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The Murdoch media empire is in trouble. Can Rupert Murdoch's heir save it?


It is a fraught and consequential moment for the media empire built by Rupert Murdoch. It is attempting to unravel its alliance with former President Donald Trump. The Murdochs are seeking to reunite their TV properties with their newspaper properties - think of Fox News with The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. They're defending Fox News against a pair of multibillion dollar lawsuits for defamation. And they're figuring out who leads after the 91-year-old Rupert Murdoch finally departs the scene.

The Australian journalist Paddy Manning has written the first full biography of Lachlan Murdoch - that's Rupert's elder son. Manning joins us now from Sydney, Australia. Paddy, thanks for joining us.

PADDY MANNING: Thanks for having me, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Lachlan Murdoch is the executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corp, the co-chairman of News Corp. What should we know about how he approaches leading these huge companies?

MANNING: Well, he's a very different media proprietor than his father. Lachlan, while he is clearly the designated successor and has his father's blessing to take over what will probably be, although it's not certain, a merged Fox and News Corp, I think he's not the same editorial interventionist that his father and grandfather were. He's not the kingmaker politically that they had been, and he's more of an investor, I think, than an operator. He's kind of a little bit more hands-off.

FOLKENFLIK: How conservative is Lachlan Murdoch? When we think about Rupert Murdoch, it's one of the first things that comes to mind to Americans. What about the son?

MANNING: He describes his own politics as socially liberal but economically conservative, and he's always described his politics that way since he was in his 20s. And he was, you know, sort of very open-minded. He had a tattoo. He had a spiky haircut. He was a rock climber. He had lots of sort of gay mates. And he looked like the next generation of the Murdoch family would be different. But fast forward into now, he's in his 50s, and Lachlan - you know, his biggest political donation was to the Senate Leadership Fund of Mitch McConnell. And, you know, more than anyone, McConnell is, you know, responsible - he's the architect of the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. And I think post-Roe, it's pretty hard to square that kind of donation with describing yourself as socially liberal. I don't think that washes.

FOLKENFLIK: And yet we've heard in recent months, you know, Lachlan will say publicly that he thinks of Fox as a center-right news organization, and he's signaled privately he wants to move past Trump. Yet still, Fox News stars have been given extraordinary leeway to stake out extreme positions, even as they are, currently anyhow, acknowledging Trump's weaknesses and failings.

MANNING: Yeah. And so Lachlan defends that in terms of free speech. And, you know, this is the kind of libertarian side, I suppose. He believes that the rest of the mainstream media skews to the left. So the way he frames it - you know, he sort of hates groupthink. And he says that quality of debate is lifted by a diversity of opinion. And if everyone was singing from the same sort of liberal song sheet, you've got a lower-quality debate.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's talk about these defamation lawsuits. These involve lies promoting then President Donald Trump's false claims that he was cheated in the 2020 elections. They were propagated over major Fox News shows. How big of a threat do they represent?

MANNING: Oh, I think there's no doubt that they are a serious threat. And I think I wouldn't be surprised to see both Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch deposed before Christmas. I think it would be overstating it to say that the lawsuits represent a existential threat to Fox, but nonetheless, they are extremely serious. There's also another threat that sort of stems from the big lie defamation cases, which is that behind that sits a threat to Lachlan's control of the business from his siblings. I was very firmly told by representatives of one of the siblings that the siblings are determined to reassert control of the Murdoch family businesses and, quote, "do it in a way that enhances democracies around the world rather than undermining them." That really cuts to the chase. That's a serious threat to Lachlan's control of the business once Rupert passes. And it stems from their coverage of the big lie in the wake of the 2020 election.

FOLKENFLIK: Lachlan moved his family back to your hometown, to Sydney, during the pandemic, and he's typically found there, although he's running these huge corporations based in New York. He even returned a few days ago after dropping in on the World Cup in Qatar, which is being broadcast by Fox, at least here in the U.S. What do you make of his attachment to his father's native country?

MANNING: Well, it is long-standing. And, you know, he has joked in interviews in the past that he has this American accent, and he wished he could get rid of it. You know, he loves Australia. He grew up in New York, but he loves Australia. And I do wonder if it's really sustainable for him to run such a powerful business as, you know, Fox and News Corporation from the other side of the world.

And I think it also points up a kind of disconnect between why do the Murdochs think that it's better to bring their family up in Australia? Well, perhaps it's because there's strong health - public health measures. Maybe it's because you have gun laws here that ban sales of semiautomatic and fully automatic weapons. Maybe it's we don't have the same degree of polarization in politics in Australia that you seem to be seeing in the United States. But, you know, I think there's disconnect between Lachlan's decision to base his family in Australia and the kind of messages that Fox's primetime anchors put out every night.

FOLKENFLIK: I've been speaking with Paddy Manning. He's author of "The Successor: The High-Stakes Life Of Lachlan Murdoch." Paddy Manning, thanks.

MANNING: Thanks so much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.