The ties that bind the most powerful media mogul in the world to the leader of the free world just keep getting stronger. Or, more precisely, we keep learning just how strong they are.
The question is where that leaves the rest of the world when they’re done divvying it up.
They are Rupert Murdoch — the founder of the corporate news media giants 21st Century Fox and News Corp — and President Donald Trump.
The Financial Times reported the latest example of their closeness last week: that Trump’s daughter Ivanka was a trustee of the nearly $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) fortune Murdoch set aside for the two children he had with his third wife, Wendi, who arranged the trusteeship.
Ivanka Trump gave up that oversight role in December, before her father’s inauguration but well after Election Day.
That means the whole time Murdoch’s highly influential news organisations were covering Trump’s campaign and transition, their executive chairman was entangled in a financial arrangement of the most personal sort — tied to his children’s financial (very) well-being — along with the president’s daughter.
Referring to her only as the president’s “daughter” fails to capture her true role. She is Donald Trump’s most trusted confidante. And she is married to a key presidential adviser, Jared Kushner, who, as it happens, is so close with Murdoch that he even helped Murdoch set up his bachelor pad after his last divorce, The New Yorker reported.
The latest news about the Murdoch-Trump axis is acutely problematic for the leadership at The Wall Street Journal — owned by News Corp — as it seeks to quell a rebellion by a group of staff members who believe the newspaper has held them ack from more aggressively covering Donald Trump, they suspect, under pressure from Murdoch. (As Joe Pompeo of Politico first reported last week, a meeting to discuss their grievances is to take place Monday at The Journal.)
But the relationship between the president and Murdoch has implications well beyond The Journal, given the global breadth of Murdoch’s media holdings, his history of putting them to use for political leaders who then help him with his own business needs and Donald Trump’s own reactivity to the news media.
How it all affects the rest of us depends on how powerfully Murdoch’s news media properties swing behind the new presidential agenda and how much criticism of Trump they’ll abide from their journalists and commentators. And all of that could depend on what Murdoch wants from the administration, and how badly he wants it.
After Murdoch “used the editorial page, the front page and every other page” of The New York Post “to elect Ronald Reagan president,” as the Republican congressman Jack Kemp once put it, Murdoch won a regulatory glide path for his successful effort to build a fourth broadcast network, Fox.
In the George W. Bush years, when Fox News rallied for the president’s war efforts, Murdoch successfully pushed the Federal Communications Commission to block a proposed merger between DirecTV and EchoStar, clearing the way for Murdoch to buy control of DirecTV after an earlier attempt.
Now Murdoch’s rivals are trying to guess what he might seek from Washington, having reached the apex of his American power at 85 with the closest ties to a White House that he’s ever had.
At the very least, they are girding for him to use his influence to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner, which Donald Trump railed against during the campaign. Murdoch made an unsuccessful bid for Time Warner in 2014.
They read the tea leaves last week in The New York Post, where Murdoch’s conservative-populist fingerprints are most easily dusted into view. The paper, the first one Donald Trump reads each morning, ran yet another piece suggesting that the president might oppose the deal because of CNN’s aggressive coverage of him. (It’s a division of Time Warner.)
Picking up on a similar story in Breitbart, the article pointed up the new Washington ethos for media companies with news divisions: Cover the president in a way that displeases him at your own corporate peril.
True, Murdoch — a longtime free-trade and immigration advocate — did not initially rally behind Donald Trump and practically begged Michael Bloomberg to enter the race, on Twitter.
He has not reined in the editorial writer Bret Stephens, who is highly critical of Trump, and The Journal’s editorial page excoriated Trump on his executive order on immigration — as did the front page of The New York Post.
But as Trump began to lock down the Republican nomination, Murdoch wrote on Twitter that the party “would be mad not to unify.” And he appeared to follow suit.
From the White House, Trump regularly indicates that he believes no major news media properties have been more helpful, and less problematic, to his cause than Murdoch’s.
And Fox News’s Inauguration Day announcement that it was adding to its contributors line-up the pro-Brexit British politician — and Trump ally — Nigel Farage, was not only another move in Trump’s direction but a reminder of Murdoch’s transnational reach. His Sun tabloid had joined Farage in the Brexit cause.
Fox News and The Post are, in a sense, giving Trump nothing more than it gave his predecessors.
But The Journal’s news pages — the most authoritative of Murdoch’s US news outlets — are another matter. They have managed to maintain their independence over the years, something Murdoch promised to protect when he acquired it in 2007.
Any favourable skew toward Trump — or away from more critical stories about him — would give the president an imprimatur he’d be only too happy to have.
Journal representatives declined to discuss Murdoch’s interaction with the paper’s chief editor, Gerard Baker. A spokeswoman, Colleen Schwartz, said that “no one stands in the way” of the paper’s mission to be “fearless, accurate and unbiased.”
Clearly no one did, for instance, when it broke news of the investigation into the national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia last month. And Murdoch didn’t interfere with The Journal’s groundbreaking reporting on the blood testing firm Theranos Inc, which jeopardised his own $100 million investment in the company.
But concerns among some — and certainly not all — members of the staff that the paper is tilting Trump’s way erupted anew two weeks ago when Baker wrote to editors asking them to avoid describing the countries affected by Trump’s immigration order as “majority Muslim,” which was in keeping with Trump’s talking points. After the outcry, Baker appeared to back off, and scheduled Monday’s meeting, though he cited as its main purpose a discussion about the newsroom’s digital future.
It will be about more than the anxieties of one newsroom. As one of the last bastions of American journalism, The Journal is a pillar of the fourth estate meant to hold the powerful to account. Murdoch will have to decide whether its independent ink is thicker than his corporate ambitions, political ideology or ties to the new family at the White House.