Since 2004, sexual harassment at 21st Century Fox has led to payouts of $163 million. And those are only the settlements we know about. Alexis Bloom’s documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, examines the root of the problem. The film profiles the life of the late political influencer and Fox News visionary, Roger Ailes. Bloom offers explanations for how a multi-billion-dollar company allowed such internal rot to fester. And by the time Bloom is done making her case, viewers have a better understanding of how such an impetuous and underqualified character found his way into the nation’s highest office.
Divide and Conquer profiles the life of Roger Ailes, the man who would transform Fox News into a cable TV news powerhouse. Ailes grew up in the MAGA movement’s favourite era, a time when all righteous Americans believed in God, family, and country. He began his influencer career as a sandwich runner on The Mike Douglas Show. It’s here where he showed the Machiavellian guile of a Game of Thrones character. Ailes sweet-talked his way into skipping the company’s hierarchy and landing a producer role. When political heavy-weight Richard Nixon appeared on the show, Ailes hitched himself on Nixon’s bandwagon, giving himself the title of media advisor. Ailes made it his mission to improve Nixon’s image; a man people described as 42 -years-old the day he was born.
It was during this era where Ailes realized the power of TV. Sure, the platform could illuminate important issues. But most importantly, TV elicits strong emotional responses from viewers. Ailes wasn’t above sending out racist ads and smear campaigns to win over voters. He kept refining ways to get republican messages through to the people without going through a critical press. And he would take that skill set to media mogul Rupert Murdoch and apply it to his Fox News cable network.
We live in the digital age. We walk around with entire libraries in our pockets, but access to data doesn’t mean we exercise good judgement. Seeking out what we want to believe is much easier than enduring harsh truths. And Fox News preys on this innate susceptibility. They don’t operate with journalistic integrity, so they’re not above telling lies, and spreading misinformation to keep their viewers hooked. One former Fox producer even shares the company’s name for this strategy: riling up the crazies. Bloom uses the doc to reveal the news outlet’s insidious methods. By the end of the film, Bloom makes it abundantly clear that Fox News is to journalism what professional wrestling is to athletic competition.
If there’s one thing that Cheeto-dust coloured, wispy-haired man-baby in the White House knows, it’s that what we feel creates a stronger impulse than what we know. I know the earth is round, but I feel like it’s flat. I know sharks rarely attack people, but I feel unsafe in the ocean. When what people want to believe lines up with what they feel, it’s a powerful motivator. And any media organization with journalistic integrity wouldn’t abuse that natural impulse. But Ailes uses that knowledge like a video game cheat code and takes advantage of their viewership for the company’s nefarious gains. As the cash came rolling in, Fox employees’ predatory inhibitions grew lax.
People (thick-headed ones) see cases of sexual harassment as binary issues. They refute public sexual harassment allegations with the same tired arguments: if the woman didn’t like it why didn’t she say something sooner, or report it to HR, or quit. So, when a scandal rocks someone they enjoy (like Bill O’Reilly who got smacked with a $30 million settlement), it’s easy for them to blame the victim. Divide and Conquer builds a strong case against this reductive line of thinking.
Bloom speaks with women who worked in Fox News’ toxic environment or had direct dealings with Ailes. These women contextualize their careers and point out the power imbalance between themselves and Ailes. They share stories about being ogled, coerced, propositioned, and blacklisted. Most importantly, they share what makes it so difficult to speak out against powerful men.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is about the life of Roger Ailes, and how he became a political kingmaker and changed the face of cable news. But it’s also about the soul-deflating mechanisms of institutional power. The doc lays out the ways that powerful men crush the little guy, or in most cases, little gals. Bloom makes the case that greedy rich men fortify themselves from retribution and create toxic professional environments that cater to their lecherous tastes. Roger Ailes is dead and gone, but you still see his fingerprints all over the Republican party. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll still find a parade of Barbie doll-looking TV personalities dumbing it up for the camera. The evidence speaks for itself.
As far as talking head docs go, Divide and Conquer doesn’t break new ground. It’s thoroughly researched, features credible subjects, and contextualizes Ailes’ impact on the political and media landscapes. But with each passing day, research, credibility, and facts matter less and less. I can’t tell you why. I just “feel” that statement is true.
- Release Date: 12/07/2018