With Rupert Murdoch leaving Fox News, an even more deranged MAGA media is making its move

Joe Rogan, Steve Bannon, and Charlie Kirk are ready to rot the brains of GOP voters even more

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 26, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Rupert Murdoch (Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch (Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images)

Almost everyone in journalism is a fan of "Succession," which meant that the HBO show heavily shaped the reaction to last week's announcement that Rupert Murdoch was stepping down as the chair of Fox Corp. and News Corp. All eyes landed on Lachlan Murdoch, the eldest son who is taking over from his father as the official head of the right-wing media empire. Influenced by the soap opera machinations of "Succession," most discourse was over what direction the younger Murdoch would take the company and whether his father was actually stepping down — or whether he was secretly controlling his son. 

It's all interesting stuff, but in focusing on the internal family dynamics of the Murdochs, the discussion was too quickly turned away from what is likely to be the much bigger story for right-wing media: The multitude of outside challengers to the Fox News throne. For years now, there's been a growing network of well-funded GOP propaganda outlets that, using social media to expand their reach, have positioned themselves well to cannibalize the Fox News audience. Murdoch's departure may provide the opening they've needed to get even more money and influence. This should alarm everyone, because as god-awful as Fox News is, the competitors are worse: They lie more often and more boldly. They're more explicitly racist, homophobic, and sexist. And they worship Donald Trump like a god. 

A new CNN-University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll underscores how, as bad as Fox News is, its increasingly strong competition is even scarier. Aaron Blake at the Washington Post analyzed the statistics on media consumption and found some alarming results. 

While 43 percent of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters who watch Fox News and 45 percent of conservative radio listeners say they're voting for Trump in the GOP primary — similar to his overall share of 39 percent — those numbers rise to 65 percent for Rogan's listeners and a remarkable 76 percent of Newsmax viewers....

Newsmax viewers are also significantly more favorable toward Trump. While 64 percent of likely GOP voters who watch Fox have a favorable view of Trump, 95 percent of Newsmax viewers do.

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A full 90% of the polled Joe Rogan listeners are supporting either Trump or unapologetic charlatan Vivek Ramaswamy. At least those who have long been skeptical of claims that Rogan and his audience are "independent" now have rock solid proof that they were always right-wing shills. The bad news is that Rogan is already one of the most successful contenders for the Fox News throne. He gets an estimated 11 million listeners an episode. The highest-rated show on Fox News, "The Five," typically has between 2 and 3 million viewers. 

The perception in the GOP base is that Fox News is too hamstrung by facts to be an effective purveyor of right-wing propaganda.

Rogan is probably the most successful but is just one in a growing crowd of propagandists who want to take a bite out of the Fox News audience. Ben Shapiro's Daily Wire claims over a million subscribers. Charlie Kirk's TPUSA has reportedly grown into a $80 million company. PragerU claims over 8 billion video views. Still, Fox News has maintained its position as the 800-pound gorilla of right-wing media. 

Unsurprisingly, then, many of these smaller competitors didn't bother to hide how much they hoped, without Rupert Murdoch in charge, Fox News would falter, giving them a chance to gobble up more of the MAGA audience. Steve Bannon raved that Fox is "TV for stupid people." Glenn Beck implied that Lachlan Murdoch hates conservatives. (In reality, most reports suggest the younger Murdoch is more right-wing than his father.) Newsmax went in for kill by publicizing Trump's snide anti-Murdoch comments, and claiming Murdoch is in bed with the hated Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. 

Right now, as historian Nicole Hemmer told Slate, these contenders see Fox News as a wounded animal that will be much easier to take out than it was a few years ago. That's because, she explained, "I still don't think people outside of right wing circles fully appreciate how disillusioned and even angry many on the right are towards Fox."

Bluntly put, the perception in the GOP base is that Fox News is too hamstrung by facts to be an effective purveyor of right-wing propaganda. Murdoch envisioned Fox News being just news-like enough to garner a reputation as a legitimate press outlet. For a long time, that was fine with the audience, who also wanted to participate in the illusion that this is "news." But what the Fox competitors offer is a different vision: One where any fact that gets in the way can be dismissed out of hand, and "truth" is whatever the right-wing audience wants to believe. 

These tensions came to a head during the aftermath of the 2020 election, when Fox initially reported the truth, which is Joe Biden had won the White House. As court documentation made clear, what happened then was that the audience revolted and, fearful of losing audience share to even shadier outlets, Fox pivoted towards championing Trump's false claims that the election was stolen. 

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In the short term, that worked. Viewers, satiated with the lies they desired, stayed on board. But in the longer term, there were serious consequences. Fox News lost a massive defamation lawsuit to Dominion Voting Systems, who was repeatedly smeared in "news" segments advancing the Big Lie. Murdoch then fired one of the network's most aggressive liars, host Tucker Carlson. The one-two punch convinced many viewers that Fox News had lost its taste for disinformation. Fox has been able to claw some of its audience back, by playing fast and loose with the facts. A lot of viewers, however, worry Fox will never provide the high-octane bullshit they crave, and so they're permanently relocating to media outlets that are even less ethical. 

Fox alternatives know that their relative freedom to lie is a selling point to right-wing audiences. Earlier this year, the New York Times published a story about which podcasts are the worst purveyors of disinformation, and Bannon's "War Room" topped the list. His response? To brag about it openly and praise his audience for "helping us spread misinformation." For the MAGA crowd, lying is good and consuming lies is how they demonstrate their right-wing bona fides. Fox News, which is hamstrung by fear of lawsuits and Murdoch's lingering desire to be treated as a respectable figure, has lost esteem with the lie-addicted GOP base. 

No one should write a premature obituary for Fox News yet, however.

By all accounts, Lachlan Murdoch is more right-wing than his father, and less worried about the consequences of blasting out disinformation. There's a not-small chance that, under the younger Murdoch's leadership, Fox will start to move harder to the right and, despite all the lawsuits, more determined than ever to mislead viewers. After all, the market pressures that led Fox News to embrace the Big Lie haven't gone away. If anything, they're getting worse, as the network faces increasing challenges from small but hungry outlets who will say anything, no matter how false or outlandish, to get an audience. 

But whether Fox News survives or not, one thing is certain: Right-wing media will get worse. All the incentives push GOP propagandists into more lurid and dishonest rhetoric. In a crowded field, the way to stand out is to outdo other right-wing outlets with racist vitriol, wild conspiracy theories, and violent rhetoric. As long as there's a huge audience ready to pay for so much ugliness, there will be shameless people eager to create it. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Fox News Joe Rogan Lachlan Murdoch Maga Newsmax Rupert Murdoch Steve Bannon