How Roger Ailes Marketed Division
in 1967, a young television producer approached Richard Nixon to chat about the value of TV in politics. Having lost a presidential bid to the telegenic John F. Kennedy seven years earlier, Nixon hired him—and won the White House.
That man, Roger Ailes, would eventually build Fox News into a wildly profitable right-wing media empire and set the stage for a bloviating reality TV star to land in the White House. But behind the scenes, he was a source of terror for some of the network’s female employees, allegedly harassing numerous staffers—including on-air stars like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly—and blacklisting some who declined to sleep with him.
The pattern came to light in 2016, when Carlson filed a lawsuit against him. About 10 more women came forward to allege sexual misconduct, and 21st Century Fox paid out $45 million in settlements to the women. “The casualness of his cruelty was shocking,” says filmmaker Alexis Bloom, whose new documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, is being released December 7.
The film gives insight into Ailes’s
lonely early life in Ohio and his rise as a ruthless political consultant during the Reagan era. With opinion-driven cable news in its infancy, he sensed an opportunity for a network that would not just speak to white conservatives but also arouse their outrage and racial resentment. Yet Divide is most fascinating when it traces Ailes’s downfall—including on-camera interviews with the crisis communications gurus who were summoned to his house after he was ousted from Fox News in 2016. Ailes, a lifelong hemophiliac who regarded the condition as a time bomb, died last year while the documentary was in progress, but the 24-hour outrage machine he created lives on.
In an interview with Newsweek, Bloom described what she learned about Ailes’s life, behavior toward women and intense paranoia.
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I think his impact on the American landscape is profound, culturally and politically. I had a very acute sense that we were living in his world.
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I do. Roger gave Trump a Fox & Friends slot, every Monday beginning in 2011 [through 2015], where the then-reality star opined on politics. He was famous from The Apprentice, but you have to have political legitimacy. Roger allowed Trump to pivot from being this bombastic real estate guy to being someone people took seriously when he spoke about the economy
or politics. We were surprised when Trump announced his candidacy, but people who regularly watched Fox thought: Oh, this guy’s got real opinions about politics.
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It certainly meant we couldn’t interview him. I think it freed some people to talk about him because they were scared of him when he was alive. In general, it made it easier to report on the film, because he was very litigious and very aggressive.
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Yeah. That’s from multiple sources. He had a gun permit, legally. He had guns in his drawer in the office. He had a full-time security detail.
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I was also surprised about the punitive nature of the sexual harassment. We started doing this before #Metoo. I talked to a lawyer about the [nondisclosure agreements], and I learned there was a clause in the 21st Century Fox settlement that said you cannot apply to the company or its affiliates for the rest of your life. 7KHUH LV DQ LQWHUYLHZ LQ WKH ɿOP ZLWK D ZRPDQ ZKR VD\V $LOHV WULHG WR SUHVVXUH KHU LQWR VH[ 6KH VDLG QR DQG KHU FDUHHU ZDV GHVWUR\HG
I think it was routine for him. Everything was transactional. We didn’t interview Gretchen Carlson or Megyn Kelly for legal reasons—gretchen signed an Nda—but there is something valuable to be learned by ordinary stories of cruelty. It’s not some big power play. It’s just everyday acts of abuse and pettiness.
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He made money. As long as he was making money hand over fist, Rupert Murdoch basically said, “Don’t look too closely in his books.” There was no oversight. He appointed his own legal counsel. He appointed his own HR.
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They had come forward to [employment attorney] Nancy Erika Smith when Gretchen Carlson filed her suit. They hadn’t gone on camera. [We approached them] the same way you approach anyone else: with an openness and honesty and respect. None of the women who went on camera talking about Roger ever received money because of his harassment. There was no obvious reason for them to speak. Again, it was before #Metoo. They just felt strongly enough about it.
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A sense of grievance. Being an outsider. He wasn’t bullied at school, but he was a hemophiliac, and he had a contentious relationship with his parents. He had a great deal of vulnerability growing up. He probably overcompensated for it. There are some turning points in his life. One was at the network America’s Talking, which became MSNBC, when he came into conflict with executives he characterized as elitist liberal insiders. As [producer] Felycia Sugarman says in our film, he turned around and said: “I’m gonna fuck them as they’ve never been fucked before.” Certainly, Fox News was born out of a sense of revenge.
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Roger certainly ginned up the fear that pre-existed. He saw the country’s division and weaponized it. In terms of ignorance, I think Roger pulled the wool over people’s eyes. They thought what they were getting out of Fox was news, and it wasn’t.… For a certain portion of the population who regard Fox News as their primary news source, that is ultimately debilitating.
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I always had this phrase in my head: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Roger is dead, but here’s a creature come from the ashes.
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POWER HITTER At left, Ailes in 2015. Paranoid and punitive, he kept guns in his desk drawer and created Fox News “out of a sense of revenge.”
6(('6 2) '(6758&7,21 At right, Nixon with Ailes in 1968. He later turned his media savvy into an empire, says Bloom, that “pulled the wool over people’s eyes.”