Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (No Stone Unturned), who took producing reins on Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, told a panel at the New Yorker Festival Sunday that while the late founder of Fox News — whose career was derailed by sexual harassment claims in July 2016 — is gone, his influence remains deeply ingrained in the network he created, and in society.
“The creation of the mighty house [of Fox News] was impressive and terrifying,” Gibney told the crowd following a screening of the film that hits theaters Dec. 7. “His evil genius was that he came to Fox News with an entertainment perspective…and an insight into the American character. The ministry of propaganda was privatized as Fox News. Once you get people hooked on rage,” Gibney added, “you can sell it over and over again.”
The film, directed by Emmy nominee Alexis Bloom (Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), ticks off the broad points of Ailes’ towering career and the evolution of his powerful vision of where politics and entertainment met. While it conveys how his mastery of television helped elevate Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush to the White House, and gave Rupert Murdoch the confidence to trust him with the creation of Fox News, it cuts much deeper on the pattern of harassment that accompanied Ailes’ rise and fall. With several women speaking on camera about Ailes wrecking careers of those who refused to yield to edicts such as, “If you wanna play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys,” the film culminates with the ousting of Ailes (after Fox News star Gretchen Carlson’s allegations were seconded by Megyn Kelly) and the network’s ratings star Bill O’Reilly, along with word that $163 million in settlements has been paid by Fox since 2004.
“Roger was a serial abuser,” Bloom told the crowd in the post-film panel led by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright. “It was his cruelty and desire that was his ultimate undoing.”
The film and the discussion afterward both covered the ascent of Donald Trump, whom Ailes famously advised and aided, offering up multiple appearances on the network during his campaign.
“Both Roger Ailes and Donald Trump have an instinct in terms of how to connect with people on an emotional level,” said Gibney. “It’s not about policy; it’s about: Are you with me and against them. Look at Trump’s rallies. They’re a great mixture of fear and anger and rage.”
The film also suggests that Ailes preyed upon the fears of others thanks in part to his own life-and-death concerns, having been diagnosed with hemophilia at a young age. “It takes somebody incredibly fearful to see the fear in others,” Bloom said. “He used fear to create power.”
Last week’s divisive Senate hearings that led to the approval of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was also very much on the minds of the filmmakers. (Gibney mentioned that another ousted Fox News exec, Bill Shine, who later joined the White House staff, was reportedly the key figure who prepared Kavanaugh for testimony.) When asked by an audience member if the harassment situation at Fox News has improved, Bloom said she believed it has, while acknowledging that since the current head of public relations and legal affairs are holdovers from the Ailes years, the boys’ club atmosphere probably remains. “I’m sure you speak out at your own peril,” she added.
But Gibney did defend of the power of #metoo in the wake of Ailes’ departure: “The women who helped to bring Roger Ailes down used the truth to fight back,” he said.