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Fox founder Rupert Murdoch steps down from his media empire, handing it to his son

Rupert Murdoch, 92, is stepping down as chair of his global media empire, which includes Fox News and <em>The Wall Street Journal</em>.
Dia Dipasupil
/
Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch, 92, is stepping down as chair of his global media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

Updated September 21, 2023 at 1:11 PM ET

Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate who built an unmatched global media empire over seven decades from a single newspaper he inherited in his native Australia, announced on Thursday that he would step down.

"I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change," Murdoch wrote in a memo to employees at Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the many other properties that make up his two corporations, Fox Corp. and News Corp. "The time is right for me to take on different roles."

Murdoch's career has been marked by a singular drive for business success, an eagerness to have sway over elections and policies, and the repeated eruption of scandals. Fox News, which he founded in 1996, has played an increasingly prominent role in his profits, his influence, and his crises.

In his note to staff, Murdoch, 92, took a shot at unnamed elites, saying they "have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarified class" and said most of the rest of the media was in "cahoots with those elites."

His elder son Lachlan Murdoch, who has been leading the companies with him, will become the sole chairman of both Fox Corp., the broadcast arm of the family's holdings, and News Corp., which encompasses newspapers and book publishing. Rupert Murdoch will become chairman emeritus.

The changes will take effect in November, when the two companies, together worth about $26.5 billion, have their shareholder meetings. While they are publicly traded, Murdoch is considered to control more than 40% of their voting shares. Bloomberg estimates his fortune at more than $8.2 billion.

From tabloids to papers of record

Through outlets he acquired and others he founded, Rupert Murdoch ultimately dominated journalism and politics in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Outside the U.S., he leveraged his outlets to support politicians from the center-left to the far right. In this country, his sway is almost entirely limited to the Republican Party.

Though Murdoch built his fortune initially on populist tabloids, he bought prestige newspapers such as the Journal and the Times of London to reach elites who forged policy and set consensus. He also created The Australian in 1964, that country's only national daily.

That high-low approach, and his willingness to boost favored politicians, gave him entrée to top leaders in Australia and the U.K.; those seeking office would fly thousands of miles to court him. He did not have the same level of access in the U.S. except when former President Donald Trump, whom Murdoch privately disparaged, was in office.

Over the decades, Murdoch courted controversy with salacious coverage in his tabloids, appealing to readers' fears of crime and immigration and aerobic appetite for sex scandals. Yet the bare-knuckled approach often led to periodic scandals in his own properties.

Scandal after scandal

Murdoch's Sun tabloid relied on anonymous police sources to blame soccer hooligans for a deadly stampede after a stadium collapse; in fact, the police's own poor disaster response was found to be responsible. News Corp. later paid hundreds of millions of dollars after it came to light that people acting on its behalf had hacked into the mobile phones, voicemails and emails. The Murdochs closed down one of its tabloids, News of the World, and abandoned hope of taking full control of Sky, a major British satellite television outfit in which it held a significant stake.

In the U.S., Fox News paid nine figures to resolve a growing wave of sexual harassment accusations against then-Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, among others. It later paid millions of dollars to the family of a slain Democratic National Committee staffer whom it baselessly claimed had leaked thousands of party emails that had actually been hacked during the 2016 campaign by the Russian government.

Yet nothing matched the debacle after the 2020 presidential election.

Murdoch's role in allowing Fox News stars to embrace discredited claims of fraud in that race came into sharp view during a defamation suit filed against the network and Fox Corp. The company settled for $787.5 million this spring, just before opening arguments in the trial were to begin. Dominion Voting Systems, the plaintiff, planned to make Murdoch one of the first witnesses to testify before the jury.

Despite Murdoch's contempt for Trump, Fox amplified his baseless claims of having been cheated out of victory. Documents from that legal case show network leaders were desperate to win back viewers angry that Fox News journalists had projected Trump would lose Arizona on Election Night.

Stepping down but not away

Once Murdoch dies, the fate of his family's trust will be determined by Lachlan and three of his siblings. James has signaled his desire to take over the companies and chart a different course, publicly condemning the family's outlets for their coverage of 2020 elections and climate change. The intentions of their sisters Elizabeth and Prudence — whether to choose between the brothers, seek the hiring of a chief executive, or force a sale of many or all of their remaining holdings — are not clear.

But such stark choices do not appear to be immediate. Corporate officials say Murdoch remains in fine health and form. Murdoch made clear in his note to staff that he did not intend to simply fade away after he steps down.

"I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas," he wrote. "I will be watching our broadcasts with a critical eye, reading our newspapers and websites and books with much interest, and reaching out to you with thoughts, ideas, and advice."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.