In the preface to her new memoir Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama recalls smiling for photos with people who “call my husband horrible names on national television, but still want a framed keepsake for their mantel.”
One of those people, we learn toward the end of director Alexis Bloom’s new documentary Divide and Conquer, was Roger Ailes.
As former Fox News host and current CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota tells it, she was in line behind Ailes and his wife Elizabeth at the annual White House Christmas party, waiting to take photos with President Obama and the first lady. She peeked around the curtain and watched as Obama spotted the Fox News president and said, “Roger Ailes, the most powerful man in media.” And yet the next day, Ailes was telling everyone at Fox headquarters that Obama had called him “the most powerful man in the world.”
“There was no point in me going to burst Roger’s bubble or call bullshit on it with him one on one,” Camerota says in the film. “Because I saw that that was already the new narrative.”
Divide and Conquer, which tells Ailes’ life story—from growing up with hemophilia in small-town Ohio to becoming a political kingmaker and creator of Fox News to his ultimate downfall as an (allegedly) prolific sexual harasser—is all about narrative. Specifically, it is about Ailes’ unparalleled ability to create the narrative he wanted the public to buy, whether about the men he would install in power to push the country rightward or about himself.
For Bloom, that Christmas party story shows that Ailes had a “boundless propensity for fabulism and a bottomless ego.”
“It’s not enough to be called the ‘most powerful man in media,’ you have to embellish that?” she tells me by phone ahead of her documentary’s December 7th release. “It’s crazy.”
Before she took on this project, Bloom barely ever watched Fox News. But she was always fascinated by both Ailes and 21st Century Fox owner Rupert Murdoch.
“It became obvious to [producer] Alex Gibney and I that we were living in a world that these men influenced greatly. And that they were not that well understood,” she explains. “Roger was always one of the most colorful and compelling characters in Murdoch’s world and he had an outsized impact on American culture and politics. And it just seemed worthwhile to explore his story further.”
It wasn’t until after Ailes was ousted from Fox News in the summer of 2016, following the allegations of sexual harassment, that Bloom started working on the film in earnest. “It seemed to us a great time to start reporting on him,” she says, “because prior to that it was incredibly difficult, just because of the power that he wielded.” She hoped that now, people in his orbit “might actually talk about him,” whereas prior to that they were “just terrified” of the retribution he would exact against them.
Even after Ailes’ death in 2017, Bloom says it was difficult to get any current or even recently departed Fox News personalities to speak with her for the film. The only major exceptions are Camerota, who has been open about how Ailes harassed her when she worked for him, and Glenn Beck, who left the network in 2011 and has been critical of both Fox and his own role in “helping tear the country apart” in the years since.
Beck’s is the first voice we hear at the top of the film. He speaks about the “real terror” inside of Ailes, his “wanting to be liked, wanting to be somebody.” Leaning forward in his chair, Beck adds, “It’s easy to make somebody a monster. It’s hard to see that you’re on that path too.”
“That could be applied as much to him as it could to Roger,” Bloom notes, wryly.
As the only major prime-time host from the Roger Ailes era willing to speak to Bloom for the film, Beck stands out. In the absence of Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity and others, it is left to Beck to share his insight about what it was like to be one of Ailes’ media stars.
“His proximity to Roger and to the center of power at Fox means that he has insights that very few people have and therefore he’s worth talking to,” Bloom says, making clear that she tried hard not to “deify” Beck or give him too much credit for the public “mea culpa” he has attempted in the seven years since he left the network. “I hope that nobody comes away [from the film] thinking that he was never part of the system. He clearly was.”
Bloom says she “absolutely” tried to interview current Fox News hosts about Ailes and would either get no response or a quick rejection. Even lower-level producers told her there was “no way” they could speak on the record about Ailes out of fear that they would lose their jobs. “On-air people have incredibly restrictive terms and they have to run everything through Irena Briganti and there’s no way that she would ever give them permission to talk,” Bloom says, referring to the infamously aggressive PR chief, who Megyn Kelly recently said is “known for her vindictiveness.”
And yet as tightly controlled as the Fox News staff has been, Bloom says she does not believe there is still the same level of “loyalty” to Ailes now that he has passed.
“There’s no statue to him, there’s no plaque, there’s no obvious tributes,” she says. “The people who learned under Roger and are still at Fox—and there are many of them—still practice the same practices. They are still vigilant and slightly aggressive and very targeted in what they will and won’t allow in terms of press and transparency. But I don’t know that it’s out of an allegiance to Roger per se.” In fact, she says the company has tried to portray Ailes as a “bad apple” despite the fact that several other men, including on-air stars Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling, were fired for similar behavior.
