LOS ANGELES – In early 2019, when the Murdoch family completed the $ 71 billion sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, movie studio executives learned that someone was reading all of their emails.
And not just anyone: Viet Dinh, the chief legal officer of Fox Corporation and a close friend of Fox’s chief executive, Lachlan Murdoch, had brought in a team of attorneys to investigate the “potential misuse of Fox data” by the top executives at 21st Investigate Century Fox A Fox spokeswoman said she was suspected of getting into Disney while the terms were still being worked out. The studio’s president, Peter Rice, and his chief attorney, Gerson Zweifach, protested that they were just doing normal transition planning – and that Mr. Dinh was so paranoid that he could blow up the deal.
The episode didn’t ruin the deal. The previously unreported conflict between the studio managers and Mr. Dinh, a sociable and relentless Republican attorney who was the 2001 chief architect of the anti-terrorist law known as the Patriot Act, offers a rare glimpse into the opaque power structure of Rupert Murdoch’s world. The non-agenarian mogul is wielding immense power through News Corp and Fox Corporation to fuel a global wave of right-wing populism. Fundamental elements of running its media business, however, remain a mystery.
At Fox Corporation, the questions of who is responsible and what the future holds are particularly blurred. The company, minus its studio, is now a midsize TV company, thriving in a landscape of giants like Disney and AT&T that control everything from cellular networks to streaming platforms, film and television. Fox’s profits are dominated by Fox News. Lachlan Murdoch’s more liberal brother James, who no longer plays an operational role in the family businesses, has made it clear that he wants to see a change.
And since the studio was sold, said one person Lachlan Murdoch knows, Los Angeles has become a less hospitable place to him and his family. When you’re a studio boss with actors and directors on your payroll, Hollywood may overlook your embarrassing right-wing cable interests. But after the Disney sale and after the January 6th Capitol riot, Mr Murdoch risked becoming a social pariah. James Murdoch didn’t help when he complained to the Financial Times about “outlets that tell lies to their audiences”.
Last month, Lachlan Murdoch and his family moved to Sydney, Australia, an unlikely base for a company whose main assets are Americans. The move has increased the perception – heightened when it was ready when Fox News presenters misinformed their audience about Covid-19 last year – that Mr Murdoch is not firmly in control. The company is working hard to refute that perception: the Fox spokeswoman told me that Mr Murdoch is so dedicated that he has adopted a nightly lifestyle and works in Sydney from midnight to 10 a.m. (She also said it was “wrong and malicious” to claim that Mr. Dinh has operational control of Fox’s businesses.) It is such a confusing situation that a Fox executive called me last week to ask if I knew anything about succession plans. I promised I would tell him if I found out.
But Mr Dinh, 53, was ready to step in and indeed has been viewed internally as the company’s powerhouse since Mr Murdoch began touring the globe. Mr. Dinh’s rise completes an unlikely turn in his career that began when he met Lachlan Murdoch at an Aspen Institute event in 2003. Murdoch’s heir later asked him to both fill a seat on the company’s board of directors and be a godfather to his son. (“He couldn’t find any other Catholics,” Dinh joked to The New York Observer in 2006.)
Two former Fox employees and one current and one former Fox News employee, familiar with his role, have portrayed him as the ubiquitous and decisive right-hand man of an underhanded CEO. (They only spoke on the condition that they were not named because Fox has a firm grip on public relations.) While Mr. Dinh does not run a daily program, he manages the political operations of a company that is the central pillar of Republican politics, and he is a key voice in corporate strategy that has played a role in Fox’s quest to find its way into and work with the global online gambling industry.
In a recent interview with legal writer David Lat, entitled “Is Viet Dinh the Most Powerful Lawyer in America?” – Mr Dinh made suggestions in this column and in the Financial Times that he was more than a humble in-house attorney.
“It is not only wrong to give me a role other than my daily work overseeing legal, regulatory and government affairs. It would mean that I have a lot more time than I actually have,” he told Mr. Lat in his original Jurisdiction newsletter. “Lachlan hired me for a full-time job that I can barely manage with 24 hours a day.”
