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In the Murdoch family succession battle, Fox News and democracy hang in the balance

A 91-year-old billionaire sits atop a global media empire, while his adult children vie to control the family company in the next generation.

It sounds like the plot of the HBO series Succession, but New York Times journalist Jim Rutenberg says the real-life drama involving Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and his children, Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence, rivals anything a screenwriter could dream up.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Murdoch family and the global media giant they created are the subjects of the new documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence." It's streaming on CNN's new streaming service, CNN+, and will later be shown on CNN. It's a collaboration between CNN and The New York Times and is based on a lengthy investigative article from 2019 by Times reporters Jonathan Mahler and my guest, Jim Rutenberg, who are consulting producers for the documentary series. They write, few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than Rupert Murdoch. As the head of a sprawling global media empire, he commanded multiple TV networks, a global news service, a major publishing house and a Hollywood movie studio. More than any single media company, Murdoch's company enabled, promoted and profited from the right-wing populist wave - not just in the U.S., but in countries around the world.

Rutenberg and Mahler's reporting is also about the infighting between Murdoch's children over who would succeed the patriarch. That part of the story is a lot like the story in HBO's fictional series "Succession" but without the comedy. Jim Rutenberg is now a writer at large for The New York Times and The Sunday Magazine. He was previously the media columnist, a White House reporter and a national political correspondent. Jim Rutenberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

So the story that you wrote in The New York Times and the CNN documentary series begin with Murdoch at the age of 86. He's on his son, Lachlan's, luxurious sailboat when, on the way to the bathroom, he trips, falls, seriously injures his spine, and his life is in jeopardy. Meanwhile, he hadn't yet decided on which child should succeed him as the head of this global empire. So set the scene for us. What was it like in the family then?

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, it really is out of a movie or out of the show "Succession," though "Succession" - clearly those writers know some things (laughter) obviously. But the whole Western world politics could hinge on this moment in a way that sounds hyperbolic, but there's really something to that. He hasn't named a successor. The kids are called - now adults, really - and told, come to LA - because he's airlifted to a hospital in LA - come to LA. His new wife, Jerry Hall - former model, former wife of Mick Jagger - come see your father. You may have to make your peace with him. They come. But what's going on behind the scenes here is that not only has Rupert not named a successor, but his two leading candidates at this moment - his son, Lachlan, his eldest, and his son, James - are in a really pitched battle to lead the company, and they will lead it in two very different directions. James - by this point, this is into the Trump era - is horrified by what he sees as a turn toward Trumpism by Fox News. Not - I mean, it's happened, so it's an accurate insight by him. And Lachlan would very much want to stay the course. And there's also this long history of fighting for this job.

So this is - this moment, everything is just in sort of suspended animation while the family sort of sees how they're going to game this out. The fear from Murdoch's second wife, Anna, was always that this moment would happen, where the kids would have to duke it out among themselves. And Rupert, in a way, sort of reveled in this fight. But again, it's - we're all going to live with the consequences of this because James would have wanted to change Fox News some.

Now, this being Rupert Murdoch, he is a survivor - his own mother lived till over a hundred with all of her faculties intact - ultimately comes through this with aplomb. You know, as we heard, he had said he felt stronger than ever. But there really was this moment where it all could have - he could have died, and there would have been this fight and we would have, again, lived with the consequences.

GROSS: So when Rupert Murdoch recovered, did he take his own mortality more seriously and decide on a successor?

RUTENBERG: I wouldn't say he took his mortality more seriously because, like, I would assume he believes he will live forever.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTENBERG: But he did - he had this Disney deal coming down the pike, and he was going to have to - his hand - he kind of forced his own hand. And he chose his son, Lachlan. But it could have only been thus if you look through the history because Lachlan is a conservative like his father. He's actually more conservative than his father. Lachlan will keep Fox News in the direction in which it is going. James would change it. What Murdoch has stripped the company down to with this Disney deal leaves Fox News as its most important driver. And James, who is sort of the jilted heir - and we're not even talking about Elisabeth, who's an incredibly capable executive, who's the daughter of this - kind of the key children who could run the company. But James is at once jilted, but we learn that he dismissively refers to this company now as a political project. He doesn't really want to have anything to do with it, or so he lets it be known.

GROSS: So James has his political differences with Fox News. How serious are those differences? What are James' politics?

