Who will Rupert Murdoch exile from the Fox kingdom?
The Fox Corporation chairman is facing an ever-deepening scandal that threatens to cause considerable financial and reputational damage to the crown jewel of his media empire, Fox News, as well as the parent company he leads. The scandal, exposed by Dominion Voting Systems’ blockbuster $1.6 billion lawsuit, has unearthed damning information, revealing the right-wing talk channel, driven by financial interests, was willing to lie to its viewers.
The stunning levels of misconduct exposed in recent weeks raise questions about the future of Suzanne Scott, the embattled chief executive of Fox News. Will she be Murdoch’s sacrificial lamb? No moves are currently on the immediate horizon, CNN is told. But it’s certainly possible — perhaps even likely — that Murdoch might cancel her in an attempt to save himself and his legacy.
The Murdochs “are certainly setting Suzanne Scott up to take the fall for this,” Ben Smith, the Semafor editor-in-chief who writes a Sunday night media column, said Wednesday.
“They’re leading a trail of crumbs that lead back to her office,” added David Folkenflik, the NPR media correspondent and Murdoch biographer.
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There is no shortage of evidence to support the notion Scott is on the chopping block. Most notably, during his deposition, Murdoch sought to distance himself from decision making at Fox News. Instead, he pointed to Scott: “I appointed Ms. Scott to the job … and I delegate everything to her,” he said. In doing so, Murdoch made the case that Scott is in charge of the network — and if there was wrongdoing, it rests on her shoulders. Of course, astute media observers know that Murdoch is the person actually calling the shots. But it’s not hard to see how the company could advance this narrative.
This is not the first time that Murdoch has been faced with a serious and embarrassing matter in his media empire. In 2011, his now-defunct News of the World newspaper was ensnared in a phone hacking scandal. In 2016, Fox News founder Roger Ailes was accused in an explosive lawsuit of sexual harassment. And in 2017, star host Bill O’Reilly was caught in his own sexual misconduct scandal.
In each case, Murdoch made the decision to sever ties with top personnel. As one source who once worked in Murdoch-world said Wednesday, “His pattern has been to throw some money overboard and offer a head or two in the process to make it go away.” And cutting ties with Scott would appear to be one of the easier ousters for Murdoch to execute over the course of his decades at the helm of one of the world’s biggest media empires.
“Looking back to previous scandals, Murdoch and the companies have tended to try to pay early and quietly to make things go away, or they ignore them thinking they’re so big they can ride things out,” Folkenflik said. “And then when things really come to a head, they try to cauterize the wound at the lowest level possible.”
“If he threw [Scott] over, he would only do it because he thought he needed to cauterize the wound before it goes higher,” Folkenflik added. “That’s his record. That’s what he does. It can be editors. It can be executives. It can be stars. He’s not throwing himself over the side.”
Jim Rutenberg, the former media columnist at The New York Times who has an extensive history covering Murdoch, echoed that sentiment.
“Murdoch has a history of sacrificing loyal lieutenants, but he does it only in the most extreme circumstances,” Rutenberg said. “We know that he hates doing it. We know that he tends to try to fight for his loyalists, even for Ailes, certainly for O’Reilly. But when it’s a necessity to overcome a real threat to his business, he’ll do it.”
Whether the circumstances have reached a boiling point yet are unclear. The Dominion lawsuit, which has already caused massive reputational damage to the Fox News brand, is still in the pre-trial phase of the case. There’s no telling what could emerge from a weeks-long trial in which prominent executives and hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are called to the stand. And it remains to be seen whether outside forces, such as potential shareholder lawsuits, come into play and exert added pressure on Murdoch to take action.
Regardless, it’s worth noting that Murdoch himself has signaled that firings could be coming. When asked in his deposition whether Fox News executives who knowingly allowed “lies to be broadcast” should face consequences, Murdoch responded in the affirmative: “They should be reprimanded,” he said. “They should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of.”
As Folkenflik noted, “If you’re Rupert, you can’t fire Rupert. And you’re not going to fire [Fox CEO] Lachlan [Murdoch] either. So who are you going to chop?”
“Everyone who takes a senior executive position under Rupert Murdoch knows that is the case, that is the ultimate fall position,” Folkenflik explained. “They understand that’s part of the job. You’re very well paid. It can be a somewhat glamorous life. If you fall out of favor with the sun king, or it is to his benefit, that’s part of the equation.”
We’ll see what Scott’s fate ultimately looks like. For now, Fox is not offering any public statement of support for her. When I reached out to Fox spokespeople on Wednesday asking for comment, the company declined.