Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will The Real Paul Ryan Stand Up?

What his tarnished stature as Fox News board member reveals about the once golden GOP leader.

By - Mar 14th, 2023 12:10 pm
Paul Ryan. Photo from the Office of the Speaker of the House.

Paul Ryan. Photo from the Office of the Speaker of the House.

The scene comes to us from a new book by Mark Leibovich, Thank You For Your Servitude, which reveals Paul Ryan’s emotional response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Ryan told Leibovich he “found himself sobbing” during the insurrection. “I spent my whole adult life in that building,” the former Republican House Speaker said. “And I saw my friends, a lot of cops, some of my old security detail — I’m still friends with a bunch of those guys. It really disturbed me, foundationally.”

This is the Paul Ryan he wants us to believe in, and many in the media have reinforced, of an idealistic idealogue who wants the best for his country. But if so, why has Ryan offered no criticism of Fox News for repeatedly running stories claiming that January 6th was a peaceful gathering of MAGA Republicans? Most recently there was the infamous Fox program by Tucker Carlson, who released misleading excerpts of more than 40,000 hours of security footage from the January 6 attack on Congress to claim it was a peaceful assembly of people. Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Carlson for this, but not Paul Ryan.

Ryan, moreover, is a paid board member of Fox News, one of just eight people on the board and the only former politician, which has left experts on corporate board governance arguing he has failed miserably at providing proper oversight of the company.

It was none other than former Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes, who had often facilitated toxic disinformation in his 24 years at WTMJ, who won national coverage for his recent challenge to Ryan’s lax leadership. In an interview at UW-Milwaukee for The Bulwark Podcast, Sykes asked Ryan how he could associate himself with a company that “is pumping toxic sludge, racism, disinformation, and attacks on democracy.”

“Do you have any responsibility?” as a Fox board member, Sykes asked.

“I do. I have a responsibility to offer my opinion and perspective and I do that, but I don’t go on TV and do it… So I offer my perspective, my opinion, often,” Ryan replied.

This remarkable exchange was all the more juicy because Sykes still identifies himself as a conservative, and was a knee-jerk booster of Ryan for nearly the latter’s entire career. For perhaps the first time, the image of Ryan as a man of principles took a serious beating. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, the renowned professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, has charged that Ryan’s “quiet dissent” was “cowardly, ineffective, and immoral,” and noted that board members have certain responsibilities under corporate governance law, which require Ryan to be more proactive.

Has Ryan suddenly lost his moral bearings, or was there always something lacking in his style of politics? This is the man who was once a rock star of the Republican Party, proclaimed by many in the media as a “serious-minded policy expert” and a “man of ideas” who would lead his party to history-making legislation. He was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s choice to run as vice-president in 2012, which certified Ryan’s golden standing within the party.

But nothing much came of those vaunted ideas. In his first 18 years as a congressman, Ryan authored just three pieces of legislation, as Politifact noted: “One named a post office in Wisconsin, a second changed taxes on arrows used by deer hunters, and the third, this year, established a $3 million presidential commission on ‘evidence-based policy making.’”

Ryan’s reputation rested largely on his long-feted economic “road map” to address what he called the “looming entitlement crisis.” It was first released in 2008 and re-released in slightly revised versions several times after that. But his solution to the growing level of debt he predicted would arise from federal entitlements was to add $6 trillion more in debt over a decade or so, by slashing both the top individual tax rate and the corporate tax rate.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has called Ryan a “con man” whose “deficit reduction” proposals were always frauds.” As a congressman, Ryan “has never shown himself willing to sacrifice anything he wants — not one dime — on behalf of his professed principles,” Krugman declared.

Indeed, Ryan’s main accomplishment during two decades as a congressman, including four years as House Speaker, was the Trump tax plan he supported, which gave its greatest tax breaks to the top 1% of Americans, which included Ryan.

Mostly due to his wife’s wealth, Ryan has an estimated net worth of $6.5 million. Which meant he could easily afford to retire at age 48, and give up his congressional salary of $223,500. Some noted the irony of him earning a federal pension (starting at age 50) after just 20 years of service after pushing to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security to age 67 and gradually upping that to age 70.

Just three months after his retirement, in March 2019, Ryan picked up a nice part time job as board member of Fox News, paying $334,986 per year, more than he earned as a congressman.

What kind of leadership has he provided as board member? In the latest legal filing by Dominion, which is suing Fox News for defamation, it was revealed that behind the scenes, Ryan pleaded with Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch to prevent Donald Trump‘s bogus election claims from being broadcast, urging Fox to “move on” from Trump and “stop spouting election lies.”

