Rupert Murdoch & the Business of Bile
Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News in 1996 and ever since, cultural elites have complained that it spews acid reflux into the American political discourse, eating away at basic norms of decency. They blame Fox for shifting the Overton window and creating an audience for media personalities such as Alex Jones to pump lies about the parents of dead children into YouTube feeds of millions of Americans.
Cultural gatekeepers have been largely ineffective at pushing back against the growth of militant right-wing media largely because there is just a helluva lot of money to be made pushing this kind of content.
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While Murdoch spun out Fox News off from his New Corporation empire several years ago, News retains extensive media properties in the US, UK and Australia. Over the last year, user growth has surged. In Australia, News added over 100,000 subscribers; in the UK The Times grew by 71,000 followers; while in the US the New York Post grew its unique user count by 61 percent.
This surge in interest has translated directly into an improved bottom line. News Corporation’s News Media segment reported an increase in EBITDA of $165 million. The key drivers of this were both the increased digital subscribers, but also higher advertising revenue thanks to the additional eyeballs viewing News’ content.
Fox Corporation, led by Rupert’s son Lachlan, has experienced similarly stellar results over the past year. Revenues increased 8 percent to $13.97 billion and the company’s Cable Network segment, which incorporates Fox News, did particularly well with advertising revenues increasing by $125 million. Fox News’s capacity to increase advertising despite overall decline in cable news viewership speaks to its dominance in the cable news landscape.
Compared to these numbers, independent creators such as Alex Jones seem small-time. But looking closer, it becomes clear they’ve found plenty of revenue in the dark shadows where even the likes of News and Fox fear to tread. In a recent defamation case involving Jones and his InfoWars network, an economist valued the company at $270 million. Among the evidence put forward during the case was a memo from Jones’ business manager stating the site bringing in gross revenues of $800,000 per day selling vitamin supplements and other products popular with his right-win audience such as body armor. That would imply revenues of approximately $300 million per year.
The inescapable reality is that there is a boatload of money to be made in selling a violent and dystopian vision of the future. As a consequence, there is no shortage of aspiring media personalities willing to fill in the blanks of whatever hazy, subconscious concerns the voting public may have.
This has made possible the creation not just of alternative facts, but alternative realities. The right-wing media landscape is sufficiently diverse across mediums and personalities that a committed consumer can easily convince themselves that they are informed and listening to both sides.
The nature of the product makes solutions elusive. One of the factors enabling the rise of these wildly profitable media outlets was a healthy respect for a free press in the countries in which they operate. But just as we ultimately decided public health was more important than untrammelled free choice and the profits of Big Tobacco in the context of cigarettes, so too civil society and policy-makers need to find a way to dam the river of gold that flows to the purveyors of political bile.
Alex Jones ordered to pay $49.3M total over Sandy Hook lies, Politico
“An economist hired by the plaintiffs testified that Jones and the company are worth up to $270 million, suggesting that Jones was still making money. Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to study Jones’ net worth, said records show that Jones withdrew $62 million for himself in 2021, when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.”
Fourth quarter and full year results, News Corporation
“News Corp set significant records in Fiscal 2022, including in revenue and profitability, which surged 31 percent to $1.7 billion, and that came after a resounding 26 percent increase in the previous year. Revenues rose a robust 11 percent, reaching a record $10.4 billion, with increases in each and every segment on an adjusted basis.”
Fourth quarter and full year results, Fox Corporation
“The Company reported total quarterly revenues of $3.03 billion, a 5% increase from the $2.89 billion reported in the prior year quarter. Affiliate fee revenues increased 4% with 7% growth at the Television segment and 2% growth at the Cable Network Programming segment. Advertising revenues increased 7%, primarily due to stronger pricing and higher ratings at FOX News Media, higher political advertising revenues at the FOX Television Stations”