RUTENBERG: Well, James is an environmentalist himself. He's married to a very active environmentalist - his wife, Kathryn. He has kind of - from what I can tell over the years, since I first started following him, he's pivoted from sort of very centrist-right - because like the rest of the family, he was very anti-regulation. He was very anti-public media, by the way (laughter). He becomes a little more center-left through the Trump years because he's so offended by Trump's style of governance. And that's where Fox really starts to become a problem for him.

When Charlottesville happens and Fox News sort of both-sides it for Trump, who both-sides it, famously, James was very - he was horrified. And so he became much more anti-Fox, though he always had his qualms. His wife always had her qualms. And for the first time that we can tell, politics becomes a dividing issue in the family. And interestingly, it really didn't seem to have been - it was sort of in the ether. But James, to get the golden ring, seemed to be willing to accept the politics of the company, but it just went too far. And maybe, most importantly, what we understand he would say is, as a business executive wanting to grow the company, he starts seeing Fox as a problem. He is - wants - he views himself as a modern media executive - someone comfortable at Davos, someone who isn't anti-elitist. And so Fox becomes this business liability in his view. How can they grow as a modern company with a network that, at least very much so in its opinion programming, is very much - it's a reactionary force?

GROSS: The personalities of Lachlan and James are pretty different, too. You describe Lachlan as, like, hypermasculine in his public image. And James is, like, the rebel of the family. So can you describe them both, their personalities?

RUTENBERG: Yeah. It's funny because James is the rebel of the family in that he had an earring. He was a Deadhead. He didn't really even want to go into the family business. Lachlan looks more like the rebel because Lachlan is - has tattoos. He's kind of hipper looking guy. He's more outgoing. Because, by the way, James is kind of soft-spoken, very polite. Lachlan's - they're all exceedingly polite. But Lachlan is a hail-fellow-well-met, you know, a guy you could see sitting at the bar with - drinking some pints. Those pints will be downed in Australia, where James is. Perhaps he's a beer drinker too, but would be in London or New York. Lachlan identifies with Australia, as does Rupert, and that's a very important thing, I think a very important thing to understand because Lachlan has lived more in Australia, and that's where his conservatism really blooms, in Australia, where he kind of - he grows up as an - into the adult he is now when Australia is undergoing its own populist conservative revival under the former leader Tony Abbott, with whom Lachlan will become close. So James is the rebel by not being the conservative.

GROSS: And James, like, founded a hip-hop record label, Raucous Records.

RUTENBERG: Yes, Raucous Records, right out of - he, you know, in the middle of college, ups and starts this rap label. Rupert is upset about this, not having to do with the content of the music, but it's his son perhaps going out on his own to start a record label that isn't part of Fox - at the Fox empire. So Rupert will eventually buy him, buy the company and bring him back in because - as one does.

GROSS: So once James realizes he's not going to be the heir apparent, he wanted to sell his shares and also to get his sisters to agree to sell theirs. But James couldn't get out. He couldn't sell his shares. Why not?

RUTENBERG: Well, this is another one of those fascinating twists in the story, again, right out of "Succession" or vice versa.

GROSS: Yes, right.

RUTENBERG: But James, again, sees this as a political project. As from our reporting, what we could tell is that his sister, Elisabeth - and he has another sister by Rupert's first wife. Her name is Prudence. They all felt, as James did, like, we don't know - OK, if Lachlan is the one and he's taking it in this direction, which is, you know, this, as James called it, a right-wing political project, then why doesn't Lachlan just buy us out? We're out of this. And, in fact, as our reporting found, Lachlan initially is all for this and so is Rupert. And sort of documents are drawn up, bankers are brought in. It's going to happen. And at the last minute, Lachlan pulls back and decides he can't do it. The reasons we've heard vary, like everything in this family when you report about them. Different camps say different things. From Lachlan's world, the answer is, you know, this is a lot of money. I mean, this is like, you know, billions of dollars.

GROSS: To buy them out.

RUTENBERG: To buy them out. The view among people who are close to James would be Lachlan doesn't really want to - maybe he doesn't really want to have all this. Maybe eventually he wants out. So whatever the answer, this is very important for us in the here and now because there's an interesting thing about the way Rupert set up the company. He can't be outvoted, but it's a family board with these children. But Rupert cannot be outvoted. Once Rupert dies, each child has an equal say in the future of the company. So that means when Rupert passes, you could have this fight all over again, and the company could conceivably be taken in a different direction.

