Assessing Uncle Rupert’s Schlocky Empire

Rupert Murdoch Did a Lot to Change Journalism. What Was His Biggest Impact?

Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire is vast, stretching across five continents to include film studios, newspapers, magazines, TV stations, and networks. For years, questions have swirled around the tycoon: How much did he know about the unethical behavior of News of the World reporters? What will happen to News Corp. and Twenty-First Century Fox when Murdoch gives up control or dies? And will the brand of journalism his companies pioneered have real staying power? In advance of a Zócalo/Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism event, “Did Rupert Murdoch Save Journalism?,” we asked several media experts the following question: What is the most significant change that Rupert Murdoch has made in the media culture or landscape?

Tim McGuire

He stretched our American sensibilities

Rupert Murdoch’s great contribution to mainstream American journalism has been to serve as a provocative pain in the tush. Murdoch’s tinges of sensationalism and the clearly rightward leanings of his news columns have proven just successful enough to cause havoc in the media marketplace.

I have always been fascinated by Murdoch’s reluctance to introduce American audiences to the full scope of Australian or British sensationalism. He entered the U.S. media scene at the very moment that the one-size-fits-all approach of most journalism outlets was coming under attack. He sped up—or took advantage of—media fragmentation and broke just enough rules to remain almost respectable. Murdoch has pushed American boundaries of sensibility but never smashed them.

Tim McGuire is the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Gabriel Sherman

He unleashed partisan cable news

Rupert Murdoch is known globally as the ultimate tabloid mogul. But his influence over the broader media landscape is related to a realm he knows far less about than tabloids: television news. In the United States, Fox News is Murdoch’s most potent innovation. Since 1996, when he hired Roger Ailes to launch a conservative cable news network to dethrone CNN as the dominant source of television news, Fox has revolutionized both media and politics. Fox’s ratings grew to double those of CNN and MSNBC combined, with annual profits exceeding $1 billion. The maneuver by MSNBC to flank to the left further validated the effectiveness of Ailes’s programming strategy—it left CNN isolated and trapped inside its non-partisan brand. In the world Ailes created, showmanship and partisanship are the values that define the medium. Last summer, Ailes signed a new four-year contract to stay at Fox News through 2016. While Fox’s ratings slipped in the months after the 2012 election, it’s clear that, no matter what happens over the medium term, the partisan cable news unleashed by Murdoch and Ailes will be with us for a long time to come.

Gabriel Sherman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. In January 2014, Random House will publish his book The Loudest Voice in the Room: The Inside Story of How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American Politics.

Thaddeus Russell

He made The Daily Show possible

Everyone on the left thinks Rupert Murdoch is the devil, but by breaking the television oligopoly and loosening FCC control, he made possible virtually everything the left holds dear on TV, including The Daily Show, MSNBC, and gays in prime time. As Fox’s biggest star, Homer Simpson, would say: “Doh!”

Thaddeus Russell is a historian and cultural critic and the author of A Renegade History of the United States. He teaches American history and cultural studies at Occidental College.