Bloom would have loved to have spoken to former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson, whose lawsuit against Ailes hastened his downfall, but she is bound by a $20 million non-disclosure agreement that prevents her from speaking publicly about what happened to her. Whereas Carlson has managed to find a new outlet as an advocate for survivors—even penning a self-help book about stopping workplace harassment—other women who saw their careers decimated by Ailes have not been so lucky.
The director would meet with these women, including former Fox contributor Tamara Holder, off the record at first, building a relationship with them until they were comfortable enough to speak on camera about their traumatic experiences.
“There are some women who don’t want to talk because they realize that speaking is going to probably ruin their careers or follow them around or be a scarlet letter and I could never bring myself to tell them that it wasn’t,” Bloom says. “From experience, I know that talking about these things never does a woman any favors.”
What “continues to annoy” Bloom is that “despite all of our so-called recognition that this is a terrible thing to happen to women in the workplace, most of the women who have come forward are still not working.”
“It’s heartbreaking and it’s bullshit,” she continues. “Because most of these women are not pushovers. It doesn’t ruin your life. It’s terrible, but you pick yourself up and get on with it. And to a person they’ve all said, ‘I want to carry on working’ and it’s been incredibly hard for them to do so.”
Ailes’ downfall came more than year before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which is typically considered the beginning of the current #MeToo movement. By the time O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were exposed for their misdeeds, production on the film was well underway. Clips of Rose interviewing Ailes and Lauer interviewing O’Reilly now play to darkly comic effect on screen, prompting awkward laughter at the AFI Film Festival screening in early November.
“It became deeply ironic,” Bloom says of those moments. “But it also goes to show it’s not about ‘loathsome Republicans,’ it’s really not. It’s about morality, not about politics.”
Divide and Conquer begins with Ailes’ ouster from Fox and ends with his death less than a year later. It’s not shocking to see such a powerful man fall in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but the film does make the viewer wonder why sexual harassment allegations were enough to bring down a man as powerful as Ailes, but have done little to damage Donald Trump.
For Bloom, it has everything to do with the even greater power of the Murdoch family, especially Rupert’s two sons James and Lachlan, who were essentially looking for an excuse to get rid of Ailes.
“They had no loyalty or respect, really, for Roger,” she says. “They thought he was personally loathsome and [Carlson’s lawsuit] presented an opportunity. I don’t think they considered him integral to the financial success of the company at that point. I think they thought they could get rid of him and the company would be just fine. There was a tiny window of opportunity to act and they acted.”
For the most part, the Murdoch sons were right. Even after the departures of Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, arguably Fox News’ biggest stars, the network continues to dominate in the overall cable news ratings—with CNN and MSNBC biting at its heels and even beating it from time to time in the coveted 25-54 news demo.
“The Murdochs will always win,” Bloom says, matter-of-factly. “It’s like a mob family. It was a very real power that Roger wielded, but ultimately he was beholden to the Murdoch family. It’s a fascinating story and really like the twist of the knife. He played the kids against the father and ultimately the sons come back and stab him. That’s what happened.”
When Bloom asks Alisyn Camerota in the film if she believes Fox News has changed post-Ailes, the CNN host goes quiet for a moment then says, “I don’t know.”
“There must have been changes,” Bloom tells me. “Roger was a big personality and set the tone culturally. I can’t imagine that it will be as easy to sexually harass as it was during his reign. He was so flagrant about that.” For instance, she notes, when Fox hired Geraldo Rivera, Ailes allegedly said at a public staff meeting, “Hold on to your skirts, girls.”
Bloom doubts that a similar attitude exists under the leadership of new CEO Suzanne Scott, but notes that Scott was a “loyal deputy” of Ailes’ and, as former female anchors told her, was in charge of making sure their skirts were shorter and cleavages more plunging (a claim Scott has denied in the past). “She cut her teeth during the time of Roger and [current Trump administration adviser] Bill Shine and I can’t imagine it’s now a cuddly, fuzzy, warm place to work.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, a current spokesperson for Fox News wrote, “Suzanne has been responsible for many culture changes at the company including instilling a more open and transparent environment,” citing monthly “Women of Fox” breakfasts for junior level staffers to interact with women at the network in positions of power and quarterly addresses to staff, something Ailes had not done since 2010.
Divide and Conquer precedes two dueling high-profile Hollywood productions about Ailes, both due out next year. John Lithgow is set to star as Ailes in director Jay Roach’s biographical film featuring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe will play Ailes opposite Naomi Watts’ Carlson in a Showtime mini-series based on Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room.
“I’m just grateful we got our documentary out first,” Bloom says with a sigh of relief, “because the space is about to be fully dominated by Hollywood.” She understands the fascination, though. “He did lead a dramatic life.”