Apparently, dynastic succession is still a viable concept in corporate America. Mr. Murdoch’s crown prince, Lachlan, defended Fox and the Dominion settlement when speaking to investors on May 9. “The settlement in no way changes Fox’s commitment to the highest journalistic standards across our company or our passion for unflinchingly reporting the news of the day,” he said. Such comments do not exactly inspire confidence that Fox News has any plans to make an effort to maintain the facts in its reporting. “They’re doubling up,” Ms. Minow said. And that’s downright scary, especially given the size of Fox’s audience and its influence.
The drama we’re watching play out at the Fox Corporation is an extreme example of how companies with a controlling shareholder can suffer – the stock is down nearly 18 percent in the past five years – but it’s not the only one. To a lesser degree, I see problems happening at companies like Comcast (controlled by the Roberts family) and Paramount Global (controlled by Shari Redstone), among others. When dual classes of shares are involved, a family’s voting power often far exceeds its economic ownership, leading to financially foolish, and even bizarre, behavior.
There is a reason that a century ago the idea of professional management was introduced into American corporations. A professional manager creates a sense of distance between shareholders and management, which is held accountable to a board of directors, elected to represent the shareholders. Professional managers are paid to look at problems objectively, accounting for what will theoretically be best for all stakeholders, including shareholders, creditors, vendors and employees. It may not be a perfect system, but the pas de deux between a professional manager and board of directors has proven to be a durable way to create lasting wealth.
Compare Mr. Murdoch with, say, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank. Or with Joaquin Duato, the president and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the health care giant, where there are no more Johnsons among the top brass. JPMorgan Chase is now run professionally, dispassionately and well by Mr. Dimon. He is powerful, yes, but he is not everyone powerful JPMorgan Chase’s board of directors can fire him at any time, for any reason. Same with Mr. Duato. Does anyone at Fox or News Corp hold Mr Murdoch accountable in the same way? can anyone?
One way to rein in Mr. Murdoch may lie with Smartmatic. If it wins its lawsuit, it could insist, as part of any settlement, on management changes at Fox or even require that the CEO succession process include candidates outside the Murdoch family. Smartmatic, or even the recently filed a shareholder lawsuit against Fox, could end up pressuring Fox, and indirectly News Corp, to get rid of their dual-class stock structures.