In a chilling scene at the end of James Graham’s play Ink, Rupert Murdoch – having made his indelible mark on British media and society – slows his frenetic pace to ponder the future.
He’s thinking, he says almost dreamily, of a venture across the pond – yes, perhaps something in television news.
The Broadway audience I sat in uttered an audible gasp. Because by now it was 2019, and we knew.
Murdoch would, of course, co-found Fox News with Roger Ailes in 1996. And these two princes of darkness would not only make billions in profit in the decades to come.
They would wreak untold havoc on American democracy.
They would plow the fields and plant the seeds that gave us Donald Trump, and all that has followed.
“In Fox News, Murdoch created a uniquely destructive force in American democracy and public life, one that ushered in an era of division where racist and post-truth politics thrive,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, reacting to Murdoch’s decision to step down from the Fox and Fox News boards and to be succeeded by his son Lachlan.
I’ve been watching this damage unfold for many years, and often writing about it. At the Washington Post, where I was the media critic during the end of Trump’s 2016 campaign and during his entire presidential term, I wrote a piece once that my editor would later call “your Fox-is-the-actual-devil column”.
I was urging the news media and the public not to treat Fox as a normal news organization but to see it for what it was – a shameless propaganda outfit, reaping massive profits even as it attacked core democratic values such as tolerance, truth and fair elections.
“Despite the skills of a few journalists who should have long ago left the network in protest,” I wrote, “Fox has become an American plague.” (Now, many of those journalists have left, including Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith.)
Who could have reined in this destructive force? After Ailes’s death in 2017, only one person: Rupert Murdoch.
But he didn’t. That’s not where he saw the greatest power and profit. And, based on his history in the UK and in America (where he also has controlled the tabloid New York Post and the Wall Street Journal), there was absolutely no reason to think he would.
“Murdoch’s biggest legacy is the damage his media did to democracy around the world – from Australia to the UK and finally the USA,” the author and cultural historian Linda Hirshman, who is researching a new book on the Murdoch legacy, told me on Thursday.
“From the beginning in the British tabloids 50 years ago, he unleashed the power of hate-filled rhetoric, setting the working-class ‘blokes’ against the elites, a crucial step in creating a movement of rightwing populism.”
Then, Hirshman observed, when this movement along its necessary media machinery, reached American shores, “it had the power of Kryptonite”.
Carusone sees a grim future ahead under Murdoch the son, calling him a less competent leader than Rupert but one whose worldview is “even more brutal”.
And Hirshman is despondent about what Murdoch has wrought: “As he finally exits the scene, American democracy hangs by a thread.”
No one should be surprised by the succession plan, of course. Lachlan was the obvious choice.
And in Murdoch World, nothing is left to chance.
The opening scene of Ink contains a crucial part of Murdoch’s worldview. “Only thing worth asking,” says the media mogul on the rise, “isn’t ‘why’, it’s ‘what next?’”
As this 92-year-old steps away from the global media empire he began 70 years ago, that is a question that we probably know the ruinous answer to.
More of the same, and possibly worse.
Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture