The only people who will see a documentary about Fox News are probably already not fans of Fox News. Perhaps we are looking for answers so we have a way to combat disinformation, but there really isn’t one. What Divide and Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes can give us is confirmation that this wasn’t an accident. As for combatting it, the best Hope seems to be people like Ailes destroying themselves.
Fox News really began when Ailes made himself media advisor to Richard Nixon, and corrected the mistakes Nixon made at the Kennedy debate. Ailes literally used Triumph of the Will as an example of how to make a candidate look heroic.
An elaborate early memo to put the GOP on television starts laying out the foundation of Fox News, even though no author is credited. Someone took the time to spell out “People are lazy. The thinking is done for you” and to edit what the subjects say.
Ailes seemed motivated by anger and a lack of parental love. We hear firsthand accounts of his narcissism, thinking himself more important than the country, and the most powerful man in the world. He created a whole culture of bugging his colleagues, bluffing then with threats. They even debunk his narcissistic myths but what’s the point? We’ve seen there’s no stopping a steamrolling bully who doubles down on his lies. Ailes carried on to his death.
By the time America’s Talking became MSNBC and Ailes took his resources to Rupert Murdoch, he was on a mission to spite anyone who disagreed with him, including presidents. The crew at Fox News confirmed the plans to make people afraid of liberals, or that Obama was Muslim and trying to bring sharia law to the US.
But Ailes sexually harassed his female employees with demands of transactional sex for promotions. That finally caught up with him when women like Gretchen Carlson were too successful for him to bury. She empowered others to come forward, and against Bill O’Reilly too. Divide and Conquer goes further back and gives voice to some of the women Ailes abused much earlier in his career too.
It’s almost chilling to see Glenn Beck get self-reflexive and seem to regret his role in amplifying Fox News. He shares the moment when he sort of realized what he’d become. That’s rare, and one personality isn’t enough to end this practice, but it’s hopeful that it’s possible for even people that extreme to hit bottom and redeem themselves.
Alexis Bloom stages a few re-enactments with an Ailes double to illustrate some anecdotes or metaphors. We see his figure soliciting sexual favors in the backseat of a car, or dancing and throwing a chair. It’s subtle and minimal. Most of the movie is traditional archive footage and talking head interviews.
Ailes is gone but Fox News is still on the air and Donald Trump is still President. Certainly the people being manipulated by them aren’t interested in hearing how they’re being played. So what do we do? Maybe all we can do is leave documents like Divide and Conquer for future generations to understand what happened.