Before his swift and ignominious fall amid a tsunami of sexual harassment claims in 2016, Roger Ailes might have been the most powerful man in media. He would have no doubt deleted the word “might” from that last sentence. The chief architect and right-wing visionary behind Fox News saw himself as a new kind of American patriot, but in truth he was always more of an old-fashioned bully — a dark lord of division.
In the fascinating and fast-paced new documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, director Alexis Bloom smartly avoids serving up the sort of red meat Ailes was known for — it isn’t a liberal jeremiad against a man who sowed discord to the detriment of the country he claimed to love. Instead, it’s a riveting and mostly fair-and-balanced biographical snapshot of a man who helped presidents get elected and then whispered in their ears, who saw the television landscape more clearly and more quickly than his contemporaries, and who finally let all that go to his head, prompting his own undoing. It’s both a memorial and a cautionary tale about unchecked power and ambition in America.
Born the hemophiliac son of a factory foreman in Warren, Ohio, Ailes grew up with a cruel, unloving father (or so he liked to tell it) and with his nose pressed against the glass, daydreaming of those more privileged. His career in television began on The Mike Douglas Show in the mid-’60s, where he quickly schemed and smooth-talked his way up the ladder to being the show’s producer. Always looking for next rung to climb, one day he pulled one of the show’s guests aside, then-presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, and convinced him that he needed a media advisor if he wanted to win the 1968 election. Nixon didn’t know what a media advisor was. Back then, no one did. Ailes told Nixon that he was looking at one. Nixon’s eventual victory put Ailes at the epicenter of power overnight.
As a political consultant, Ailes studied Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will like an instruction manual for how to win over American hearts and minds. Ultimately, he would use his blue-collar insecurity and gruff, street-fighter instincts to help elect generations of Republican politicians throughout the ’70s and ’80s. One great anecdote in the film explains how he all but handed Mitch McConnell his seat in Congress despite McConnell’s own ineptitude. Soon, Ailes was more than famous, he was notorious, with dirty-trick “highlights” that included the nasty, race-baiting Willie Horton ad that helped George H.W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. But eventually, politics wasn’t enough. He was a showman who needed a bigger — or at least, glitzier — stage.
After helping to launch a fledgling cable network called America’s Talking (which became a farm league for future cable-bloviator luminaries like Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity), the network was bought by Microsoft and NBC and rechristened MSNBC. Ailes, who saw it as his baby, was furious. So he defected to Rupert Murdoch’s ever-expanding media empire. Murdoch had decided that he wanted to beat CNN at its own game. And thus, Fox News was born. Ailes, who now had a billionaire patron to bankroll his dreams, saw the new news channel as a pirate ship, with him in the role of Blackbeard. The mission was to quote-unquote “rile up the crazies”. And Ailes had the good fortune of going on air at the precise moment when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was breaking wide open. It would become Fox News’ killer app.
Divide and Conquer trots out a wide variety of talking heads from both sides of the aisle who share their firsthand experiences with Ailes — some are stories of loyalty, others of outright betrayal. The latter become especially powerful when several female former employees detail Ailes’ alleged sexual harassment and blunt pay-to-play propositions promising promotions and air time for sex. (Oddly, when his abuse of power finally came to light, Ailes reached out to none other than Donald Trump for counsel.) Eventually, even Murdoch had to part with his golden goose.
Even if you don’t have a lick of sympathy for Ailes, the final months of his life are presented in Bloom’s film with a tragic, almost Citizen Kane-like sadness as his arrogance turns to paranoia and delusion. Within a year of being cast out from his fortified, terrorist-proofed office at Fox News, Ailes would be dead. The one-time power broker had become a broken man who left behind a messy string of lawsuits and an even messier legacy that the rest of us will now be left to reckon with for a very long time. B+
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