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“Make Trump a non person”: Rupert Murdoch’s Ron DeSantis pivot, explained by a legal filing

Fox didn’t take down Trump. They built up an alternative.

US President Donald Trump (L) is embraced by Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News Corp, during a dinner to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea during WWII onboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum May 4, 2017 in New York, New York.
Rupert Murdoch embracing Donald Trump, in happier times (2017).
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

It is a rare thing to get a true glimpse into how decisions are made at a tremendously powerful media organization like Fox News.

But, because of the discovery process in the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox, we keep getting those glimpses — and a new filing released Monday reveals just how intentionally and strategically company chair Rupert Murdoch wields his power to influence the GOP.

Much of the coverage of this latest filing has been about Murdoch’s acknowledgment, in a deposition, that some Fox News hosts endorsed false claims that the election was stolen. But what got my attention is Murdoch’s discussions of how he wanted to influence his audience — to “lead” them, eventually, away from Trump.

As I wrote earlier this month, the Dominion discovery has shown that Fox executives and primetime hosts were terrified about losing Trump-supporting viewers’ trust if they debunked Trump’s voter fraud claims too aggressively. Instead, they tried to influence their audience in more subtle ways, while indicating to viewers that they were still on their (and Trump’s) side.

But, importantly, they still very much wanted to influence their audience, and were working to do that. Rupert Murdoch, his son and company co-chair Lachlan Murdoch, and top Fox Corp. board members — like former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan — expressed their aims in plain terms behind the scenes, as the latest filing reveals.

After the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Ryan told a fellow board member: “this is a huge inflection point to keep Trump down and move on for the future of the conservative movement,” according to the Monday filing. He added: “Both Rupert and Lachlan agree fully. The key is to execute our collective will.”

On January 8, 2021, Rupert emailed a former Fox executive: “Fox News very busy pivoting... We want to make Trump a non person.”

Three days later, though, his assessment was a little more qualified. In an email exchange with Lachlan, who had shared a message from a board member urging Fox to take a stand against Trump, the elder Murdoch said Lachlan should respond that “Fox News, which called the election correctly, is pivoting as fast as possible.” But he added: “We have to lead our viewers which is not as easy as it might seem.”

Fox News did not make Trump a “non person.” The network reverted to generally favorable coverage of Trump soon afterward. The Dominion legal filings do not discuss the company’s deliberations after January 2021, but likely they faced the same pressures they’d been facing for months — too much negative coverage of Trump would risk driving away their most fervent viewers.

But Fox appears to have done something else — something more subtle, but just as strategic. Rather than making Trump a non-person, the network helped build someone else up into a formidable person within the Republican Party — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who the network heavily and favorably featured in 2021 and 2022, and who saw his poll numbers for the presidential nomination in 2024 rise accordingly.

And Trump has noticed. “FoxNews is promoting Ron DeSanctus so hard and so much that there’s not much time left for Real News,” the former president wrote Monday in a post on his social network, TruthSocial.

How Fox tries to influence its viewers — and sometimes succeeds

Donald Trump, speaking and pointing a finger sideways, is at a debate podium with a microphone.
Fox News hosted the first GOP presidential debate in August 2015. They tried to take down Trump. They didn’t succeed.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

To understand the relationship between Fox and its viewers, think of it as a two-step process.

  • First, Fox tries to win its viewers’ attention and loyalty — playing to their fears and prejudices, entertaining them, and conveying that they’re on the same side.
  • Second, Fox tries to steer, redirect, and shape their viewers’ impulses in certain directions.

Imagine a person who is not particularly political, but who really resents illegal immigration. He starts watching Fox, drawn in by the coverage that matches his immigration views. He’s also exposed to other messaging on other issues, and gradually becomes more of a typical Republican voter. He has been convinced, by Fox, that the Republican Party is on his side.

So Fox is not simply a news source, and it’s not simply a moneymaking apparatus; its executives and power players also have political aims and try to achieve them. The problem is that changing viewers’ minds is a lot harder than simply pandering to and entertaining them. It takes some delicacy.

For instance, in the first GOP presidential debate of 2015, Fox’s moderators engaged in a blatant attempt to take Trump down — but their viewers revolted, Trump remained at the top of the polls, and the network shifted its coverage in a less confrontational direction, eventually becoming his champions. They evidently decided they can’t influence their viewers — or make as much money — if those viewers change the channel or turn off the TV in protest.

Fox ran into that issue again with the 2020 election. The network became the first to call Arizona for Biden, and Trump and many viewers responded furiously, sending Fox into a defensive crouch. Within days, a top-down effort was in place to regain viewers’ trust with friendlier coverage for the president.

Then, when some hosts, like Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs, spotlighted ludicrously wacky voter fraud conspiracy theories being pushed by Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, executives and hosts like Tucker Carlson became concerned.

Murdoch made his political aims clear in a November 16, 2020, email to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. “Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can. We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt.” (Note the reference to the Georgia Senate special elections and how Murdoch wanted to help Republicans there.)

Per the new filing, Fox senior vice president Raj Shah learned on November 20 that Powell was not actually, officially, Trump’s lawyer. Shah, a former Trump White House deputy press secretary, “took it upon himself to generate Trump administration pushback” against Powell and to get her “disavowed by the campaign,” Dominion’s lawyers claim.

Meanwhile, Carlson carefully moved against Powell in a monologue making clear she was providing no evidence for her claims. Trump soon distanced his campaign from Powell. One could call this a qualified influence victory — except that Powell would be in the White House meeting Trump again in December.

The real shift in Fox coverage

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a portrait-style photo, against an American flag backdrop.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech after defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist during his election night watch party in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Once January 6 happened, Fox executives and board members made a new private round of avowals that this was the time to take down Trump, with Rupert Murdoch writing, “We want to make Trump a non person.”

What happened was not so dramatic — but it was significant.

Fox did not erase Trump — he did an interview with Bartiromo in March 2021, and with Hannity the following month. Hosts like Carlson pushed conspiracy theories about the January 6 attacks. The network remained laser-focused on the outrages brought about by Democrats and President Joe Biden. They hired Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara as a contributor.

But the network became far less Trump-obsessed. In July 2022, the New York Times’s Jeremy Peters wrote that Fox was often “ignoring” or “bypassing” Trump in favor of other Republicans. This, Peters wrote, was “not coincidental ... The skepticism toward the former president extends to the highest levels of the company, according to two people with knowledge of the thinking of” Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch.

Meanwhile, the network built up a new star. In 2021, the Tampa Bay Times’s Steve Contorno obtained emails showing how intensely Fox cultivated DeSantis. “We see him as the future of the party,” one producer wrote.

He appeared dozens of times on Fox that year, and the coverage was generally positive. DeSantis picked fights that would play well to Fox viewers and fit with the narratives Fox was pushing, making himself conservatives’ champion in the culture wars against “wokeness” and Covid lockdowns.

In polls of national Republicans, DeSantis has clearly emerged as the leading alternative to Trump, polling at 20 to 30 percent of the vote before even getting into the race. That’s higher than any Republican candidate was polling at this point in 2015.

So when Trump rages about how Fox has been “promoting” DeSantis, he isn’t wrong — that’s exactly what’s been happening. It’s been enough to put DeSantis in second place in polls. But boosting him further might require the more direct confrontation with Trump that the network has repeatedly shied away from — and it’s unclear whether they’ll have the appetite for that this time.