RUTENBERG: OK. Well, if nothing else, that should give "Succession" more seasons.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTENBERG: I know. They're going to run out of material because we've always been - Jonathan Mahler, my co-writer and I on this piece, have always suspected that the "Succession" writers have some mole in the family because it's just too many things they seem to know, though the way this family plays out is the way a screenwriter would imagine it, because it has that much drama. It has that much glamour. You know, we talked about the boat, you know, where Rupert falls down. It's like, of course, it's like this incredible sailing vessel with, you know, a climbing wall and custom cabin and, of course, and even a swimming pool. And, you know, Rupert falls in the middle of the Caribbean. It's not rough seas, shall we say. So it's just got - it's got all the, like, drama you want in television, but democracy hinges on its future.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times writer at large Jim Rutenberg. We'll talk more about his reporting on the Murdochs and their global empire after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article that Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler in 2019.

So who is controlling the company now? Is it Rupert Murdoch? Is it Lachlan Murdoch, who is kind of the heir apparent now and has more power in the company?

RUTENBERG: Increasingly, it's Lachlan, but Rupert is ever present. Currently, the word in media land is that Rupert's stepping back some. I would caveat that by saying we've heard that over the years and, you know, in his mid-80s, for instance. And he would time and time again come roaring back in when he saw that he needed to be there. He didn't like the way things were going. But increasingly, this is becoming Lachlan Murdoch's company.

GROSS: Do you think that Lachlan Murdoch has changed Fox News?

RUTENBERG: I think in a way, yes, and in a way no. And what I mean by that is the former leader of Fox - I'm sure all your listeners remember him, Roger Ailes, the famous sort of founding chairman of Fox, directed Fox in a very specific way. The network started out with the tag fair and balanced. It was very important to Roger Ailes that it established itself as a credible news voice, at least for the part of the country that he believed felt alienated by the rest of the press, but had strong, especially conservative opinion at night. But they threw in the occasional liberal. Alan Colmes was formerly the liberal co-host with Sean Hannity at the start of the network. Ailes, toward the end of his reign - which, people may remember, ended in a sexual harassment scandal, and then he died a bit later - when Ailes left, there wasn't a hard sort of tiller at play. There wasn't - the command and control went away. And Lachlan Murdoch is not a command and control kind of guy.

So what's happened since is that the network is on its own under the leadership of Suzanne Scott. And so far, her leadership seems to be that she'll allow strong personalities to move as they see fit within, you know, her own boundaries. And right now, those boundaries in prime time have been quite far. The prime time has really lost any semblance of fair and balanced. And it's - I don't think they would argue with that. It's a much more sort of during - especially during the Trump years, it was a one-way, pro-Trump kind of direction. I mean, the hosts would occasionally argue with Trump, but he had a level of support in prime time that no Republican before him had, and that's saying a lot 'cause they had - all had plenty. So that's been the Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch era, 'cause Rupert was very involved in the network after Ailes left - has been a looser, even freer hand for its more strident voices.

GROSS: Well, you know, Fox News really amplified the idea that Trump actually won the election. Fox News amplified the idea that COVID wasn't really a thing early on during the pandemic, then was pretty anti-vax. And then it did not exactly condemn January 6. And now, like, in addition to all the political stuff, now you have Tucker Carlson saying things that are so kind of pro-Putin that Russia replays excerpts of Tucker Carlson's show. And adding on to that, Tucker Carlson now has a documentary that includes reasons why men should boost their testosterone levels by shining a laser, red laser light, on their testicles. And I mean, that's just bizarre. But, you know, like, where is any editorial control now?

RUTENBERG: Well (laughter), that - I will leave the tanning bed to everyone else's imaginations. I will say that this is an important - I guess you could say test for Fox. But it's been - look, I've watched that network carefully since at least 1999, my years at The Observer when I really started covering them. And so I know how it's shifted. And you - this is really far from what the network used to look like. And again, the network was always - it was built to shake up the media establishment, to offer this - as Ailes and Murdoch correctly saw it, a part of the country, that, since at least the Nixon years, felt very left out of the media discussion. They didn't have a network that addressed their worldview at all. And I would submit that there was a - there's always been a place for that, especially when it started.

