NEW YORK — Roger Ailes might not always have been a household name during his time at Fox News, but many media commentators believe he changed the TV landscape forever. As the architect of the conservative cable news channel, Ailes created a beacon for what he deemed as an underserved news market.
Now the world that Ailes created is the subject of a new documentary, “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Directed by Alexis Bloom, the film deconstructs the rise and fall of the late head of Fox News Channel. It opens in theaters on Dec. 7, as well as VOD, Apple iTunes, and Amazon streaming services.
“To be honest with you most of the time that I told people I was working on a film about Roger Ailes, people didn’t know who he was. I think people in media really knew who he was, because he made such a big impact,” Bloom said.
The general public, however, probably knows him more for the swift turn of events that led to his ouster. Ailes was brought down by a plethora of sexual harassment lawsuits, both directly and indirectly related to him.
Bloom goes beyond the scandals, breaking down how the onetime Fox News chairman built a dynasty by delivering content to a conservative audience and marketing it as “fair and balanced” news.
“I think Roger Ailes has changed our political landscape enormously, going back from 1968. He absolutely kind of took show business and politics and kind of fused them in a way nobody else had before,” Bloom said. “He worked in television. He worked in entertainment, and then he worked for a long time in politics, and he was the first one to connect them.”
The film’s executive producer, Alex Gibney, said that confluence of disciplines was the “secret sauce” that helped create the news channel’s message and draw.
“He made it so much more about tribalism, and in a funny way, entertainment. He saw the ‘virtue’ — I say virtue in quotes — in treating everything as combat. That didn’t generate much light, but it generated a lot of heat, which attracted a lot of viewers coming in from the cold,” Gibney said.
Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary, “Taxi to the Darkside,” said that Ailes ruled the news organization with an iron fist because he never wanted his audience to lose the message.
When asked whether Ailes would have approved of Fox News host Sean Hannity joining President Donald Trump onstage at a rally in Missouri earlier this month, Gibney said he finds it ironic.
After reaching the podium, Hannity suggested to the enthusiastic crowd that the media covering the event — including members of Fox News — was “fake news.”
“The legacy that they have created is a world of true fake news. That is the legacy that they’ve created. That they are peddling belief. It’s not news. And that has had a very damaging impact. But it’s long-lasting impact, and it should be concerning to us all,” Gibney said.
As for whether Ailes would have stopped a Fox personality from joining the president at a campaign rally, Gibney said that if Ailes did “it wouldn’t have been because he believed in that principle, but because he felt he wanted to maintain the illusion that it was an objective news network.”
The documentary concludes with Ailes’ tenure being eroded by a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, including one by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. But Ailes’ lasting legacy’s lives on.
“He made flamethrower TV viable and desirable,” said Bloom. “He showed us all that heat over light was the most successful formula. Take the journalism out, and put the entertainment in. And that might stay with us. He kind of divided America and created this outrage factory, and it’s still going strong.”