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Jan. 6 editorials suggest Murdoch has tired of Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Critics of the congressional investigation into the January 6 coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol have repeatedly questioned whether the hearings would move the needle. Now there is at least one discernible effect. Less than 24 hours after the close of Thursday night's hearings, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post published separate, searing editorials about former President Trump's failure to act during the mob attack on the Congress, and they asserted Trump's unfitness to return to office.

The two publications are controlled by the internationally influential conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, whose family-owned trust also owns Fox News. So the pieces do suggest a rupture in an important political alliance. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us now to tell us more. David, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So what caught your eye about these editorials from the Murdoch publications?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it was really a one-two punch. You had, at 5:39 p.m., The New York Post say, as you said, that Donald Trump had been shown by the revelations and the evidence set forth in those hearings to be unfit for office and explicitly pointed to the 2024 race and say he should not be welcomed back into the race or into the Oval Office. And then you had The Wall Street Journal post a similarly powerful piece talking about this being a test of his character, a test through crisis as many presidents face, and that he had utterly failed that test.

The second thing that really struck me was that The Wall Street Journal's post was just, I think, 73 minutes later. And so you have the tabloid of the Murdochs and the high-end sort of considered quality daily of the Murdochs saying the same thing with slightly different language a little more than an hour apart.

MARTIN: So I take it you're convinced that these pieces were coordinated?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. I'm not saying that I think the people from the Post and the people from the Journal were on a conference call. They're proud of what they do there. They have their own separate lines to the Murdochs. But this is something that could not be done, given the stakes, given the national interest, given the Murdochs' previous alliance with Donald Trump, as it became clear that he would prevail in the 2016 Republican primaries, as he headed to the White House - Rupert Murdoch finally had somebody at the White House as president who he could have a rapport with, frequent meetings with, advise, and he got some things out of that on a business sense as well. You know, given those stakes, there's no way those titles would do that without Murdoch's assent or direction. And why do I say that? I see that because having covered him for over 20 years, I can tell you time after time in the United Kingdom, he would support candidates, and then his titles would turn against them at Murdoch's direction. And you're seeing that happen here again.

MARTIN: Do you think a couple of newspaper editorials matter? I have to mention the Murdochs also control Fox News through their family trust. I mean, they have - what? - 39.2% ownership of the trust. So it's publicly traded, yes, but they have the majority ownership of the trust - not the majority ownership. What's the right way to say that? They have - what? - a controlling interest.

FOLKENFLIK: Controlling interest...

MARTIN: They have a controlling interest...

FOLKENFLIK: ...In the parent company of both...

MARTIN: ...In the parent company of Fox.

FOLKENFLIK: ...The Journal, The Post and of Fox. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And it doesn't seem that - you know, Fox News is, at least, their - on the editorial side, their support of Trump seems to have been full-throated as ever, although they don't seem to be, you know, covering his rallies with the alacrity that they did in the past. But does this - tell me why you think this matters.

FOLKENFLIK: I think it matters for a couple reasons. Look; Murdoch didn't want Trump to win in 2016, and the Journal in particular and the Post were very critical after January 6 of Trump, in one case going so far as to say he should resign. But in this case, it's a reiteration looking ahead to 2024, not simply accepting the fact that Trump polls seemingly ahead of the pack, saying, look; we want to put this guy out of bounds, and therefore we're giving cover to major donors. The financial folks who, for example, read The Wall Street Journal. We're giving cover for you to send your money in other directions. People can point to the Journal and say, we've been sanctioned. Murdoch is basically not on board at this point. We can go in another direction. And you've seen Ron DeSantis rise in coverage, and I think that's really the alternative the Murdochs are looking to at the moment.

MARTIN: But why this and why now? They pointed to the hearings, but it's - the hearings basically told us what we could already see.

FOLKENFLIK: I think it did it in a way that, even despite all the criticisms of the hearings that you've seen on the Murdochs' Fox News calling it a partisan effort, that the evidence that they're providing is too strong to ignore and that the opportunity is there to look toward another generation of Republicans. You know, now they're trying to look ahead to somebody who may represent kinds of policies they might like on regulations, on economics, ride certain cultural issues to office, and at the same time not carry the baggage that Trump does. This baggage, I think they see as more like cement blocks on chains around his ankles. They don't want the Republican Party to go down with it.

MARTIN: But those are related to his personhood and his personal conduct, not related to, say, his enemies-driven political style. That's not what they're criticizing.

FOLKENFLIK: Look; there are principles being articulated by both the Post and the Journal in the pieces in which they're essentially trying to dismiss Trump's viability as a candidate. But in reality, this is about pragmatic politics. That is the way Murdoch has operated on the three great English-speaking nations in which he's been so dominant. It's the way in which he's operating here. These are not perfectly independent journalistic judgments. These are what's going to be best for a pro-business, anti-regulatory, kind of anti-tax administration? How can we get that best? We think it's best by looking ahead, not clinging to Trump.

MARTIN: That is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.