But this - let's take the voting. The coverage was really of the alleged fraud, which didn't exist in a substantial way. The coverage was not quite always Biden didn't win, but these are some real questions and how can we trust them? And if one were to watch Tucker's show every night in November, as I did and then did again, he alone, you could see that - you know, he's got millions of viewers, and he went - many nights, he would go into these tangents about how you can't trust the voting. I don't know if it was rigged, but, you know, that's a legitimate question. It really feeds this anxiety in the sort of Trump world, the - Trump's voters, that this election's been stolen. He doesn't have to say Biden didn't win, though, you know, he wasn't fast to call Biden president-elect, along with many others at the network and in the Republican Party. But - so that is - I don't know that we would have - if Ailes would have allowed that to go as far. And Ailes was nothing if not a seriously hard-knuckled partisan player. But this is - this was, in my view, a new development at Fox.

GROSS: Well, we have to take a short break here, but there's a lot more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times writer-at-large Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article that Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler back in 2019. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with the New York Times reporter at large, Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article that Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler back in 2019. The documentary series is streaming now on CNN+ and will later be shown on CNN.

So, you know, we've talked about Rupert Murdoch and his children. Let's talk a little about Rupert Murdoch as the son of his father, Keith. Keith owned a couple of newspapers in Australia. And Rupert learned from his father, who was right wing, how to use his paper for political gain and monetary profit. Talk about his father's politics. He was a member of the Eugenics Society of Victoria and once wrote that the great question facing Britain was, will she, if needs be, fight for a white Australia?

RUTENBERG: Yeah. That is - that's a fascinating history about his father. He was part of that eugenics society. The white Australia idea was, again, a big thing in the popular press at the time. The U.K. press barons were interested in that as well. And Rupert did not submit to an interview, so I wonder what he would say about that. I think - I gather he would say that his father was from a different era. Rupert Murdoch had proudly championed certain Aboriginal causes in Australia early in his career, but that is part of the family history. But what Rupert certainly took from the family history was how to use media power to gain corporate power and vice versa. His father helped create the first national news chain in Australia. And at the time, newspapers were local. And his father, working for corporate overlords, but he was their kind of chief guy. So he didn't own this, but he was corporate - a very important part of this corporation. And he built the first national chain.

And this was at the time shocking to some people that some national voice is going to speak in our local community. Very interesting, because we had the same issue now with Fox News being so important nationally as local newspapers die. But there's also - there are so many echoes between his father's time and Rupert's time. But his father also, for instance, decides he's going to get behind a prime minister candidate and puts the kind of company papers behind this candidate, but then expects certain things in return. He expects radio regulations to be loosened, which, you know, the tight regulations on how many radio stations the company can or can't own in many Western democracies, including Australia, and gets these regulations loosened by putting in his preferred candidate. And when his preferred candidate displeases him, he famously says, I got him in, I'll turn him out.

So this is what Rupert sort of learns is what the media business is about. Very fascinating. And he very much wanted to please his father. And his father, as you see in the documentary - which I think this stuff is fascinating - his father was a really hard guy to get close to and had very high standards that Rupert wanted to live up to. Rupert, interestingly, has his own little rebellion. He goes off to Oxford, and he sort of falls in with the Leninist crowd briefly. But he does some news paperwork. His father sees that work before he dies, and says to his wife, according to the family lore, by God, the boy has got it. The father dies and Rupert comes to inherit this small newspaper company the father had on the side. And from that, Rupert built his empire.

GROSS: His father died in 1952. How old was Keith Murdoch? How old was his son, Rupert?

RUTENBERG: His father is in his late 60s, and Rupert is in his early 20s.

GROSS: So Rupert Murdoch takes over his father's papers in Australia, expands into England, takes over tabloids there, including The Sun, and uses them in a political way to endorse candidates whose views he agrees with or he thinks will be helpful to Murdoch's goals in expanding his - the reach of his media companies. So a journalist had quoted Murdoch as having said, "I've never asked a prime minister for anything." I think Murdoch denied saying that, but the journalist sticks by the quote. You say, Murdoch didn't need to ask his prime ministers, who Murdoch helped elect, knew what he wanted. What's an example of that?

RUTENBERG: Well, in fact, Rupert wastes no time in providing an example when he comes in to the U.K. takes over The Sun, gets behind a rising star of the conservative movement, Margaret Thatcher, advocates for her election. And when she's in office, lo and behold, various media regulations are lifted so that he can buy into the Times of London and so he can launch his own satellite provider outside of the regulatory scheme in the U.K., and even gets help from Thatcher when he cracks down on unions, his own unions that are striking. And he breaks them, and Thatcher is very much with him in that. So he gets everything he could have ever wanted from Thatcher, and in return, she gets this great support from the voice of the working people of the U.K., The Sun.

