In 2019, when I was puzzled by the hostile attitude taken by The Times of London toward Brexit—the then-prospective and now just-completed exit of Britain from the European Union—I asked a friend of mine who also knows the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, why it had done so.
How could such a famously (or notoriously) conservative and anti-establishment newspaper mogul, who also owns the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, have allowed his flagship paper in Britain to lead the charge against the Conservative government of the day? How could it have taken the side of the deep-state Euro-establishment and its sclerotic bureaucracy against the British working classes, whose favor the Murdoch papers had most often tended to seek in the past?
My friend, it turned out, had asked Murdoch the same question—to which the answer was as follows: “That’s what the readers of The Times want.”
I thought of those words a few days ago when, as you may have heard, Murdoch’s New York Post splashed a front-page editorial, headed: “Mr. President, STOP THE INSANITY. You lost the election—here’s how to save your legacy.”
Two weeks earlier, after the rejection by the U.S. Supreme Court of the suit brought by the attorneys general of Texas and other states to stop the certification of results in states where fraud was alleged, The Wall Street Journal had already, but more discreetly, advised the president to concede.
Since the election and even before it, numerous pro-Trumpers have also complained that the Murdoch-owned Fox News, previously mostly friendly toward the president, had turned against him, citing among other things the obvious bias against President Donald Trump of the network’s anchor Chris Wallace in moderating the first presidential debate.
Was this turn away from the president what the watchers of Fox News and the readers of the Murdoch papers wanted?
Maybe. But I think it’s a little more complicated than that.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly over the past 20 or 30 years since the advent of the internet-borne media, we have all come to expect that the role of the media is no longer to report the truth to citizens, but to give to customers what Murdoch now says he means to give them—namely, what they want.
They may still call it the truth, but that word as it is used by most people in the media now means something different. It means the media narrative—a communal construction, like a medieval cathedral and similarly intended to stand for the ages as a symbol of the builders’ faith.
When formerly informed citizens instead became customers for news and opinion that had been ready formed for them into a standardized narrative, they started wanting different things. Like customers in other areas of life, they mainly wanted to be in the fashion.
Younger readers may find it hard to believe that political fashions used to be largely unchanging and almost entirely specific to regions or classes or institutional affiliations outside politics. The famously “solid” South was Democratic, while New England was nearly as solidly Republican.
Labor was Democrat; management was Republican. Catholics and Evangelicals tended to vote Democratic, while mainstream Protestants leaned Republican. Or, like my great-grandfather, Prohibitionist.
Joe Biden this year campaigned as if that old paradigm is still prevalent, claiming to be the candidate of Scranton, Pennsylvania, rather than “Wall Street”—even though he got far more votes and raised far more money from Wall Street than Trump did. “The working man” appealed to by Lunchbucket Joe can scarcely even be said to exist anymore.
Now, everybody works. Or wants to.
More importantly, everybody is now more or less unmoored from those old regional or economic or religious constants, so that fashion, political and otherwise, tends to be dictated by the celebrity culture and the social and cognitive elite represented by the mainstream media.
As intellectuals, of course, these elites would be embarrassed to call themselves mere trendsetters, so they have invented a new, high-brow-sounding name for fashion in its political aspect.
This is the so-called Overton window used to describe the fashionably permissible range of opinion across the political spectrum. Anything outside that window can be labeled “extremist”—or the nowadays more fashionable “white supremacist”—and relegated to both the political and the social fringe.
With the advent of “cancel culture,” that marginalization of so-called extreme opinions—even though they might have been, such as opposition to gay marriage or “transgender” children, entirely mainstream only a few years ago—has become more scary. While the “Fashion Police” used to be a joke, as the newly fashionable idea of “hate crime” begins to shade into what Orwell called “thought crime,” their place is poised to be taken by the actual police.
Murdoch couldn’t have had the sort of successes he has had over the years as a newspaper proprietor without a lively appreciation of this change in the media landscape and a willingness to accommodate it. Like Chief Justice John Roberts, he knows which way the political winds are blowing and trims accordingly. His abandonment of Trump is just one more indication of the tightening grip of fashion’s tyranny among the elites.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for the New Criterion.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.