Tracing rise, fall of Fox News mastermind Ailes
Roger Ailes, the fallen mastermind behind Fox News, media consultant (before there was such an honorific) to 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and after him Ronald Reagan and the recently deceased George H.W. Bush (Hello, the Willie Horton ads), is the subject of Alexis Bloom’s searching documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.”
At the heart of Ailes’ Fox News strategy, according to one of the film’s commentators, was his ability to “rile up the crazies.” It worked. Ailes divided the country and drew lines between “ordinary people” and “the elites,” and Fox News, where an appreciative cult blossomed around the networks’ leggy, mostly blond and short-skirted anchors and commentators, grew to be bigger than the established networks that had looked down their noses at Fox and its fans.
Born and raised in Warren, Ohio, where his stern, abusive father was a factory foreman and a union man, Ailes, who was a hemophiliac and fan of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl,
started his television career as a producer for the Philadelphia-based “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he allegedly sexually harassed a model, who remained quiet about the (unnecessarily reenacted) experience, until appearing in this film.
Arguably overusing the creepy music and sound effects, Bloom, whose previous credits include “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” paints a portrait of a man who was “profoundly paranoid,” working behind bulletproof glass and a steel-reinforced door at Fox HQ in Manhattan. Ailes, who started his own talk network and took tap-dancing lessons and married a woman who was “a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a schoolmarm,” brought Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to Fox. Fox rose meteorically on the heat generated by the ClintonLewinsky scandal. It is undeniably chilling to hear CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, formerly of “Fox & Friends,” describe Ailes’ attempt to manipulate her into a sexual relationship in exchange for greater success on the network.
Bloom cuts frequently to the tilted, slightly grimacing, bullet-headed head shot of Ailes that made him look like Alfred Hitchcock’s scarier kid brother. At home in the village of Cold Spring, N.Y., where Ailes and his wife lived in a hilltop manor, Ailes misread the mood when he bought a local newspaper and tried to topple the town’s unwilling-tobend-the-knee supervisor.
Then, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson accused Ailes of sexual harassment. After consulting with his friend Donald Trump, Ailes denied it. But other voices emerged, including the network’s onetime talk show star, conservative high priestess and eventual Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly, and at the urging of his two sons, even Rupert Murdoch bailed. Ailes was eventually locked out of the Fox building on Avenue of the Americas. According to this film, since 2004, 21st Century Fox has paid out more than $163 mil- lion in sexual harassment settlements. Ailes died within a year of leaving Fox News. (“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” contains sexually suggestive language and profanity.)
NEWS MAKER: The documentary ‘Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes’ takes a hard look at the late CEO of Fox News.