It can be bracing, for those who don’t watch Fox News Channel regularly, to be confronted with its assaultive, hypnotic grip. Early in Divide and Conquer, a galling new documentary about the channel’s mercurial founder Roger Ailes, director Alexis Bloom offers up a brief montage of Fox hosts goading viewers like a farmer with an electric cattle prod – or maybe a cop with a taser.
“You’re in danger!” barks Jeanine Pirro, in the opening segment of her Saturday night show, Justice With Judge Jeanine, as images of security forces clad in black battle gear fill the right-hand side of the screen. “I’m in danger! We’re at war! And this is not! Going! To stop!” We jump through a series of quick cuts: One man says “We gotta understand what’s in our country, and take out the people that wanna see us DIE!,” another thumps away about “the ultimate battle of good versus evil,” a third warns of figures who are emerging “out of the shadows … out of the cave.” And then there’s Pirro again, howling like a desperate survivor on The Walking Dead: “We need to kill them. WE NEED TO KILLLLL THEMMMM!”
Ailes didn’t invent partisan news, but he understood, on an almost cellular level, the powerful appeal of information packaged to trigger our base emotions. He created a live laboratory dedicated to distilling the essence of tribal politics, helped it metastasize, and when that was no longer startling enough to keep the audience glued and the advertisers happy, gave fake news and conspiracy theories a safe space.
It should surprise no one, then, to learn that Ailes was a fan of Leni Riefenstahl. He studied the groundbreaking techniques of the Nazi propagandist and, in 1967, when Richard Nixon visited The Mike Douglas Show, where Ailes was a striving young producer, convinced the Republican candidate to hire him for the little-known role of media adviser. A latter-day Svengali, Ailes hatched a series of TV specials dubbed Man in the Arena: controlled town-hall-style discussions that deployed a series of cameras set at angles that would make Nixon look heroic and in command. “It was an amazing propaganda piece,” says Kenneth Johnson, the former executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, in Divide and Conquer.
Buoyed by Nixon’s victory, Ailes opened a media consulting business that vaulted Mitch McConnell, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani, George H.W. Bush and others into power. But although most of his clients were Republican, his heart was in showbiz rather than politics, and in 1993 he became president of CNBC. The next year, he launched a spin-off, the all-talk cable channel America’s Talking, where he hosted his own interview show, Straight Forward. In one clip from Divide and Conquer, he chats with Cyndi Lauper and then wraps up the segment by bopping awkwardly in place with the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun singer.
He seemed happy enough. Who knows what the state of U.S. politics might be if NBC hadn’t sold the channel out from under him to partner with Bill Gates on MSNBC? Ailes vowed revenge, quitting the network and walking across Sixth Avenue to team up with Rupert Murdoch on the launch of Fox News in the fall of 1996.
The channel pledged its coverage would be “Fair and Balanced,” a claim that, while laughable, offered a rallying cry to the growing tribe of those disaffected by the Big Three networks.
“Roger thought we were in a war, against our way of life, against evil,” explains Alisyn Camerota, a former Fox host who, having taken up with CNN in 2014, will be regarded with suspicion by former fans.
Camerota is one of a number of women who share their stories of sexual harassment by Ailes for Bloom’s camera: Ailes didn’t just divide and conquer the political landscape; that was also evidently his modus operandi toward women, whom he harassed and then kept quiet with employment or threats. That worked for decades, until some of the women finally felt safe to talk to reporters, whose coverage led to Ailes’s ouster in July, 2016.
All of the women’s stories are devastating, but perhaps the worst is that of Kellie Boyle, a marketing consultant and rising star in Republican politics who found herself on a no-hire list after she rebuffed Ailes’s advances in the back of a limousine. “That was the end of my career,” she says, holding back tears.
Ailes, meanwhile, told compelling stories about himself, not the least is which an oft-repeated tale – it has been called his “Rosebud story” – about how, when he was a child, his father told him to jump into his arms from the top bunk of his bed. The young Roger leapt and his dad pulled away, letting him fall to the floor and then standing over him with a brutal warning to “never trust anyone.” But former Vanity Fair correspondent Sarah Ellison punctures that myth, explaining to the camera that the story is actually “a well-known literary trope” – showing up in numerous novels and biographies – and was denied by Ailes’s brother, with whom Roger shared a bedroom.
But then, facts didn’t much matter to Ailes, in either his life or what he put on screen. The former Fox News correspondent David Shuster notes ruefully that his old boss “paved the way for conspiracy theories to go mainstream. The idea that Barack Obama is not American. Pizzagate. Whatever it is, there’s no shame now in promoting this stuff – and in fact, the benefit is, you get airtime. And if you get airtime, you get more famous.”
(Cue: Donald Trump on Fox News. And in the White House.)
Divide and Conquer doesn’t come out and say it, so maybe we should: With his disdain for facts, Ailes was an enemy of real journalism. Perhaps it was fitting that, in the end, it was journalism that brought him down.