On the shortlist of people directly responsible for the fractured political climate of today, Roger Ailes’ name should be right at the top. First as a media consultant and then as the head of FOX News, Ailes propped up conservative candidates for public office by simultaneously playing to people’s fears and prejudices while painting anyone who had a differing opinion than him as an enemy of America.
In Divide And Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes, director Alexis Bloom (Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets) attempts to get at the core of what made Ailes tick, peeling back onion layers that accumulated on his rise to backroom political power from a modest upbringing in Warren, Ohio.
Right away, Bloom sets informs us that there will be no attempt to find something warm and fuzzy about Ailes via a quote from former FOX personality Glen Beck who states “He knew people were going to say awful things about him.” Ailes knew he was going to make enemies in his hunger for power and influence, but he didn’t care. Beck continues, perhaps trying to exonerate Ailes or maybe his own complicity with what FOX News wrought somewhat, “It is easy to see a person as a monster, but hard to see when you’re on that path too.”
Not much time is spent on Ailes’ upbringing in the Buckeye State. His father appears to be a stern man where childhood infractions were met with the crack of his belt in between rantings about how liberals and unions were going to destroy the town. Frustratingly, when we are told that much of the town’s manufacturing jobs left “literally overnight” the film doesn’t look into why, as it could have shed an interesting light on Ailes’ own activities in life later on. Were the liberals the ones who somehow drove manufacturing out of Warren or was it the business owners looking for a cheaper labor pool and didn’t care about the impact their departure from the local economy was going to have? Ailes’s hemophilia and his mother’s guilty emotional withdrawal from him is also mentioned, with the film suggesting that this may, at least in part, be the source of his fear of others unlike himself.
Ailes’ rise began during the 1968 presidential election. Working as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show, Ailes met with then presidential candidate Richard Nixon who was appearing on the afternoon chat show. Ailes knew that television was going to become a dominant force in politics going forward, and he found Nixon, still smarting from his poor presentation during his televised debate with John F Kennedy eight years earlier, very receptive to the idea that his campaign needed a “media advisor.” Of course, Ailes meant himself, and soon found himself helping getting Nixon elected to the White House.
The basis of Ailes’ strategy was simple – bypass the critical press on a national level and target television stations in the midwest who were hungry for content for their local news programs and may not cast such a discerning eye on it. It worked and bypassing traditional media with its pesky tradition of fact checking and appealing to emotion rather than logic would become a hallmark of Ailes’ method of operation.
Following Nixon’s election, Ailes moved on to consulting for a number of races through the 1970s and `80s elevating the likes of Mitch McConnell to national office. Although he claimed not have had a hand in the original infamous Willie Horton commercial during the 1988 presidential election, Ailes certainly knew enough to capitalize on the furor it generated. And with every ad and every campaign we can see him driving that wedge into the country, splitting it apart just a little further.
In the 1990s, seeing cable as the medium that would replace standard network broadcasting, Ailes founded the America’s Talking channel. It is easy to see how this was a prototype for FOX News a few years later – Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity were staples of the channel, as were attractive blonde anchors who sat at see-through desks where their legs were visible and specially lit to highlight them. And while Bloom may not go into quite as much depth as there is on how Ailes’ FOX News would further drive the divide in the county, she does enough work in telling the story up to this point that we can connect those last few dots ourselves.
Of course, the film does get to the allegations of sexual harassment that would ultimately lead to his ouster at FOX News. And given the story that Bloom weaves for us, these allegations are a puzzle piece that snaps all too easily into the picture that is Ailes.
Much of what’s covered in the documentary is not new for those who may not just consume news, but follow the business and personalities behind the news. But even then, there are some revelations that may surprise, such as Ailes’ attempts to influence the municipal politics of the small upstate New York hamlet where he had built a mansion by buying up the small local weekly newspaper. When he shows up at a local town board meeting to complain about an ill-defined zoning ordinance, he brings along an attorney as if to intimidate the local politicos. It’s a moment where his hubris can do nothing more than illicit a laugh. Interestingly, his particular brand of bullying didn’t seem to work on such a micro level and the town council election he tried to influence was one of his only failures.