GROSS: So let's talk about how Rupert Murdoch got his foothold in the U.S. He bought the the New York Post, which is a New York tabloid. How did he change the post after he took it over?

RUTENBERG: Well, the Post at this time is a sort of fading liberal newspaper, but a liberal newspaper and a fairly serious newspaper under its former owner, Dorothy Schiff, like, an incredible character, Schiff. And he - Schiff will say until her end of days that Murdoch promised he wasn't going to change the tenor or the style, political style of the newspaper, but he immediately does so.

The first thing he does is he gets behind Ed Koch, a Democrat, but a very sort of conservative Democrat. And the paper suddenly is doing all sorts of pro-Koch stories, and it's just killing Koch's opponents, most importantly, Mario Cuomo, because Democratic primaries are where it's going to be decided. And the staff rebels right away. There's a huge letter written signed by scores of reporters that this is unacceptable. And Murdoch is so resentful of that plan. But they learn that it's going to be his way or the highway. Some leave. Then very quickly, he pivots. And he gets in through Roy Cohn with the Reagan people. And Roy Cohn's sort of lieutenant and - or close sort of mentee is Roger Stone. Roger Stone is the Northeast director for the Reagan campaign. And Roger Stone starts working, you know, with Murdoch and feeding him gossip and information all the time. The Post really gets behind Reagan. And people might not know this today, but at the time, New York was a potential swing state. The New York Post was one of the largest newspapers in the country. And though Reagan wins handily, he does owe Murdoch for helping him in New York. And Murdoch quickly expects payback.

And there's this great moment we talk about in the documentary where - the first thing Murdoch always wants is just a little love. He's like any of us. He just wants a little love from the president he helped. And he invites Reagan to come visit him - his newsroom at a new paper he's just bought, The Boston Herald. And he gets snubbed. And Roy Cohn writes this series of furious letters saying, we gave you everything. He was the - Rupert Murdoch was one of the only newspaper publishers in the country to back you. How dare you? The administration was very apologetic, and they moved on.

GROSS: What do you mean, they moved on?

RUTENBERG: Well, Murdoch was allayed (ph). And there were - he went on to maintain a very good relationship with Reagan. And he gets a lot of things out of the Reagan FCC that he wants in terms of regulation. That - some of that carries into the Bush years in terms of how many stations someone can own, in terms of waivers because he wants to start the Fox network. And that means he's going to violate certain regulations against owning a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. The Reagan FCC lifts those for him.

He needs help buying the stations. You can't buy as a foreign citizen. He becomes an American citizen very quickly, notably quickly. That was viewed by Democrats for sure as Reagan giving him some favoritism. So he's able to build the Fox broadcast network with help from the Reagan administration. Of course, they will just say, we wanted to bring a new network online. It's good for competition. But the appearances are clear.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter-at-large Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series "The Murdochs," which is adapted from a very lengthy investigative article he co-wrote with the Times' Jonathan Mahler. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "ONE MAN'S CEILING IS ANOTHER MAN'S FLOOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series, "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article that Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler in 2019. The documentary series will later stream on CNN.

You write that Murdoch always wanted to become, like, close to an American president. And he got that chance with Donald Trump, even though in private he would, according to your sources, admit that Trump was an idiot. And Murdoch didn't initially support Trump. He donated money initially to a PAC for John Kasich. So how did they get close?

RUTENBERG: Well, you really hit the nail on the head in terms of his need or want of proximity to a White House. And, no, Murdoch did not support Trump, was very almost distraught about Trump's rise. And we talk about this in the documentary, and I wrote about this in our piece - when Trump visits him at his headquarters before he announces to say he's thinking of running and Rupert is, like, really dismissive. And actually, basically, he says - it's one of my favorite things in the piece and in the documentary. Mahler has a better Aussie accent than I do. But he says something like, prepare to be wrapped up, which I guess is Aussie for beaten up or knocked around. So he's warning him it's not going to be an easy ride, including from Fox.

But, you know, it's one of these, again, where Rupert Murdoch is so enigmatic that - but maybe it's not that enigmatic because when he gets - he finally has to get behind Trump because he's always going to get behind the Republican nominee. And Trump really brings him in, and they're talking all the time and gossiping. And Rupert loves it because, as close as he's been with previous Republican administrations, he's never had this kind of access. And so Trump really does win him over to his side. And then I think another factor is the reaction. The hard coverage that Trump drew from the rest of the press, I believe, sent Murdoch more so into the Trump fold because he saw some of that as overblown. The press is acting like the resistance, and this is inappropriate.

GROSS: Fox actually does help Trump get elected.

RUTENBERG: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: So...

RUTENBERG: No question.

GROSS: ...How does that change the relationship between Trump and Murdoch...

RUTENBERG: Well...

GROSS: ...Once Trump is in the White House?

RUTENBERG: They do really become pretty close. No one is going to control Trump or dictate what Trump does. Vice versa - Trump is not going to fully be able to tell Fox what to do. But there is this fascinating feedback loop that is allowed to happen. Everyone watched this happen in real time. But Fox News would sort of go in a certain tangent, and if that tangent was really striking a chord with the base, then Trump would repeat it. Sometimes Trump kind of knows in his gut what's going to work, so sometimes he'd jump right on it and could see the words go from Fox News through to his Twitter feed. And sometimes Fox would find itself on the wrong side of Trump. So it would have to scramble to stay good with Trump's base. I mean, voting's one example, right? Murdoch would not listen to Trump. And Trump asked him to rescind some calls on election night showing Joe Biden was going to win. But then Fox really scrambled back to Trump's camp because its audience is where Trump is, so it becomes this fascinating dance.

GROSS: Are there favors that you think the Trump administration did for Murdoch because Murdoch's Fox News had been so pro-Trump after not being...

RUTENBERG: Well...

GROSS: ...After not being pro-Trump?

RUTENBERG: Yeah. I - well, there are a couple things that people point to. I would say they're not the clearest cases, but there are things people point to. For instance, the Disney-Fox deal was a pretty big deal. It needed some regulatory approvals. And Fox's competitors felt like that approval went through super fast - super fast. Everyone disputes that. Fox's corporate suite will say that, you know, people don't realize that there was a lot of work going on behind the scenes they weren't seeing. But competitors certainly thought that was very swift, and they attributed it to his relationship with Trump.

There was - one of his rivals, Sinclair Broadcasting, was trying to build out and buy a bunch of stations. We still have some regulations on how many stations people can own. They wanted to make a big merger with another television company. That was blocked. Some people thought Rupert had a hand in that. There was never really a smoking gun there. But if Trump gave Rupert anything, it was the life's blood of his business, which was ratings, which equaled revenue. And one thing we haven't mentioned is Fox News is hands down the No. 1 news network in this country, and it got even bigger under Trump.

GROSS: Let's take another short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Rutenberg, a contributing writer at The New York Times and New York Times Magazine. His reporting, along with Jonathan Mahler, is the basis of a new CNN+ streaming series about the Murdochs. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SAMBA DE PARIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. He's a consulting producer for the new CNN+ documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article that Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler in 2019.

Trump and Murdoch had a relationship that preexisted Fox News through the New York Post, which Murdoch bought. And, as you say, Roger Stone, who had worked with the Reagan campaign, became a great source of political inside information for the New York Post. And then Trump became this really important figure in the New York Post during the period when he was presenting himself as a real estate mogul and, like, a wealthy playboy. So can you talk about the relationship in the New York Post Trump era between Trump and Murdoch?

RUTENBERG: Yeah, and I would say at that point - and I was there working for the paper briefly and was on Page Six in part of the Murdoch era. And, you know, we - there's these great stories where Trump would call reporters and pretend to be someone else, right? - his publicist. He didn't have to do that with us. You know, it was like the bat phone. You know, Trump would just call, and he was constantly feeding out items. And for Murdoch, Trump was content. I don't think he respected him, or didn't show much respect for him as a businessman, but Trump was content.

And I would submit that Trump would not have become the figure he became without the New York Post because before Twitter, there was the Post. And the Post was about grabbing attention in the information economy. And it was sensational claims that were going to create big headlines and take over the front page. It had a rat-a-tat-tat flow that obviously Twitter's, like, way beyond. But it was an early version of that. And so Trump learns, through Rupert's tabloid and the Daily News, to a point - but really, the Post invented it. Rupert imports this to America - this style. He learns how to be a modern media figure. And he - I'd say he really owes that to Rupert Murdoch.

