Imagine someone in the news business, a television producer, who wasn’t concerned about truth. That apparent anomaly describes Roger Ailes, the late Fox News chief, according to filmmaker Alexis Bloom.
“He never said truth was important to him, in terms of Fox News. It was all about entertainment and messaging,” Bloom tells Deadline. “He never said ‘factual accuracy is what we’re all about.’ He didn’t.”
Bloom delved deeply into Ailes’ life and impact on news media and politics for her Emmy-contending documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. The film from A&E is nominated for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, an exclusive category determined by select members of the TV Academy’s Nonfiction Peer Group.
To understand Ailes’ conservative worldview, Bloom dialed back to his childhood in small town Warren, Ohio.
“Growing up where he did inculcated in him a sense of patriotism and American values that were geographically and time-specific, but never lost their appeal to him,” the South African-born filmmaker observes. “That was his vision of America and I think he didn’t embrace America in its cacophonous, diverse, chaotic 2017, the year when he died. He longed for simpler times and more traditional times.”
Pursuing a career in television, Ailes began working for The Mike Douglas Show, a talk/variety program out of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1967, the documentary reveals, the show booked Republican presidential contender Richard Nixon as a guest. Ailes later pulled Nixon aside and pitched himself as a media adviser. Ailes would go on to play an important role in the campaign, endeavoring to make Nixon more telegenic—not an easy task.
After Nixon’s win, Ailes became an in-demand political consultant to Republican office-seekers. One of his early clients was Mitch McConnell, the future Senate majority leader. Later on he helped Rudy Giuliani become mayor of New York.
Ailes’ political consulting work taught him to move voters by pushing their buttons, the filmmaker maintains.
He and his associates “tracked the adverts and they knew when they used fear, how effective that was. You could see poll results,” Bloom comments. “He talked about it openly and honestly and always [stated] they were going to scare the bejesus out of people. It was all about emotion.”
That tactic became decisive during George H.W. Bush’s campaign for president in 1988, the film says, suggesting Ailes primed the pump of racial animus and fear of crime by exploiting the notorious “Willie Horton” ads. Those spots tied Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, to an African-American prisoner who went on a violent spree while on a state-authorized weekend furlough.
Ailes resumed his television career in the 1990s, launching America’s Talking, a cable channel owned by NBC. But when the company folded America’s Talking into MSNBC, Ailes was shoved aside. He vowed revenge and got his chance when Rupert Murdoch tapped him in 1996 to develop Fox News, a conservative rival to MSNBC and CNN.
“He found a perfect partner in Rupert Murdoch…In their own words they describe themselves as pirates and renegades,” Bloom remarks. “They both considered themselves very outsiders. Nothing gave them more pleasure than ‘We’re going to show everyone, we’re going to beat them, we’re going to win.’”
Win they did, eventually far surpassing both MSNBC and CNN in the ratings. Ailes’ formula for success reflected what he had learned in politics, Bloom asserts—galvanizing the audience through fear, sensationalism and emotion, over factual reporting.
“It’s turning things inside out—rather than evaluating content on its accuracy, evaluating content on its entertainment qualities,” Bloom says. “It’s almost like you should put Fox News on the right-wing equivalent of Comedy Central. It’s not news. It could be called something else, you know, World Wrestling Federation-type, it’s just the content is not a news channel.”
Ailes stocked Fox News with opinionated anchors like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Some room was made for female talent—generally attractive blonde women like Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America.
“He soon realized that a beautiful woman could be monetized,” Bloom observes. “But beyond that I don’t see that under his reign they were recognized or respected.”
The film alleges Ailes sexually harassed female subordinates going back well before his leadership of Fox News. Carlson filed a lawsuit against him in July 2016, claiming he ended her career at the channel after she spurned his sexual advances. Some of Fox’s female on-air talent came to Ailes’ defense, but Kelly also told investigators hired to look into the allegations that Ailes had pressured her for sex. In the midst of the Republican National Convention, Murdoch and his sons canned Ailes.
Within a year the news titan was dead at the age of 77 after suffering a fall. Hemophilia, the genetic condition he was born with, contributed to his death.
Divide and Conquer, despite how it might sound, does not amount to a liberal attack on Ailes. While not overlooking his sexual misconduct, proclivity to demonize minorities and Muslims, and other dubious acts, the film paints a complex psychological picture of a man who was shrewd, capable of charm and, despite the toll hemophilia took on him from childhood, managed to live an inarguably consequential life. It’s fair and balanced, you might say.
“In my mind, I was making it for a center audience…I did not decide, ‘All right, I’m going to make this for the left wing,’” Bloom affirms. “I tried not to be too partisan.”
Ailes’ legacy, the director believes, can be witnessed across the television news landscape. Fox News may have ousted him, but it by no means ditched the Ailes programming touch.
“Because the formula makes money, and as long as you’re making money, you’re doing the right thing. I think it’s that simple, it’s about making money,” she states. “The media, it has become an atmosphere of flame throwing, and that is a formula, certainly, that Roger perfected and we’re running with it.”