“I see this as a key inflection point for Fox, where the right thing and the smart business thing to do line up nicely,” Ryan was supposed to have said.

But as he surely knew, Fox was preventing the loss of its audience and making more money by backing Trump and the Republican election deniers. Did Ryan even believe what he was saying?

Ryan’s weak response to the lies broadcast by Fox were reminiscent of “the apparent indifference of Ryan to the “corruption and contempt for the rule of law” shown by President Trump as Krugman charged. More recently Ryan has declared that his party needs to move on from Trump in order to win future elections, while avoiding any public criticism of his “election lies,” as he privately described them.

Citing the $1.6 billion defamation suit by Dominion against Fox, Sonnenfeld and other legal experts have noted that Ryan and other Fox board members have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the company and its shareholders, to oversee compliance with legal standards and help protect the company from financial and legal risks.

“Since October 2022, at least eight law firms have begun seeking plaintiffs for suits against Fox’s board of directors for breach of their fiduciary duties, with several of the notices for plaintiffs noting the revelations from the Dominion lawsuit as well as the ongoing $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit by Smartmatic, another election technology company attacked by Fox,” Media Matters noted.

Sonnenfeld has suggested Ryan should call for an internal investigation of the company and “how far, wide, and deep the misconduct ran – with an outside, independent law firm reviewing the sworn testimony, now public, and conducting follow-ups.” But Ryan surely knows Rupert Murdoch would oppose this and would likely move to have Ryan removed from the board.

And that would make Ryan a persona non grata with the news station that is a central institution of the Republican Party. As he defended himself to Sykes: “Fox is a big part of the constellation of the conservative movement.”

In short, Ryan wants to retain power, wants to be “in the room where it happens,” as Sykes has written. It’s a sentiment Sykes knows well: he loved his role as a Republican king maker in Wisconsin during his talk radio days, and now has maneuvered himself into a role as a nationally known anti-Trump conservative.

Ryan was touted as potential candidate for Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin’s U.S. Senate seat by the National Review. Whether or not he decides to run, he wants to remain an important voice in the party. And a sure way to lose that position is to take a moral stand against the anti-democratic chicanery of Fox News.

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will The Real Paul Ryan Stand Up?”

  1. Mzalewski says:

    I live in Ryan’s former district.
    He has always been an Empty Suit. Sounds good, looks good. Nothing going on inside
    A guy who used government programs and help his whole life to get where he is. Then wants to take away the ladder for anyone else. Pretty typical of a lot of the GOP

  2. gerrybroderick says:

    Bruce, A very nice piece of reporting!

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    Albert O. Hirschman was a great thinker who wrote two important books. The first was about the choices a person has when confronted with a moral choice. Those choices are exit, voice and loyalty, or quit in protest, fight for right inside, or go along with the program. His second book was about reactionary responses to social progress. We are now living in the late stages of a reactionary period that began with “white backlash” in response to the civil rights acts.

    Reactionary Republicanism is now the most powerful political force in this country, seeking, especially in the name of Trumpism, to put women, racial minorities, lgbtq people and those with disabilities “back in their place.” All while protecting the wealth of the tiny sliver at the top, one of Ryan’s favorite activities.

    Paul Ryan was always more comfortable with the soft, smiling reaction and cruelty of Reaganism, but he mostly went along with the program with Trumpism. If ever there were a case for the bar for “exit,” resigning in protest, being set low, Fox News today, is it. Publicly leaving a powerful anti-democratic, neo-fascist, greed-driven propaganda outlet should be an easy call, almost a badge of honor.. Someday we will look at Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham and their corporate bosses in the rear-view mirror. It will be a grim picture, because powerful reactionary movements always produce wreckage in the societies in which they act. Paul Ryan will be a part of that grim picture.

  4. SeanDuffey says:

    I’ll never forget meeting with Paul Ryan as part of a delegation of Wisconsin firefighters in March of 2003. We told him that Wisconsin cities were in financial crisis, threatening funding for fire and emergency medical services, and begged him for some federal assistance. He put on a sad face and told us there was simply no money available for that. Then we asked him about Bush’s proposed tax cut. He put on a very proud and happy face and told us that he was working hard to pass it as soon as possible. Bush launched his un-budgeted invasion of Iraq just as we returned to Wisconsin, and the Bush/Ryan tax cut was passed a few months later. Between his support for the ‘War on Terror’ and his central role in passing both the Bush and Trump tax cuts, Paul Ryan is arguably responsible for more of the national debt than almost any one individual.

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