Errol Louis: The Trump-Murdoch connections are more than harmless coincidence
They raise ethical, journalistic and business questions, he writes
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Add the bromance between President Trump and media mogul Rupert Murdoch to the long list of messy conflicts of interest that define – and cast a shadow over – the Trump White House.
“It is my distinct honor to introduce the commander in chief, the President of the United States, my friend Donald J. Trump,” the Australian-born Murdoch said at a recent banquet honoring US and Australian veterans who fought in the battle of the Coral Sea, a pivotal World War II engagement.
The two men hugged as Trump came to the podium.
Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, the media corporation whose holdings include Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and other properties, is more than just a wealthy pal, and his words were more than ceremonial.
When The New York Times published a front-page analysis of the people outside the White House whom Trump contacts for advice, Murdoch was the first one listed. He and Trump speak by phone almost every day, according to the Times.
“The president’s relationship with Mr. Murdoch is deeper and more enduring than most in his life, and the two commiserate and plot strategy in their phone calls, according to people close to both,” the paper said.
The connections extend to family: Until recently, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was one of five people overseeing a nearly $300-million trust fund for Murdoch’s daughters from a previous marriage. (Ivanka Trump resigned as a trustee after Election Day.)
The Trump-Murdoch connections might all seem like harmless coincidence – just a couple of billionaire buddies whose families get along – but it goes much deeper than that. In several cases, Trump appears to be using his presidential powers to provide a commercial benefit to Murdoch.
It’s a troubling reminder that Trump, years ago, openly boasted about trying to make money by campaigning for office.
“It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” he said in 2000.
That mentality hasn’t changed. Since getting elected, Trump has clearly been using the presidency to make money for himself and his family – and, apparently, selected close friends including Murdoch.
Of the first seven sit-down television interviews Trump granted after taking office, five were with Murdoch’s Fox News (the other two were with ABC and the Christian Broadcasting Network). Murdoch no doubt thanked the commander in chief for the ratings boost during one of their regular phone calls.
Trump frequently praises Fox on Twitter. But it has left some journalists inside the Murdoch empire complaining about softball treatment and a pro-Trump tilt.
Grumbling from reporters at The Wall Street Journal grew so great that the editor, Gerard Baker, held a newsroom-wide meeting to defend the paper’s coverage.
Another possible conflict involves Trump’s vow during his presidential campaign to block the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. It’s widely acknowledged that the merger would create a powerful rival to Murdoch’s empire (only a few years ago, Murdoch tried – and failed – to acquire Time Warner himself).
Now the Trump-Murdoch alliance is about to endure its most serious test.
Trump recently leaped to the defense of Murdoch’s business when scandal engulfed Fox News. In the wake of an explosive New York Times story that revealed that 21st Century Fox paid $13 million in settlements to five women claiming sexual harassment or verbal abuse by Bill O’Reilly, the top Fox News host, only one prominent public figure came to the defense of O’Reilly. That person was the President of the United States.
O’Reilly has denied the harassment allegations.
“I think he shouldn’t have settled; personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled,” Trump told reporters. “Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
In the end, despite Trump’s expression of support, dozens of advertisers dropped O’Reilly’s show, and Murdoch’s sons forced the host out.
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But the US Justice Department is probing possible illegal conduct inside 21st Century Fox related to money paid to settle sexual harassment claims by former Fox News President Roger Ailes. As first reported by CNN, the investigation centers on whether the company’s shareholders were properly informed about the money being spent on the harassment allegations. (Ailes has denied the harassment claims.)
All of which raises a key question about ethics and conflicts of interest in Trump administration. Will Trump, deeply entwined with Murdoch, curtail or end the Justice Department investigation of Fox in exchange for favorable news coverage?