On the 22nd anniversary of the launch of Fox News, the director of a new documentary on the network’s troubled late founder Roger Ailes sees it as essentially the same place it’s always been.
Asked if anything at the popular and doggedly right-wing network has changed since allegations came to light of a culture — led by Ailes — of sexual harassment, degradation and retaliation for female employees, Alexis Bloom, who directed “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” said wryly, “Not so much,” after a screening of her documentary at this year’s New Yorker Festival.
“Suzanne Scott is [chief executive officer] now, Ailes’ loyal lieutenant, the head of [human resources] and legal are still there — it’s still a hermetically sealed place,” Bloom explained. “You speak out at your own peril, though I’m sure harassment is less, less tolerated, with everything.”
But the documentary is about the man who created Fox News and his eventual, although rather late, downfall at age 76, starting with a harassment lawsuit in 2016 from former host Gretchen Carlson.
The network, according to the film’s main themes, grew out of Ailes’ background in entertainment — he started out as a gofer on the “Mike Douglas Show” and eventually became a producer — as much as his uncanny ability to see and manipulate people’s “exquisite fears,” as Bloom put it, stemming from a very apparent and lifelong fear of death due to his hemophilia.
“He lived his whole life in fear of bleeding to death,” the actor Austin Pendleton, a childhood friend, said of Ailes. “His daily life was a fear of annihilation and I think that let him understand the fears of other people.”
Ailes apparently remained forever afraid. He is said by many in the film to have had the entirety of Fox News headquarters in New York bugged; he had CCTV direct in his office, which was built out in bulletproof glass and reinforced steel. When a Fox accountant of Bangladeshi descent found himself on the floor of Ailes’ office to deliver something, he was banned from the entire floor. In a bit of grotesque irony, Ailes actually ended up bleeding to death, caused by a fall at home, less than a year after he was forced out as ceo of Fox by the Murdoch family, which launched Fox as a venture with News Corp. He was locked out of the office on his way in one day after Carlson and Kelly’s allegations became public before never being allowed back in.
Although the film is based on what’s largely in the public record already, with a bit of illuminating background and commentary, it does manage to drive home the point that everything about Fox News was and remains intentional, not to mention exceedingly lucrative, and that everyone involved with the creation and running of the network is in on it. A former producer and a number of former Fox hosts, including Mike Shuster and Glenn Beck, all admitted in the film that the goal of the network has never been journalistic in any regard. Daily pitch meetings for various shows at Fox were focused on “stirring up the crazies,” the producer said, because that’s what got the biggest audience.
The intentional use of fear, along with the overt and intentional sexualization of female hosts on and off screen (short skirts and dresses, third-party web sites dedicated to “hot women of Fox” and bodies out from behind desks were all “encouraged”), were very much by Ailes’ design.
He was confident in the combination of fear and entertainment from his early successes with getting conservative candidates elected, largely through calculated optics, smear politics and race- and safety-baiting constituents. Ailes is credited with the elections of not only presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, but also former New York mayor and current Donald Trump counsel Rudy Giuliani and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell. It’s worth noting, too, that Bill Shine, formerly copresident of Fox News who worked under Ailes for years, is now heading up communications for President Trump and is said to have advised Brett Kavanaugh on his handling of assault allegations against him.
Ailes was also successful with the precursor to Fox, America’s Talking with NBC, which was nothing but individual free-form punditry that leaned to the right but was not dogmatic. Apparently, he was first in talks with NBC in the mid-Nineties to make America’s Talking into its own network, but NBC ended up making a deal with Bill Gates and Microsoft to form MSNBC. This put Ailes into a rage for the ages, according to those in the documentary, and was his final motivation for forging Fox, the antithesis of MSNBC, with Rupert Murdoch.