More important than America:’ The Story of Roger Ailes

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (2018)

However slight, this is a perceptive — and even unsettling — documentary that takes a necessary look at a powerful media mogul who changed the US forever


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Alex­is Bloom.

With a more than sug­ges­tive ti­tle, Di­vide and Con­quer is a keen ex­am­i­na­tion of a cun­ning man who knew how to main­tain pow­er and ex­pand his sphere of in­flu­ence through the strate­gic use of me­dia. The late Roger Ailes, for­mer CEO of Fox News and Chair­man of Fox Tele­vi­sion Sta­tions, un­der­stood ear­ly on that tele­vi­sion could be used as a tool to help can­di­dates win elec­tions and also as a weapon to dri­ve a wedge be­tween dif­fer­ent groups in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Many con­sid­ered him to be the most pow­er­ful man on me­dia. Some would even use the word ge­nius. Sure­ly, Ailes was the man be­hind the cur­tain — and a ma­jor ex­am­ple of abu­sive pow­er and dan­ger­ous ma­nip­u­la­tion, as we can see here.

Alex­is Bloom’s doc­u­men­tary of­fers a well-re­searched look into Ailes’s life and the mo­ti­va­tions that led to the mogul’s suc­cess and lat­er down­fall, main­ly through in­ter­views with jour­nal­ists, friends and ac­quain­tances. Af­ter quick­ly men­tion­ing that he was forced to re­sign from Fox in the wake of ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­u­al ha­rass­ment, the di­rec­tor takes us way back to War­ren, Ohio in 1954 where we learn that Ailes’s stern fa­ther, a fac­to­ry fore­man, was a union man who hat­ed the unions. “Lib­er­als will de­stroy this town,” he would have pre­dict­ed, help­ing shape his son’s right-wing world­view when the prophe­cy be­came re­al­i­ty and the whole in­dus­try moved out, leav­ing the town to rot.

Bloom also sug­gests that Ailes’s con­stant dread of dy­ing may have taught him how to ma­nip­u­late oth­er people’s fears for his own ben­e­fit as well. He was he­mo­philic and ter­ri­fied of bleed­ing to death, and even the fact that his con­di­tion was in­her­it­ed by his moth­er might cast some light on his tox­ic be­hav­ior to­wards women, too. Ailes’s no­table pow­er of per­sua­sion would cat­a­pult him from pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant to pro­duc­er in The Mike Dou­glas Show and lat­er to be­com­ing Richard Nixon’s me­dia ad­vi­sor in 1968, when he worked to sell Nixon’s im­age on TV in­spired by Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi pro­pa­gan­da tech­niques, chang­ing for­ev­er the way pol­i­tics were done in the coun­try.

When we think about the pow­er that me­dia (es­pe­cial­ly tele­vi­sion) can have to ma­nip­u­late opin­ions, it be­comes equal­ly dis­turb­ing to learn about Ailes’s am­bi­tion to put the GOP on TV and thus by­pass the in­sti­tu­tion­al press to send the mes­sage he in­tend­ed to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Bloom clear­ly sees the man as a cross be­tween Charles Fos­ter Kane and old mas­ter of ma­nip­u­la­tion Al­fred Hitch­cock, nev­er over­look­ing the mogul’s phys­i­cal re­sem­blance with the Mas­ter of Sus­pense and even us­ing the play­ful tune from Al­fred Hitch­cock Presents to dri­ve her point home — as well as a voiceover nar­ra­tion based on Ailes’s books that makes him sound fit­ting­ly slimy and cyn­i­cal in ac­tor Pe­ter Gerety’s voice.

The film also men­tions that Ailes used to take tap danc­ing, and so Bloom em­ploys a tap-danc­ing body dou­ble to il­lus­trate how the man sly­ly danced around in the po­lit­i­cal game. When he quit be­ing a talk show host on NBC’s America’s Talk­ing to be­come head of Ru­pert Murdoch’s Fox News in 1996, it was more of an op­por­tu­ni­ty to take re­venge on his old boss­es for part­ner­ing with Bill Gates in the cre­ation of MSNBC — which is some­thing that says a lot about the way he saw jour­nal­ism, as a per­son­al weapon against his en­e­mies. Like­wise, Bloom does a care­ful job ex­am­in­ing Ailes’s even dark­er side as a sex­u­al preda­tor who re­sort­ed to the worst kind of smear tac­tics to si­lence the women he ha­rassed.

In the end, we can clear­ly see that Ailes’s re­lent­less meth­ods to di­vide and con­quer us­ing threats and in­tim­i­da­tion have been gen­er­al­ly the same, like when he ac­quired a tiny lo­cal news­pa­per in Cold Spring, New York only to throw the com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against each oth­er and be­come ‘own­er’ of the town. But the doc­u­men­tary shows that this whole vi­cious ef­fort to rule over oth­ers took its toll and left Ailes ab­surd­ly para­noid as well, prompt­ing him to plant bugs all over his news­room and even car­ry the delu­sion­al, mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal be­lief that his was the sec­ond name on Al-Qaeda’s death list.

With sex­u­al as­sault scan­dals forc­ing Ailes out of Fox News with mil­lions to pay in set­tle­ments to si­lence the vic­tims, Ailes saw the end of his ‘mis­sion.’ Like a bit­ter coda, the man who used to brag about hav­ing “helped cre­ate three Re­pub­li­can pres­i­dents” be­lieved he had failed at turn­ing the coun­try into his play­ground. But, as Bloom con­cludes, the dam­ag­ing im­pact that Ailes had on me­dia and on the coun­try re­mains and will re­main for a very long time. And we shall re­mem­ber him as a can­cer­ous fig­ure who, even dead, rep­re­sents most of what is wrong with Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

April 6, 2019


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