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But his oversized compensation – $ 24 million in 2019 and $ 12 million last year after he waived his salary for much of the pandemic – belies this, as does episodes like the high-stakes confrontation at Disney- Deal and his unusually close personal connection with the Murdoch family.
Mr Dinh, who declined to be interviewed through the company spokeswoman, is a surprising figure who plays a pivotal role in overseeing the Trump movement’s most powerful megaphone. He is part of the narrow, elite group of conservative attorneys who broadly opposed Donald J. Trump’s bombast and contempt for the law – he is said to regularly mock the former president in private – despite valued his appointment to justice and a few other guidelines. And Mr. Dinh is not just a member of that group, he’s a real star of it. As a refugee from Vietnam who arrived at the age of 10, he once told VietLife magazine that, among other things, he worked “cleaning toilets, pumping bus tables, pumping gasoline, picking berries, repairing cars” to help his family, to make ends meet. He attended Harvard and Harvard Law School. As a student, he wrote a powerful Times Op-Ed on Vietnamese refugees – including his sister and nephew – who were stranded in Hong Kong. The play helped them achieve refugee status and eventually allowed them to emigrate to the United States.
Mr. Dinh came up with the conservative policies of many refugees from communism and followed a pipeline from a clerkship at the Supreme Court with Sandra Day O’Connor to a role in the Congressional investigation into Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
He was deputy attorney general for legal policy on Sept. 11 and “the fifth most likely person” to complete the quarterbacking of the Patriot Act, said his old friend and colleague Paul Clement, who currently represents Fox on charges of defamation by two electoral technology companies. Mr. Dinh “led the effort to get everything together, packaged, presented and delivered to the hill,” said Ken Wainstein, a former homeland security adviser at the Bush White House. The package of laws changed the American security state and significantly expanded domestic surveillance and law enforcement powers. It enabled the FBI to conduct secret and intrusive investigations into individuals and groups covered by an expanded definition of terrorism.
Mr. Dinh was mentioned many times at the time as a brilliant young attorney who could easily dispose of the first Asian-American attorney in the Supreme Court. He was also particularly image-conscious and “worked the media like crazy,” recalled Jill Abramson, a former Times Washington office manager and later editor-in-chief. He is also a master of networking in Washington, whose relationships are bipartisan. His best college friend is a Democratic former US attorney, Preet Bharara. During the pandemic, Mr. Dinh left comments on job postings from other lawyers on LinkedIn.
During President George W. Bush’s first term in office, Mr. Dinh left government to practice privately and founded and sold a high-end Washington law firm, Bancroft. He developed a reputation for being a well-connected workaholic and a man who would go out to have a drink for lunch.
He’s not the type of boss who worries about burning his employees out. His view was that “the less he has to think about where his chauffeur is, the more work he can do,” said a former assistant, Lindsey Shea, who also described him as a dedicated mentor.
Mr Dinh’s close ties with the Murdochs have been criticized when he played a pivotal role in a nominally independent investigation of telephone hacking by Murdoch journalists in the UK in 2011.
Mr. Dinh resigned from the Fox Board of Directors in 2018 to take over legal duties. He tightened the company’s ties with the Republican establishment, and former House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the company’s board of directors in 2019.The Fox Corporation hired a senior Republican opposition researcher, Raj Shah, to monitor online criticism of the company and the company Develop strategies to counteract this.
Now, Mr. Dinh finds himself in the strange position of many of Rupert Murdoch’s top lieutenants: he is paid like a manager and fulfills much of the larger strategic role associated with this job. He also has the leverage you need in a family business, a personal relationship with Lachlan Murdoch that enabled him to take over Mr. Rice who is himself the son of a close ally of Rupert Murdoch. But Mr Dinh still works for a company that is shaped by the need to follow Mr Trump and Fox audiences wherever they lead so that they are not overtaken by more right-wing networks like Newsmax. And the family is ultimately in control.
And Mr. Dinh’s own agenda can be hard to guess. In an interview with Mr. Lat, he largely reiterated Fox News’ editorial points about the quality and fairness of the network’s coverage. He also prided himself on Fox’s volatile willingness to cross over to the president last fall, though the network later fired the political analysts who angered Mr. Trump the most.
“There is no better historical record of Fox News’ excellent journalism than watching the former president tweet against Fox,” Dinh said.