Fox News' handling of the renewed harassment allegations is a reflection of greater company conflicts and a generational shift as Rupert hangs on to a bygone era and James and Lachlan plot a risky new course.
Last July, after Gretchen Carlson sued the Murdoch-controlled 21st Century Fox and Roger Ailes, the then-head of Fox News Channel, for sexual harassment, Rupert Murdoch told his sons, both Ailes enemies, that paying off Carlson without a fight would mean more lawsuits. Easy-money settlements always bring more claims. James and Lachlan Murdoch, however, were eager to get rid of their nemesis, and the most direct way to do that was to accept Carlson's claims after a quickie investigation and then use a big payoff — $20 million — to end the dispute and calm the storm.
Nine months later, the chickens coming home to roost, Fox has continued to collect a string of look-alike claims against Ailes and against ratings giant Bill O'Reilly, with a firestorm of recent press attention on what The New York Times is calling the "O'Reilly revelations." What has been revealed is not evidence nor an admission of guilt but details of payments settling complaints against O'Reilly — not a small distinction. You can assume maximal guilt, which the Times and other Fox haters do, or you can assume, as many lawyers do, that when there is money to be had, plaintiffs come out of the woodwork. ("Coming out of the woodwork" is a virtual term of art in big settlement tort cases).
Murdoch Senior is said to be saying, "I told you so." James, CEO of 21st Century Fox, is blaming it on the Fox News culture and has hired Paul Weiss, the same law firm that performed a two-week investigation of Ailes, to probe O'Reilly (there is, too, a Department of Justice investigation of how settlement payments were made, which Rupert dismisses as DOJ liberal politics and which his sons see as indicating more Fox News dark arts). This is a reflection of greater family and company interests and conflicts. For 86-year-old Rupert, Fox News is a key part of his legacy, as well as the family company's health: the most profitable news outlet ever ($1.5 billion in profits this year) and among the most influential. For James, 44, and Lachlan, 45, the hope is to reshape this legacy, to move Fox away from what they see as its retro, Trump-style views toward, well, something nicer (and to do this profitably, they hope, somehow).