As Rupert Murdoch hands over the reins of News Corp and Fox to his son Lachlan, there is an opportunity to rebuild the relationship between the family’s media empire and former US president Donald Trump. This would make business sense for Fox as Trump is a ratings winner. But it may prove to be more difficult than it first appears.
The deterioration of the relationship between the Murdochs and the former president resulted in Trump choosing not to attend the Fox’s Republican debates. But Trump’s refusal to participate in any of the three debates has not affected his chances of gaining the nomination.
After the third debate on November 8, absent Trump was judged by 30% of the viewers to be the winner, in a J.L. Partners poll. Further proof, according to one commentator, that missing the debates has illustrated that Fox is more reliant on Trump than vice versa.
Trump’s love-hate relationship with Fox has been a long one, particularly his connection with Murdoch and his family. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Trump featured regularly in the Page Six gossip column of the Murdoch-owned New York Post. His constant appearances in the paper catapulted Trump from a New York real-estate developer into a celebrity figure.
During the 2016 election cycle, Murdoch originally supported Jeb Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush and brother to president George W. Bush. Trump’s initial support within the Fox organisation in 2016 was through Roger Ailes, the chief executive, as well as leading presenter Bill O’Reilly.
When Trump became the leading candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination, the Post endorsed him for the candidacy, while Murdoch stated that the Republican Party would “be mad not to unify” behind him. Consequently, Fox and Trump’s relationship became a mutually supportive one – Fox supported his campaign, while Trump enhanced Fox’s viewing figures.
That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing. In January 2016, he demanded that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly be replaced as host of the second Fox-hosted debate after he accused her of treating her badly in the first. When Fox refused, he avoided the second debate and told reporters: “Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me.”
Fox News was committed to the Trump presidency. During the first year, Fox News acted as a crucial mouthpiece for the Trump administration. Fox and Friends, the station’s breakfast show was a conduit between Trump and Republicans, exaggerating Trump’s achievements. Trump reciprocated by parroting Fox’s talking points in his Twitter feed.
The Trump-Fox relationship started to deteriorate on 2020 election night, when the station announced that Joe Biden had won the state of Arizona. For the Trump campaign, this was a betrayal. In March, Steve Bannon, host of the War Room podcast and Trump’s former chief strategist, told the audience at CPAC, the leading conservative conference, that Fox had done so illegitimately, constantly attacking Fox during his speech.
The gulf between Trump and Fox widened in April of this year. Fox’s support of Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories surrounding vote rigging during the 2020 presidential election resulted in the organisation settling a defamation lawsuit with the owners of the voting machines, Dominion Voting Systems, for US$787.5 million (£631.8 million).
According to some reports, the settlement of the case, which involved admitting that the claims were without merit, was seen by Trump as the organisation turning its back on him. This was made worse by Murdoch’s sworn testimony that “the election was not stolen”.
Trump still has a good rapport with some Fox hosts, but his relationship with Murdoch has deteriorated to the point where Trump called Murdoch and the Fox executives a group of “MAGA Hating Globalist RINOS” (Republican in name only). And his relationship with Fox in general is not the same as it was 2016. He also recently complained about being unfairly treated by Fox and Friends.
Posting on his Truth Social website, Trump claimed his decision to not attend the debate was because he was so far in front of his rivals in recent polls. While viewing figures for the debate without Trump were higher than expected, they were half of those for the corresponding event in 2016.
Trump’s decision to release a recorded interview on X with former Fox star Tucker Carlson shortly after the debate was another slap in the face for Fox. Choosing Carlson to be the host, who has stated he hated Trump on numerous occasions and claimed he himself had been fired from Fox News as part of the agreement with Dominion, was a thinly veiled attack on the channel.
Trump’s absence from the debates is unlikely to affect his chances of getting the Republican nomination. Polling experts FiveThirtyEight give Trump 51.4% of the projected vote, with his nearest rival Floridian governor Ron DeSantis at a dwindling 14.5%.
Lachlan Murdoch enters the fray
Lachlan Murdoch thinks as much of Trump as his father does. One unnamed source is quoted as saying that Lachlan has “had trouble with Trump’s antics” in the past.
So resetting the Murdoch-Trump relationship might not be so easy. It would show immense weakness on Lachlan’s part and might jeopardise his relationship with his father, according to Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s biographer.
But regardless of who is in charge, Fox News will need to start rebuilding bridges with Trump to ensure that it maintains the attention of its Republican audience. After all, despite not being there, Trump was still the source of much debate and interaction between the candidates in the debates.
Criticism of the format of the first Fox debate suggests that Fox needs to do something if it wants to win the ratings war. And with declining viewing figures for the debates without Trump, it needs to do something quickly. Meanwhile Trump, it seems, can do without Fox.
Dafydd Townley is a Teaching Fellow in International Security, University of Portsmouth.