GROSS: Jared Kushner had a preexisting relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Jared Kushner briefly owned the paper The New York Observer. And during that time, you write that Jared consulted a lot with Murdoch to get advice about how to run a paper. So I know you worked at The Observer. Did you work there during that period when Jared owned it?

RUTENBERG: Sadly, no. I was there in the Peter Kaplan era - the glorious Peter Kaplan era. It's a famous era at that paper. No, I was not there. But, yes, Jared Kushner sets out to really make Rupert his mentor. And Jared and Ivanka become close with Rupert and his wife at the time, Wendi Deng. So close - and this becomes an issue when Trump gets into office - that Ivanka is on the trust for the children that Rupert had with Wendi Deng, Grace and Chloe. She's literally one of the members of their trust. So that...

GROSS: As if she were a daughter.

RUTENBERG: As if she were a - that's how close they were, you know? And just think about that. And he's controlling so much media that can be so helpful to the family. So that's how close it gets.

GROSS: You know, you write about the ambiguity about whether Fox needed Trump more than Trump needed Fox. You know, Fox needed Trump to build its ratings because Trump had such a big following and was so controversial and extreme that, you know, talking about Trump all the time and supporting Trump really got people going. It got them emotional. It got more people watching. And Trump needed Fox to amplify and support Trump's point of view. But Trump's point of view was often the point of view he heard on Fox, and then he would adopt it. And Hannity would have regular phone calls with Trump to advise Trump on what to do. So it's this really confusing cycle of who needed whom more, who used who more. What do you make of that?

RUTENBERG: You know, it's - the answer to that question is an answer to how it could be that Rupert Murdoch both opposed Trump's candidacy, but gets credit for creating it. And what I mean by that is that as people might remember, Donald Trump, already plenty famous from "The Apprentice," so let's not take any credit away from NBC. But Ailes puts - starts putting Trump on its morning show, "Fox & Friends," on Monday mornings. Trump partly wages his sort of birther campaign, this idea that Barack Obama's birth certificate was a lie and he wasn't born here. He forwards that partly on Fox. Again, caveat, he was doing it elsewhere. But Trump sort of becomes a news personality through Fox and through the sensibility of Fox. And so therefore Trump, who already has a natural ability to kind of hit certain Americans in the gut and really speak to their wants, needs and wishes for themselves, their aspirations, he's coming of age in this Fox demographic as a national figure. So he really understands that Fox audience. And ultimately, he will understand that audience as well as Ailes does, maybe a little better. So now you have the tail wagging the dog.

And there's one interesting factual note, historical note is where Ailes once in a while will pull back some of his personalities when he thought they were getting too one-sided or to in with a political party or personality. Ailes was now fighting for his job because a bunch of stories that erupted after one of his co-hosts, one of his hosts, Gretchen Carlson, alleged that he had sexually harassed her. More women stepped forward. So Ailes is now fighting for his job, so he can't reign in the network during the summer of 2016. So that plays a role.

And so now there's this symbiosis. It's there. And that carries through to the White House years when - and then sexual harassment scandal separately takes out Bill O'Reilly. Bill O'Reilly liked to be a guy you didn't know what he was going to say at night. He was their star at 8 p.m., the slot that Tucker Carlson now has. Sometimes he'd want to challenge Trump. Hey, you know, Bill O'Reilly, I'm telling you, calling it straight. That was his whole thing. Lean to the right. But now he's gone. You have Tucker. Megyn Kelly had - was sort of the No. 1 challenger to Trump in 2016. She leaves the network. Now you have a personality instead like a Laura Ingraham, who's very in with Trump. So, you know, the network's just making this shift. And so - and it's all evolving together. And Trump understands this as well as anyone.

GROSS: Jim Rutenberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

RUTENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Jim Rutenberg is a consulting producer for the new documentary series "The Murdochs: Empire Of Influence," which is based on the lengthy New York Times Magazine investigative article Rutenberg co-wrote with Times reporter Jonathan Mahler in 2019. The documentary series is streaming on CNN+ and will be shown later on CNN.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with country music star Tim McGraw, comic Jerrod Carmichael and singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. I also want to remind you that you can subscribe to our new newsletter called Fresh Air Weekly at www.whyy.org/freshair. It has a recap of the week, features from our archives and staff recommendations. That's www.whyy.org/freshair. On some browsers, you really need to include the W-W-W.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Tina Calikay (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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