When I ran into Alexis Bloom exiting the screening room after seeing her terrific new documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story, I joked that the film should come with a “trigger warning” for anyone who had covered the legendary Fox News supremo. Bloom responded with a knowing laugh.
She and I had spoken about the subject once before. Shortly after Roger Ailes died on May 18, 2017, I wrote a piece for Forbes.com about my 20-plus-year history reporting on the man. There was a Committee to Protect Journalists soiree, where Ailes told me that when he was a Republican political operative, and he bought people off, he kept his “fucking mouth shut about it.” And then there was the time he threatened the well-being of not only myself, but my wife and children as well, if Broadcasting & Cable—the magazine I was editing at the time—ran a piece about how much money his new contract would pay him.
An hour after my Ailes piece posted, Forbes yanked it down—a first for me, after writing a slew of well-received opinion pieces for the site. It was, however, up long enough to find its way to Bloom, who was then in the thick of making Divide and Conquer. Bloom had enjoyed the piece and was mystified to find that it had gone AWOL. I told her with a shrug that, this being the news business, it was less a surprise with the knowledge that Forbes On Fox was then a mainstay of the network’s Saturday morning lineup. The Ailes I knew could be an incredibly insightful, charming, and profanely funny man who would easily turn into a vindictive, paranoid, bulging-eyed bully the minute a story was posted he didn’t like. Roger Ailes may have been six feet under by then, but he still exercised control over the place like a mafia don serving a life sentence from his cell in Hades.
I was hardly the only person who’d come to understand that, no matter how “fair and balanced” you were in your coverage of Fox News, if Roger Ailes and his cohorts didn’t like it, they came after you.
“There was no organization that was more adversarial or made it tougher to cover them, and that was all Ailes,” says NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who recently had Bloom as a guest on On Point, the radio show he co-hosts. “They liked to let you know they had a ‘dossier’ on you. Ailes wanted to make it painful to cover Fox. Every call with one of his PR people was a fight, even if it was over a clause in a story they didn’t like.”
In 2001, when Folkenflik was at the Baltimore Sun, he had taken on Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera, an Ailes favorite. Back then, Rivera reported an incident of friendly fire in Afghanistan, claiming he had been on the scene where three Americans had died. Folkenflik found that Rivera was actually 300 miles from the site he described and that no Americans had died there that day. Rivera blamed his mistake on the “fog of war” and claimed to have conflated it with another incident; it all ended up being just another day at the office for him. (Clearly, the criticism continued to sting the ever-principled Rivera, who went after Folkenflik on Twitter when Folkenflik’s book, Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, was published by Hachette in 2013.)
A half-dozen years after he skewered Rivera, Folkenflik remembers encountering Ailes at a posh party for the 2007 launch of the Fox Business Network at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur. “‘You’re the guy who tried to fuck with me,’” is the first thing Ailes said upon Folkenflik introducing himself. “He was all about how much bullying and bluster he could get away with,” says the reporter.
That was the Ailes way, and so it was the Fox way. David Bauder, who has long covered television for the Associated Press, remembers “being banned” from Fox for two years. “This was in 2000. I’d written about the PR campaign Ailes’ minions waged against Paula Zahn when she left Fox News for CNN and they banned me.”
Moves of this kind were anything but isolated. In Divide and Conquer, coworkers from Ailes’s early days at The Mike Douglas Show talk about his ruthlessness and boundless ambition. Associates from his political consultant wizard days speak of his keen grasp of the power of television to take someone as uncharismatic as Richard Nixon, or Mitch McConnell, and make them, astonishingly, electable. In the Ailes playbook, all it took was the right script, lighting, and camera angles—and a vicious attack dog mentality. There’s the notorious Willie Horton spot he masterminded in George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis. The documentary notes how Ailes was a total fanboy when it came to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, admiring how her camera could make the little dictator with the postage-stamp mustache appear omnipotent and heroic.
Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, says he found watching Divide and Conquer so “unsettling” he was unable to watch in a single sitting. “It took three days to watch it,” says Garfield, who interviewed Bloom for OTM. “I’d watch for a while and it would make me physically ill and I’d have to go back again the next day.”
Divide and Conquer brought Garfield memories of Ailes’ primetime attack dog, Bill O’Reilly, going after him on the O’Reilly Factor. But that’s not what prompted him to become “physically ill” in his start-and-stop screening. “What upset me most watching the film is you see right in front of you how much Ailes in his political career and certainly with Fox News did to undermine our democratic way of life,” Garfield says.
Part of what is so powerful and stomach churning is that Divide and Conquer does not shy away from the seamiest side of its subject. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor, along with several other women, go into explicit detail of allegations of sexual harassment, including charging that this was Ailes’ modus operandi going back to his days running The Mike Douglas Show. Multiple charges of sexual harassment over decades are intercut with scenes of Fox newswomen in Ailes-mandated short, tight dresses, shot from camera angles that were set to show the women off as explicitly as possible. “The women had an audience of one: Roger,” Folkenflik says.
Folkenflik says the film also sparked recollections of how Ailes directed whisper campaigns against on-air talent, mostly women, regarding things true and false about their personal lives. “I remember them spreading stories about [former Fox News anchor] Laurie Dhue being drunk at a public event,” says Folkenflik. “This was after they knew she had sought treatment for alcoholism.” Dhue, who left Fox in 2007, and has spoken publicly about her alcohol addiction, would later accuse both Ailes and Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment.
Ailes was also the proverbial master of selling on-air conflict. His political consultant days working for Nixon taught him about a so-called “silent majority.” Feeding on an underserved audience’s fear of the other—whether immigrants with different color skin or a POTUS named Obama who looked like no other before him—would keep them “glued” to Fox News. That take-no-prisoners method is characteristic of the Roger Ailes portrayed in Divide and Conquer.
Divide and Conquer powerfully shows the de-evolution of Ailes from the Mad Men-handsome producer of Mike Douglas to the doddering, obese ogre he’d become in his last days at Fox. The message is clear: The more powerful Ailes became by pushing his “us v. them” agenda—normalizing heinous conspiracy theories—the more grotesque he became on the outside, as well. As Glenn Beck notes in the film: When you become an expert at portraying people as monsters, “It’s hard to see you’re on that path, too.”
Leaving the screening, I said to Bloom that Ailes—had he lived—would have had his spies looking for dirt to discredit the filmmaker and her fellow travelers on the documentary. He might even have grabbed the phone to threaten the well-being of her and her loved ones, too. This much I assured her was certain: Ailes would have loved a little vignette at the end of the film. In it, the hosts of Fox & Friends note a news report that Donald Trump—the last man Ailes aided in his ascension to the White House—watches them faithfully every morning at 7:00am. They ask over the air for the president, if he’s watching, to flick the lights on and off in his White House bedroom. Dutifully, Donald Trump does as requested. Divide and Conquer leaves little doubt that even with Roger Ailes dead and buried, the lights remain klieg-bright at the media monster powerhouse he created.
Correction: David Folkenflik hosts On Point, not Talk of the Nation. And the Willie Horton campaign was in 1988, not 1992.