From the Community | Why did we propose a resolution about the association of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer with Stanford?

May 29, 2023, 4:58 p.m.

On May 11, 2023, we proposed a resolution in the Faculty Senate requesting that the association of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer in all positions of responsibility or honor at Stanford University be terminated due to promulgation of dangerous, racist and antisemitic disinformation on platforms they own or control. The motivation for our resolution was first and foremost ethical. Although the Faculty Senate has no control over non-academic appointments and honors, members of the Stanford faculty do have an obligation to ensure that our University abides by its own code of conduct and other stated policies.

The University Code of Conduct states that “All members of the University Community are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution, and of the broader community in which we function. The University values integrity, diversity, respect, freedom of inquiry and expression, trust, honesty and fairness and strives to integrate these values into its education, research, health care and business practices.” It specifies that this Code applies to faculty, staff, students, postdoctoral scholars and members of the Board of Trustees, in addition to other individuals, including those who perform services for the University as volunteers. We believe that President Tessier-Lavigne’s statement in the Stanford Report on April 3, 2023, was made in that spirit: “Out in the broader world, we see too often the impact of misinformation, oversimplification and, especially, demonization in public discussions. Social media, cable news, and political discourse can be home to taunts, personal invective, and even the rule of the mob. We must collectively reject such corrosive conduct at Stanford.” Our primary concern is that the disinformation and hate speech promoted on platforms controlled by Murdoch and Mercer have violated the Code of Conduct and the clearly demarcated lines beyond which Stanford University’s president has promised action.

Platforms owned and controlled by Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer have been repeated purveyors of disinformation — false information deliberately spread with the intent to deceive people. This unethical practice is antithetical to the very purpose of our University. Murdoch’s Fox News spread disinformation about the 2020 U.S. presidential election that stoked the fires that led to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, then knowingly spread lies about that horrendous event. Mercer’s Parler platform spread similar disinformation and was also used to plan and execute the insurrection. Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica firm improperly obtained the private data of up to 87 million Facebook users and then according to a whistleblower used these data to alter democratic elections in the United States and the United Kingdom via targeted disinformation. A major goal of this effort was to suppress the votes of Black Americans. In 2018, Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy, leaving Facebook/Meta on the hook for a $725 million legal settlement for user privacy violations involving Cambridge Analytica.

Some have claimed that Murdoch and Mercer had no control over the content of their platforms. However, Murdoch admitted under oath in the Dominion lawsuit that election claims made by Fox News hosts were false, and that he could have given orders not to allow certain kinds of content, or guests, on Fox News programs. “I could have. But I didn’t,” he said. Fox settled that lawsuit out of court for $787.5 million, reportedly to avoid further public disclosure of yet more damaging evidence against it. Following the January 6 insurrection, co-founder John Matze tried to stop domestic terrorists from using Mercer’s Parler platform; at this point, according to reporting, Mercer fired him.

Platforms owned and controlled by Murdoch and Mercer have also promoted racial hatred and antisemitism. The “Great Replacement” theory repeatedly promoted by Tucker Carlson and others on Fox News was directly cited by perpetrators of targeted mass murders of innocent Blacks, Jews, Hispanics and Muslims in the US and New Zealand. Only a few years after the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA, in which the perpetrator cited a centuries-old trope that powerful Jews act as puppeteers to control the world, Murdoch’s NY Post and Fox News social media displayed a cartoon that illustrated this antisemitic calumny. Very similar images were used by the Nazis in Germany and in countries they occupied to stoke the virulent antisemitism that fueled the Holocaust. Mercer’s Breitbart has used the same antisemitic puppeteer conspiracy rhetoric. Furthermore, Mercer’s now defunct Parler platform was an internet repository for the spread of hateful racism and antisemitism. These practices stand in direct contradiction to a statement President Tessier-Lavigne made at Stanford Hillel on April 7, 2023, in response to yet another antisemitic incident on campus a few days earlier: “I want to make it very clear that we will not tolerate antisemitism and the symbols of antisemitism here on campus. It is something we need to eradicate.” His energetic response to this and other incidents of antisemitism on campus is laudable — our institution should have no tolerance for antisemitism and racism.

When we introduced the resolution in the Senate, we emphasized our concern with the consistency of ethical positions upheld by the University. Referring to the motion about the Stanford University Honor Code that the Senate approved only two weeks earlier, we pointed out that we expect our students to be truthful and not to cheat on exams or misrepresent others’ work as their own. We expect the members of our faculty to be truthful and not knowingly publish false information. Therefore, we should expect persons in positions of responsibility and honor at Stanford to meet the same standards. However, the evidence cited above shows that having Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer occupy such positions contradicts the Code of Conduct and President Tessier-Lavigne’s statements cited above. Murdoch and Mercer are currently members of the Board of Overseers of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Therefore, they should be subject to the same expectations of conduct as the faculty, staff, students, postdoctoral scholars, and members of the Board of Trustees. In our view, which is shared by many faculty members at Stanford, these individuals have repeatedly violated these expectations of conduct as detailed above. Therefore, we believe that their association with Stanford University in all positions of responsibility or honor should be terminated. Our resolution was not specifically directed at the Hoover Institution, as some have claimed. We would have the very same objections were these individuals to occupy positions on the Board of Trustees of Stanford University.

Critics of our resolution on the Senate floor attempted to dislodge it from its proper context of ethics and present it as a question of academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and even freedom of the press. Regarding academic freedom, Murdoch and Mercer are neither faculty members nor students. Rather, they currently occupy high non-academic positions within the University. As for freedom of speech, we would of course welcome them to speak at the University if invited. Our critics have characterized Murdoch’s and Mercer’s actions as “views” and “viewpoints,” and, against considerable evidence, claim they are not responsible for what is published in the media they control. We are not questioning their opinions; we are questioning their undermining of our University’s values by the disinformation in the media they own or support. Murdoch is free to publish in his news and broadcast media anything he wishes, and he does. We don’t object to that. We object to the University holding in a position of honor a person who had admitted, under oath, to have disseminated harmful disinformation for financial gain. How can we, as the University, implement the honor code in our undergraduate education while honoring someone who admitted to not doing anything to prevent dissemination of dangerous lies in the media he controls? Are we saying that a person’s ability to make donations or pay a steep legal settlement fee elevates them above all ethical standards? If so, what kind of message does that send to our students? How is it possible to simultaneously enforce and relativize basic ethical principles of conduct? Ethics is not a matter of opinions but of values. One builds one’s moral identity through membership and participation in a community. We need ethical consistency in pursuit of our two-pronged mission of research and teaching. Holding Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer in positions of honor at the University disrupts that much-needed ethical agreement that forms the foundation of an institution. If the University is serious about its ambition to educate new generations of responsible citizens, it needs a clear ethical vision, to which all of us, faculty, students, administrators and, yes, board members, can subscribe.

We introduced our resolution as “New Business” towards the end of the Senate meeting on May 11. Since it has not been voted on, the Senate rules stipulate that it must be brought back in one of its future meetings as “Unfinished Business.” We recognize that the Faculty Senate does not have the institutional authority to name or revoke members of advisory boards. It does, however, have moral authority to question these appointments. With this resolution, we invite each and every member of the Senate and the entire Stanford community to reflect on the ethical values they want to uphold at our University and to act on them.

Branislav Jakovljević
Sara Hart Kimbal Professor of the Humanities
Theater and Performance Studies

Joseph Lipsick
Professor of Pathology, Genetics, and Biology (by courtesy)

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