Roger Ailes died in May 2017, but his legacy lives on in Fox News, the cable network bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch that many have accused of being little more than a mouthpiece for conservative agitprop and an apologist for President Trump.
Whether or not Fox News was “responsible” for Donald Trump is a peripheral concern of the new documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” opening nationwide this week. Director Alexis Bloom calls “Divide and Conquer” both a historical and cultural exploration as well as a “cautionary tale about money” given the sheer amount of capital not only required by the Murdoch empire to start the cable channel, but also the nearly surreal revenue the property continues to enjoy.
“I think Roger’s story only happened because he made so much money, because he was enabled,” Bloom said.
As “Divide and Conquer” opens, Ailes is shown dejected, having been forced out of the media company he founded in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual harassment, most prominently by such high-profile Fox personalities as Gretchen Carlson. Bloom then goes back to the sixties, to Ailes’s time as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show” in Philadelphia, before he became the go-to media consultant for Republican power players like Richard Nixon, until he stepped in front of the camera himself, first at “America’s Talking” and then, finally, at Fox News.
“News Corp gave us nothing,” Bloom said, noting that though the Fox parent company stonewalled, she hired dedicated archivists to cull together the footage she wanted for her documentary. “It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she said. “If you have the time and obsessional capability, you can find stuff, but it’s its own job entirely.”
Former Fox regulars Alisyn Camerota and firebrand Glenn Beck appear in “Divide and Conquer,” helping to pull back the curtain on Ailes’s fixations and the company’s corporate fever. Beck, known for his madman on-camera persona, has softened since leaving the network, but even then, Bloom said he still needed some convincing to be a part of her documentary.
“I had to go down to Texas and meet him. I had to get people to lobby for us, people that he trusted would vouch for us,” Bloom said, adding that she had several phone conversations with Beck before meeting him in person to get him on camera.
“He’s not a Trump supporter, and that means that there’s space between him and Fox right now,” Bloom said of Beck. “He’s his own man, and so I always had faith that he would make his own decision and wouldn’t be swayed one way or another.”
While Bloom says she certainly approached the documentary matter from a liberal perspective, she said that people at screenings who were friends of and admirers of Ailes told her that they believe “Divide and Conquer” is fair to its subject.
But also, she has received hate mail saying she is “clearly anti-Fox and just another liberal hack.”
The #MeToo movement’s impact on the story of Ailes cannot be overstated given that it partially led to his downfall, as well as to those of Ailes allies Bill Shine and Dianne Brandi, but Bloom cautions that Ailes’ deputies, including new CEO Suzanne Scott, remain in control of the network’s DNA.
“There’s still people who run Fox in [Ailes’s] image,” Bloom said. “I think it’s probably harder to sexually harass women now, [but] the draconian corporate policies are still in place. It’s still this hermetically-sealed culture where it’s very much, you’re with us or against us.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson Bloom hopes viewers will get from her film is the difference between straight reporting, and news as entertainment.
“The problem isn’t the disinformation, the problem is that people think that they’re news,” she said. “Fine, let there be a Fox, but don’t say it’s ‘fair and balanced.’ Don’t say it’s news. It’s not news; it’s editorial, it’s opinion.”
She is also hopeful that leading up to the election of 2020, people will be more cognizant that Fox News is peddling what she believes is entertainment versus straight news.
“People like Trump don’t just happen overnight. This is the culmination of a long arc,” she said, adding that Fox’s objective is not to “save the country,” but to win over new viewers and make as much money as possible.
“It kind of masquerades as this patriotic news broadcast outlet that’s giving the truth when no one else does,” Bloom said. “And Fox does some disingenuous things [which], I think [is] dangerous. That’s what I hope changes before the next election.”
“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” opens Friday.