The world’s mightiest press lord of the past half-century has just announced he’s stepping down.
The 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch, come this November, will no longer be lording over the corporate boards of his two media empires, the Fox news universe and the News Corporation, the publisher of media powerhouses that range from the New York Post to the Wall Street Journal.
These immensely profitable news-and-views machines have left Murdoch a billionaire eight times over. But this deepest of media deep pockets took special care, in his retirement announcement, to position himself as a pal to the people, an ever-appreciative admirer of “the truck drivers distributing our papers, the cleaners who toil when we have left the office, the assistants who support us or the skilled operators behind the cameras or the computer code.”
His entire career, Murdock’s exit statement declared, has been “a battle for the freedom of speech” against “elites” who have only “contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class.”
“Most of the media,” Murdoch’s sayonara went on to claim, runs “in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.” Their “self-serving bureaucracies are seeking to silence those who would question their provenance and purpose.”
In actual fact, of course, Murdoch’s media properties have unrelentingly operated as bulwarks for elite wealth and privilege. His tabloids have kept modest-income readers distracted with “salacious coverage” that feeds “fears of crime and immigration.” His “prestige” papers have helped elites forge consensus — across the English-speaking world — on tax cuts and assorted other policies that have concentrated wealth and power at levels that would have been unimaginable in the mid-20th century.
And Murdoch’s empires have, even worse, consistently undercut any broad public awareness of the price we pay for letting that wealth and power continue to concentrate.
“Nobody has done more harm to the understanding of climate change than Rupert Murdoch,” as the University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann has told CNN.
Murdoch, adds Mann, “has wielded his global media network as a weapon to sow doubt and confusion about the basic science and the case for action.”
Murdoch has been wreaking all this damage ever since he inherited — way back in 1952 — his first media property, a daily Australian newspaper his daddy had owned. Over the years, especially those years since his Fox News became America’s premiere news network in 2001, no single individual anywhere on Earth has done more to make our world safe for grand fortunes.
Could we realistically have expected anything even a bit more socially redeeming from a media mogul as powerful as Murdoch? Well, actually, history does offer up some models for media moguls interested in something besides maximizing their mega millions. Take, for instance, E.W. Scripps, the famed newspaper publisher who passed away nearly a century ago in 1926.
The youngest of 13 children, Scripps borrowed $10,000 to launch his first newspaper in 1878. He would spend the next quarter-century building a chain of dailies and a national news service that would evolve into the United Press International. His papers, Scripps pledged, would “always be devoted to the service of the 95%, namely the working man and the poor and unfortunate.”
By 1917 and America’s entry into the first World War, Scripps and a handful of other socially conscious men of means had come to realize that the war in Europe had opened up an opportunity to cut our Gilded Age rich down to something approximating democratic size. To meet the cost of waging world war, the nation would either have to tax the rich at significant rates or borrow from the rich, by selling war bonds, a choice that would leave the United States even more plutocratic.
“The country will be the gainer by tapping and reducing the great fortunes,” Scripps wrote to a similarly minded man of means, “and once the people learn how easy it is, and how beneficial to all parties concerned it is to get several billions a year by an Income Tax, the country hereafter may be depended upon to raise most, if not all, of the revenues for the Nation, and the States, and the cities from this source.”
The Scripps-backed American Committee on War Finance would soon be demanding a cap on annual income, what the Committee would call “a conscription of wealth.” No American, the Committee’s tax plan for the war proposed, ought to be able to retain after taxes “an annual net income in excess of $100,000,” about $2.4 million in today’s dollars.
“All income of over one hundred thousand dollars a year should be conscripted,” Scripps telegraphed to President Woodrow Wilson. “Such legislation would cost me much more than half my present income.”
“Some of us have very large incomes,” Scripps would later explain to the House Ways and Means Committee. “We employ servants who produce nothing for the common good and only minister to our vices. We purchase costly and showy clothing, houses, food, furniture, automobiles, jewelry, etc., etc., the production of which has taken the labor of many hundreds of thousands of men and women, who if they were not so employed would be producing other commodities in such quantity as to cheapen them and make them more accessible to the poor.”
“An enormously high rate of Income Tax,” Scripps argued, “would have the effect of diverting all this labor, what is given to practically useless things, into other channels where production would be useful to the whole people.”
Most all of the nation’s fabulously wealthy — and their most avid advocates — would respond to the “conscription of wealth” campaign with predictable hysterics. But by mid-1917 the campaign had completely redefined the nation’s tax-the-rich frame of reference.
The result? By the war’s end in 1918, America’s rich faced a top-bracket tax rate of 77 percent, up from 15 percent in 1916.
By 1926, with Scripps passed away, the nation’s wealthy had regrouped enough to get that top rate trimmed all the way down to 25 percent. But the World War I “conscription of wealth” campaign had touched a nerve. In the months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt would renew the World War I-era call for a 100 percent top-bracket tax rate, and, by the end of World War II, America’s rich would be facing a 94 percent federal tax on income over $200,000.
That top tax rate would hover around 90 percent for the next two decades, years that would see the United States give birth to the first mass middle class the world had ever seen.
Today, thanks in no small part to the media machinations of Rupert Murdoch, our richest now face — on paper — a top-bracket income tax rate less than half that high. In real life, ProPublica revealed this past spring, our tax code’s incredibly ample and generous current loopholes have America’s 25 wealthiest taxpayers paying a “true tax rate” of less than 4 percent.
What can we now expect from Rupert Murdoch’s successor, his son Lachlan? Don’t hold your breath waiting for Murdoch 2.0 to take his family media colossus down a path any less plutocratic. Lachlan doesn’t have much E. W. Scripps in him. Back in 2019, he spent $150 million on an 11-acre estate in L.A. At that time, Lachlan’s new home rated as the second-most expensive U.S. mansion ever purchased.
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.