correct, it also makes zero difference as to how actual votes will be counted, and who will really win the election. The argument is entirely about appearances.

But the incident is interesting for what it reveals about the nature of power in today's GOP. It may not be quite as Trump-centric as we thought.

The president's sway over the party has been considerable. Once-fierce critics of Trump — Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — turned supine once he won the presidency. Those who didn't, like former Sens. Bob Corker (R-Ten.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), soon found themselves on the outs with the party. Even die-hard loyalists who showed a little bit of independence, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, found their careers wrecked.

Trump's power over the Republican Party appeared nearly complete.

But he has never quite subdued Fox News. The network has mostly acted as an appendage to the GOP in general and the Trump campaign specifically. But Fox's journalists — as opposed to the opinion-show hosts — have also occasionally frustrated Trump with their independence. The president has regularly complained about stories he didn't like and network polls that showed him with less-than-stellar support. Trump has regularly lamented the absence of Roger Ailes, the late and disgraced former network chairman — and onetime political operative — who oversaw Fox for most of its history.

That independence makes sense, though, if you understand that Murdoch — through Fox News — makes and breaks Republican politicians. They serve his interests, not the other way around.

Murdoch, through his media properties, has pushed the political culture rightward on three continents. In the United States, Fox News hasn't just amplified the Republican Party's viewpoint, it has also cultivated GOP politicians. Up-and-coming candidates — the ones not currently serving in office — often end up on the network's payroll as "analysts," getting coveted airtime before a right-leaning audience. Some even use the network to raise money. There are few conservative politicos who end up in high office without owing their success, in part, to Rupert Murdoch.

Trump is no exception. Even before he launched his candidacy, Trump was a regular on Fox News, holding forth about the issues of the day and using his time to tout his discredited "birther" allegations. The Apprentice helped Trump command the attention of the public and made him into a bigger celebrity, but it was largely Fox that transformed him into a plausible political figure.

What Murdoch gives, though, he can take away. And there have been signs that he is ready to be done with Trump, reportedly telling friends over the last few weeks the president would lose the election in a landslide. That hasn't turned out to be true, of course, but it probably hints at why Fox has been a less-than-stalwart ally to the president in recent days. Trump needs Fox News more than Fox News needs Trump.

This dynamic could be upended quickly, of course. Murdoch is 89, and can't rule over his empire forever. And Fox News is increasingly crowded by rivals like the One America News Network for audience attention. In the meantime, though, politicians come and politicians go — even Donald Trump. But Rupert Murdoch abides.

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