Michael Wolff’s “The Fall” Is a Dishy Look At the Decline of Fox News

From a Washington Post review by Justin Peters headlined “Michael Wolff’s ‘The Fall’ is a dishy look at the Decline of Fox News”:

“The people you know live in this moment, whatever this is,” says Roger Ailes, at the beginning of Michael Wolff’s riveting new book, “The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty.” It is the summer of 2016, and the moment is rather unpleasant for the longtime Fox News CEO, who weeks earlier had been ousted from his role at the cable network amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

This swift and shocking reversal of fortune had apparently left Ailes with ample time to opine to gadfly media columnists on the nature of the network that had shivved him. “The people who Fox is for live in 1965,” Ailes continues, in Wolff’s telling. “[B]efore the Voting Rights Act.”

This strikes me as a brutally frank assessment of that network’s allure: Ailes, who died in 2017, may have been unseated for being a creep, but the guy knew what to feed his audience so that they’d keep coming back for more. During his imperious two-decade reign at Fox News, the veteran GOP operative built the network into arguably the most influential and lucrative news-centric outlet of our time.

But as Wolff details, Fox isn’t what it used to be. While the network’s ratings remain relatively strong today, the business of cable is in a sharp downturn, and Fox’s core demographic is only getting older — as is its founder, the 92-year-old media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who last week announced he would retire as chair of both Fox and its sister company, News Corp.

An alarming amount of money is flowing out of the network these days, most notably in the form of the $787.5 million it will pay Dominion Voting Systems to settle a very public and embarrassing libel lawsuit about Fox having alleged Dominion’s involvement in a (nonexistent) scheme to steal the 2020 presidential election away from Donald Trump. And despite the network’s best recent efforts to sideline Trump — whom Murdoch reportedly despises — and boost the presidential ambitions of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Trump continues to lead the 2024 GOP presidential field.

So, what happened? Wolff more or less traces the network’s ongoing crackup back to 2016: the year of Ailes’s ouster and Trump’s political ascent. Though Trump’s political persona seemed forged directly from Fox News talking points — he, too, seemed to live in 1965, albeit “more 1965 Vegas than Kansas,” Ailes observes — his cult of personality threatened to subsume a network that preferred its conservative politicians to need it more than it needed them.

Wolff strongly implies that had Ailes remained in place, his steady hand might have helped keep both Trump and Fox in line. “I create monsters and they bring in monster ratings, but then I have to control them,” Wolff quotes Ailes as saying. Instead, his exit left a power vacuum atop the network, filled by hacks and scions incapable of rising to the needs of the moment.

As indicated by its relatively sympathetic portrayal of Ailes — an odious boor, yes, but at least a competent one — “The Fall” is by no means an ideological critique of Fox. Wolff is well aware of the network’s journalistic shortcomings, but the topic does not really interest him; indeed, one of the book’s funnier throughlines is the author’s digressive scorn for other media reporters, whose coverage of the network foregrounds their moral revulsion that Fox exists.

Wolff, whose dishy “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was an instant bestseller, is no moralist, and he harbors no qualms about consorting with some of America’s worst people — nor about burning them blithely in service of his narrative. It makes for an entertaining read. Wolff is interested in power and personalities, and in “The Fall” he offers countless lacerating portraits of the latter, and their variously effective efforts to obtain and deploy the former.

There’s Fox chief legal officer Viet Dinh, known for over-imbibing at lunch, fatuously repeating that the network would take the Dominion case to the Supreme Court, even as he fails to recognize the mounting threat it poses. There’s Ailes, creepily obsessed with his male anchors’ sexual preferences and his female stars’ ability to rise to “the American blow-job test.” Not to mention Rupert Murdoch’s ineffective sons, Lachlan and James, who reportedly maneuvered to oust Ailes in 2016 only to prove incapable of filling the void they created. (Wolff reports that the Murdochs are very aware of the HBO series “Succession,” which they derided as caricature. If “The Fall” is to be believed, if anything, the show pulled its punches.)

Fox’s marquee talents are not spared Wolff’s gimlet eye. Sean Hannity, whom Wolff claims functioned as “the effective real chief of staff” of the Trump White House, is portrayed as a garrulous idiot with a “what-me-worry intelligence level.” “He’s retarded, like most Americans,” is Rupert Murdoch’s alleged assessment of his longest-tenured star anchor. Laura Ingraham is here seen getting so drunk at Ailes’s funeral that Hannity bars her from his plane for fear of the mess she might make.

And then there’s Tucker Carlson, messianic WASP, who spends much of “The Fall” mulling a run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Carlson was plucked from Fox’s back bench by Murdoch himself in 2017 and elevated to prime time on the mistaken presumption that he would be normal. His abrupt ouster from Fox in April of this year is explained by Wolff as the product of a handshake-terms coda to Fox’s settlement with Dominion: in other words, a head to go with Dominion’s cash bounty.

Plenty of critics slammed “Fire and Fury” for its unverifiable sourcing and its presentation of gossip as gospel. If those traits bothered you in that book, then you will find much to dislike about this one. In any case, it would be prudent not to take “The Fall” at face value, since Wolff mostly declines to share his sources. Strangely, I don’t mind that I don’t know what to trust here. Since Fox News itself operates in the realm of loose innuendo, it feels somehow fitting that it must now contend with a book that plays by the network’s own rules.

It helps that much of what Wolff writes rings true. He reports that Fox’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night 2020 was one for which no Fox executive was willing to take responsibility, and that Rupert Murdoch’s profane schadenfreude upon hearing that Trump would lose the state was interpreted — perhaps incorrectly — as permission for Fox to make the call.

Likewise, his explanation of Carlson’s sudden exit makes a certain intuitive sense, and my faith in Wolff’s reporting is bolstered by the accuracy of his broader read on the Dominion affair. The surprising thing, he argues, isn’t that Fox broadcast false theories about a stolen election, but that the ensuing lawsuit failed to settle before proceeding to discovery. Wolff blames this outcome on the post-Ailes leadership void at Fox, which ultimately placed the burden of leadership on the one person who, per Wolff, was perhaps least up for the task: Murdoch.

Generally regarded as the puppet master behind the modern conservative movement, in “The Fall” Murdoch is depicted as a man who has conclusively lost the plot. Wolff’s Murdoch is a doddering, mumbling, ineffective leader on “old man time” with no hand in the network’s daily operations. When Murdoch does offer programming ideas, they are uniformly terrible ones: replacing Carlson with a rotating roundtable of Wall Street Journal editorial writers; putting Piers Morgan in prime time. “Why, he wondered, wasn’t Mitt Romney on more?” writes Wolff. It is perhaps the most savage burn in a book replete with them.

To ask that question in earnest is, sadly, to reveal yourself as someone who is incapable of restoring Fox News to its former glories. And thus I do not find it entirely coincidental that, five days before this devastating book was released, Murdoch abruptly announced his impending retirement. His eldest son, Lachlan Murdoch, will take his place. “They are both wannabe little kings, the brothers. I think they both really believe they were put on earth to show up their father,” said Roger Ailes in 2016. If Lachlan Murdoch’s diffident depiction in “The Fall” is to be believed, he is likely to do the old man one better only by finding new ways to run the network into the ground.

Justin Peters is a correspondent and media columnist for Slate, and the author of “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.”

Speak Your Mind