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The final straw: Murdoch needs to go

More harm than good: Rupert Murdoch has been the subject of justified criticism (Photograph by Noah Berger/AP)

Unless you have been living under a rock — or are the ageing executive chairman of News Corp — you know that Fox News has been “ground zero” in the epidemic of sexual assault scandals in which powerful men have abused younger, more vulnerable women.

Fox, of course, has been slammed by a series of sexual harassment cases that cost the company tens of millions in settlement money and ended the careers of Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Eric Bolling and Fox News co-president Bill Shine, who was accused of covering up a culture of sexual predation.

So it was more than a bit stunning that News Corp’s executive chairman, Rupert Murdoch, chose to brush off the epidemic of sexual harassment that has bludgeoned his company, especially during a cultural firestorm in which star news personalities, entertainment moguls and politicians have been forced out of their jobs — and in a few egregious cases now face criminal investigations — for accused sexual misconduct. Everywhere the code of silence that protected abusive men is crumbling, but the elderly news tycoon seems oblivious.

The Huffington Post reported on Friday: “Current and former female Fox News employees say they are ‘stunned’, ‘disgusted’ and ‘hungry for justice’ after media mogul Rupert Murdoch on Thursday dismissed allegations of sexual misconduct at the network as ‘nonsense’ outside of a few ‘isolated incidents’ with former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.

“In a televised interview, Sky News host Ian King focused on the Thursday announcement that the Disney Company is acquiring most of the assets belonging to 21st Century Fox, Fox News Channel’s parent, in a deal valued at $52 billion. Disney is not acquiring Fox News Channel or several other broadcast properties as part of the deal.

“King asked Murdoch if sexual misconduct allegations had inflicted damage on Fox News Channel.

“Murdoch said, ‘All nonsense, there was a problem with our chief executive [Ailes], sort of, over the years, isolated incidents. As soon as we investigated it, he was out of the place in hours, well, three or four days. And there’s been nothing else since then. That was largely political because we’re conservative. Now of course the liberals are going down the drain — NBC is in deep trouble. CBS, their stars. I mean there are really bad cases and people should be moved aside. There are other things which probably amount to a bit of flirting.’”

A 21st Century Fox spokesman tried to clean up the mess with a disingenuous statement that might have made Sarah Huckabee Sanders blush for its sheer audacity and contempt for the public’s intelligence. (“Rupert never characterised the sexual harassment matters at Fox News as ‘nonsense’. Rather, he responded negatively to the suggestion that sexual harassment issues were an obstacle to the company’s bid for the rest of Sky.”)

Fox News is not part of Disney’s announced purchase of 21st Century Fox’s television and motion picture properties, but Murdoch’s latest utterance suggests it is long past time for a change in control and management for the rump company that will remain after Murdoch cashes out from his other businesses. The network, its employees, its advertisers, its existing shareholders, its viewers and the United States would benefit if the 86-year-old Australian immigrant stepped away and let someone with some understanding of 21st-century America run the place. (Murdoch, together with his sons, Lachlan and James through 21st Century Fox, still effectively controls and remains the face of Fox News.)

To all but deluded Trumpians, Fox News has become a horror show for victimised women and a journalistic bad joke, disgraced by its cheerleading for the administration, ludicrous attacks on Trump adversaries — for example, James Comey, the FBI as a whole, the special prosecutors — and bizarre conspiracy theorising; the best example being Seth Rich. It would be hard to find a more precise encapsulation than Fox News not only of the plague of sexual violence and misogyny in American workplaces but also of the anti-democratic attacks on the “real” free press and on the notion of objective truth itself. Fox News’s damage to the US political culture and to the intellectual integrity of the Right is hard to measure.

Murdoch, who reportedly had to be cajoled into getting rid of Ailes, must finally be held to account. His bizarre cluelessness even now reflects his inadequacy as the face of a news organisation struggling to recover from scandal and to maintain any patina of respectability.

Ideally, another entity or entrepreneur would make an offer for Fox News, removing it from the Murdochs’ grasp and giving it new life as a respectable news outlet. If not, it is hard to see how the organisation retains its value given the constant controversy, litigation and advertiser defections.

Seriously, what advertiser will want to have its company associated with any Fox News programming after its leader displays Trumpian-quality self-delusion and refusal to accept responsibility for the outlet’s egregious abuse of women over years and years? Murdoch is unrepentant and therefore unserious about changing the company’s culture.

It is hard to see how Lachlan Murdoch, expected to be the heir to the rump company — ineptly dubbed “a new Fox” — can remake the news organisation in his father’s shadow. At least publicly, while his father remains deeply involved, Lachlan Murdoch has shown himself unable to revamp the news operation and instil a culture of decency and integrity. Maybe this latest debacle will give him the leverage to move his father off stage and recognise the urgency of a top-to-bottom renovation. Count me as sceptical, however.

We therefore renew our call: won’t someone — if only out of patriotic duty and empathy for its female victims — buy Fox News?

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective