New Documentary ‘Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes’
Roger Ailes built Fox News into a profitable media empire — at the expense of journalism.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has made lots of money peddling slanted news as “fair and balanced” on his Fox News Channel. The man who built it, Roger Ailes, retired in disgrace in 2016 and died a year later. He changed American media in many ways, and used fear as a driving force at Fox — and earlier in campaigns for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is a new documentary that debuts on December 7 in theaters and online. We talk with producer/director Alexis Bloom about Ailes’s early work as producer of The Mike Douglas Show, where he met Richard Nixon. When he worked for George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988, Ailes deployed the infamous Willie Horton ad in one of his early assaults on the liberals he saw as the enemies of his cause.
Bloom shares several interesting anecdotes, including how Ailes started Fox News to spite his former employers at NBC, how he gave fishing lessons to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for a TV ad, and his exploitation of women on screen and off.
Alexis Bloom is producer and director of Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. Bloom also produced Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
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|Peter B. Collins:||Welcome to another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. There’s a powerful new documentary film that will debut on many platforms nationwide on the 7th of December about Roger Ailes of Fox News. And the director and producer Alexis Bloom joins me today. Her credits include the 2014 documentary about WikiLeaks called We Steal Secrets, and she did the powerful piece about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Bright Lights, which ran on HBO.|
|Alexis, thanks for being with me today.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Thanks for having me.|
|Peter B. Collins:||What triggered your interest in Roger Ailes? After all, you grew up in South Africa and Fox News has done the most damage here in the United States.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Well, I mean I’ve chosen America as my place to live. It’s not through accident of birth, as you point out, and I’m invested in it. I really kind of love this country, and it seemed to me that we were living in Roger’s world. Sometimes it takes an outsider as well to see things in a different way. I wouldn’t say in a better way or in a clearer way, but differently, and he was always a fascinating figure to me both in terms of what he’d done culturally and politically. Fox was incredibly successful, like it or not, it was incredibly, and is incredibly successful, and he’s also personally really interesting, kind of a bit of a thug. And it seemed to me worth trying to understand how all of that intersected.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Your film is Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes and I’ve had a chance to screen it. I think you did an excellent job of covering his life and his early years working as a producer on the Mike Douglas daytime TV chat show. That’s where he met Richard Nixon and that’s what really enabled his entry into politics. He worked for Nixon and Reagan, and was an advisor to many Republican candidates over the years.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Before we get to the Fox era, how do you size up his influence on those political figures?|
|Alexis Bloom:||I mean I think undoubtedly he had a profound influence on a whole range of political figures. From… we have Rudy Giuliani in our film, he helped elect mayors, he did kind of this bare knuckles campaigning style that he brought to dozens and dozens of races, from mayors to senators to congressmen, he wasn’t sort of fussy about the office. He was seeking election from, he was just … Sorry, to … He worked … Sorry, I want to say that again.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Mm-hmm (affirmative).|
|Alexis Bloom:||He wasn’t fussy about the office you were seeking election to, but he always worked in the Republican sphere. He had a profound influence. We see Mitch McConnell in our film, who’s in a little fishing boat when he’s trying to get elected, and he was very unpopular, he was absolutely the underdog. He had no idea what he was doing. And he’s in a fishing boat and they’re trying to make him look like a rural kind of Kentucky woodsman, sort of fishing type. And Roger puts a fish on the end of the line for Mitch McConnell, puts it actually on the hook, and then Mitch McConnell looks up and he goes, “What do I do now Mitch? What do I do now Roger?” He goes, “Mitch, reel in the fucking fish, man.”|
|I think people really look to him. I mean, George H.W. Bush died this week, I’m reminded of when Roger died, George Bush tweeted, and I didn’t know that H.W. had a Twitter account, he tweeted, “I love that man. I would not have been president without him.”|
|Peter B. Collins:||It was the tie to Lee Atwater, the campaign, as Reagan completed his second term and Poppy Bush stepped up to serve a single term, but the dirty tricks and let’s be fair, it was Al Gore’s campaign that introduced Willy Horton during the primary, but it was seized upon by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes as the defining way of taking down Mike Dukakis. The other was the photo op in the tank that Ailes didn’t have any fingerprints on that I know of.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Yeah I mean, I think the general takeaway point is that Roger was a master of kind of… In the film, this one woman calls him the Ernest Hemingway of campaign advisors. I don’t think… I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but in the same way that Ernest Hemingway has this kind of sparse, clear style, so did Roger. He had this clear style that got straight to the point, and the point was normally kind of emotional one. He knew that kind of, it was easier to generate heat than it was to generate light.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well and facts were fungible to him. He used them when they supported his predetermined… As you pointed out, he was interested in triggering emotion, and he was expert at using images that would produce the emotional response. The facts and the narrative came behind that.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Yeah. I mean he never defined himself as a journalist. He actually had a pretty robust sort of… I want to say kind of… He looked down his nose at journalists. He called them alcoholics and kind of was always joking about how if you want to get the biggest press conference, you’ve got to get the biggest bar going. He was pretty much a showman. Alisyn Camerota said in all her time at Fox she remembers having a lot of arguments with Roger but none of them were about journalism.|
|The facts were, I think kind of incidental to the narrative for Roger. He knew a great story, he truly felt that he was sort of saving America in some profound way, that he was a patriot saving America, and I think a lot of sort of fact-fudging was justified to that end.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you describe his history coming from Warren, Ohio, a factory town, and he carried a chip on his shoulder for his entire life against the wealthy elites even as he became one of them, and was an influential player in those circles.|
|Alexis Bloom:||He, yeah, I mean… The chip on the shoulder, the old chip on the shoulder thing, you kind of see it coming up in so many iterations. Donald Trump springs to mind.|
|It’s somewhat real and somewhat fabricated. He did come from a kind of poor, relatively speaking, household. It wasn’t dirt poor, but he wasn’t from an Ivy League kind of coastal elite-type place, but he did have success fairly early. He was one of the youngest producers in the Mike Douglas Show, and he didn’t need to have such an enormous chip on his shoulder. There wasn’t anything that merited it really, and I think he sort of propagated that as a way of again justifying his behavior, like, “I’m an outsider, I’m not part of you snooty guys’ yachting clubs, therefore I’m going to behave like a thug.” Or, “I didn’t grow up with privilege, I grew up digging ditches, and therefore I know what real people want and it’s not what you want.”|
|It’s sort of, it’s a, in some sense a fabricated divisiveness, because he did enjoy the spoils of wealth relatively young. He had a table at Elaine’s, he had famous friends. Pardon my French, but the phrase that was used to describe him on occasion was “starfucker.” He loved the celebrity. Somebody told me about when he took Katie Couric around “America’s Talking”, he was three inches higher, and all puffed out, and couldn’t be happier and prouder. He did want acceptance, and in some way really have acceptance, ’cause he had money, and he had friends from the establishment. But he always, like Rupert Murdoch by the way, always portrayed himself as an outsider. And I think that gives you justification for behaving in indefensible ways.|
|Peter B. Collins:||One of the fascinating aspects of your film, and let’s not go into detail and insist that people watch it, but he, later in life had a country home in Cold Spring, New York, and he ran for the town council there, and became quite a bully and kind of lectured the locals on his view of constitutional rule. And it is amazing to see a guy who was very successful in manipulating and dividing a significant portion of the United States population really felt compelled to operate at a local level as well. I found that a fascinating sidebar. And Alexis…|
|Alexis Bloom:||Yeah, I know, that’s what he did in his time off.|
|Peter B. Collins:||… His free time. So, let’s shift now to the formation of Fox News, and how did he and Rupert Murdoch connect, and what were the criteria that Murdoch saw in the plans that Roger Ailes had formulated that fit into Murdoch’s own schemes?|
|Alexis Bloom:||Rupert Murdoch had always wanted a television outlet. He was a newspaper man but he wanted television, and he wanted it in the big market America. He’d been waiting for this to happen, and sort of sizing up the landscape and putting his toes into various kind of related outlets.|
|When Roger left “America’s Talking”, he had amassed a fair amount of experience in running a television network. He hadn’t done that before. He’d worked at them, but he’d really gotten … He built “America’s Talking” from the ground up, and people said he was good at it. He was ousted from there, essentially. He had kind of come a cropper basically with the suits at NBC. They’d fallen out over things, he was irascible, he was difficult to work with on certain things. He always wanted to be kind of the loudest voice in the room, and NBC decided to sell the channel, “America’s Talking”, to Bill Gates. And they left him out of those negotiations. He was not one of the suits at the table when the deal was being brokered, and that pissed Roger off mightily.|
|So even though they said to him, “Listen Roger, you can stay, we’re going to turn this into MSNBC,” MS is Microsoft, NBC, “It’s going to be more news-orientated than just talk shows, but if you would like to, you’re welcome to stay and run it.” Roger was furious. He was like, “No way, you’ve done all of this behind my back, I feel betrayed, this is my baby. ‘America’s Talking’ is my creation,” and as he says to Felicia Sugarman, one of the interview subjects of my film, “I’m going to fuck them. I’m going to fuck them like they’ve never been fucked before.” This was about NBC and he threw a chair in a board meeting and stormed out.|
|And Rupert Murdoch heard of this, and this, it’s kind of apocryphal. Some say Rupert Murdoch called Roger, some say Roger called Rupert, then there’s people saying, “Oh, I was at the lunch where they met.” I’m not exactly sure what happened, but very soon afterwards in a matter of months they had met. They formed a plan to start Fox. Rupert said, “It’s up to you. How much money do you need, and I’ll give it to you?” And it was basically up to Roger, and he did it.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And Alexis, to the extent you know, was sophisticated market research a factor in the rise of Fox News? Because I do find it remarkable that they basically were running a daily campaign behind a wedge issue. A wedge issue that would divide people and redound to the benefit of the political right, whether it was abortion rights, or tax issues and the deficit when there’s a Democrat in the White House. They have this incredible propensity to serve up the most divisive issue of the day and ride it all day long, through each of the different shows and personalities.|
|Alexis Bloom:||I’m sure they do market research. I don’t know. I do know that Roger looked at the ratings obsessively, down to the 15 minute increments, and would correlate a spike in the ratings with what had been said at that time. So he was very aware of what would keep the audience, and what would lose the audience. And he knew… I don’t know, you don’t need… He sort of pooh-poohed market research. He went with his gut. He said he knew the American people and he did know a very significant portion of them, because he’d done all of this political work, literally crisscrossing the country with Republican candidates going from state to state, from county to county. People say he had a map of America up on the wall but didn’t need it, because he knew exactly which towns are in which states, and in which counties, and a lot of television programmers don’t know that. And he knew that. I mean, he really knew America and he knew conservative America. And because he was a Republican and he campaigned for Republicans, and he knew which issues made people emotional.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And Alexis, I…|
|Alexis Bloom:||… That’s his genius.|
|Peter B. Collins:||I also find it fascinating and this was revealed by Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed”, which I think was around 2004. But given that Ailes and Fox News pandered relentlessly to conservative, religious, evangelical viewers, they fed them almost a daily diet of sizzling sexual B-roll. The number of scantily clad women, of course he introduced the sets where women’s legs are always visible, they had to wear short skirts, and of course to get hired there they had to have a hot figure. And so, serving up that kind of sexual tease to repressed, or self-repressed individuals, and at the same time presiding over a predatory environment of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, it is remarkable how the audience has stayed despite the exposure of so much.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Well, is it though? Because you yourself acknowledged that it’s a heady mixture, sex and fear. The only thing standing between you and the apocalypse are these, this group of absolutely astonishing looking women in tight, jewel-colored dresses. That maintains, and I think people… That’s great entertainment. Sex and fear is great entertainment, and it continues. That’s their kind of magic sauce, and the fact that there’s been revelations of sexual harassment, I don’t think affects the viewership much. They move on pretty quickly, and I mean Bill Shine, who presided over all the sexual harassment sort of situations at Fox, he… Over O’Reilly, and handled a lot of that, handled a lot of the Roger Ailes stuff, he’s named in multiple lawsuits. He’s now working in the Trump White House.|
|I think that people metabolize this stuff pretty quickly, and lots of men go on to reinvent themselves. And the Fox audience… Roger wasn’t such a, he wasn’t an on-camera presence. I wonder what they thought of Bill O’Reilly, because that was … Bill was their straight talker and everything, and then he got done for sexual harassment in such an epic way, $32,000,000, I don’t know what they think of that, but I wouldn’t put it past them to kind of support him in another venture.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And part of that is the pitched battle that Ailes contrived that liberals are so dangerous and that allowing them into political power will ruin the nation.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And against that threat, the fact that Bill O’Reilly harassed his producers or other women, I guess is inconsequential.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Well, yeah. I mean it pales in, yes, it pales in comparison. And I think that Bill O’Reilly has always kind of cast this as a left-wing plot against him. That’s what he said, it’s a left-wing plot, let alone that some of the women in question are Republicans. It just doesn’t matter. If you say it often enough, a certain portion of the population will believe it, and I think that over time it becomes that. “Bill O’Reilly was taken down by the left.” No, he wasn’t. He was taken down by his own trousers.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And so Alexis, I have to honor your schedule here and we should wrap up, but how would you describe the legacy of Roger Ailes?|
|Alexis Bloom:||Hmm. I think the legacy of Roger Ailes is fairly robust. We live in, we continue to live in his world and he casts a long shadow. Fox is thriving, division is more divisive, and unfortunately his political legacy is here. I mean sexual harassment is a different thing I think that he marked… His ouster marked the beginning of at least the possibility of men being able to be held accountable for their actions. So, that has changed, but I don’t know.|
|Also there’s two huge Hollywood projects coming up on Roger Ailes. So, his legacy will probably be defined by Russell Crowe in the upcoming months.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well, and in his grave he must be thrilled that Fox and Friends has an audience of one on a daily basis. That does have an impact on what happens in Twitter from the White House that day, and then it ripples out from there.|
|Alexis Bloom, it’s delightful to talk with you. I do want to recommend that people screen your film, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. It was executive produced by Alex Gibney, and this is your cue to tell us where we can watch it.|
|Alexis Bloom:||You can watch it in theaters on Friday, December 7th, and on all good online platforms, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, all of that kind of stuff.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Alright, starting on the 7th of December.|
|Alexis Bloom:||Thank you.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Alexis Bloom, my pleasure. Thanks for joining us today.|
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Divide and Conquer (Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing).