Despite his sermonizing about being a positive person, the late Roger Ailes left behind plenty of negatives. There was the divisive politicking that he did on behalf of various Republican politicians decades ago; there was the fearmongering programming that vaulted Fox News to the top of the cable-news pile; and, of course, there was the sexual harassment — a multi-decade spree that ultimately resulted in Ailes’ ouster from the network in mid-2016.
That’s too much for anyone to explain in 107 minutes, as attempted by “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” The Magnolia Pictures documentary tries to visit all the Ailes waterfronts: There’s tremendous archival footage and photography of Ailes in his early years as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show” and Ailes alongside Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Mitch McConnell; there’s superior clip selection of Fox News hosts attempting to push Ailes storylines on air; there’s fine storytelling about peak-Ailes pettiness in attempting to take over a small town in Putnam County, N.Y.
They’re all sideshows. Of all the Ailes legacies — a divided country, eroded factual commonality, ratings-driven filth — none resounds so much as the first-person accounts of his victims. The names, by now, are familiar and numerous: Gretchen Carlson uncorked the gushing geyser with her July 2016 lawsuit claiming that Ailes had sexually harassed her. Then came more and more names, including then-star host Megyn Kelly and longtime Fox News employee Laurie Luhn, who had alleged a twisted form of torment applied by Ailes. New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman counted more than two dozen accusers in September 2016. Showtime is doing an 8-part series on Ailes based on Sherman’s book “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” starring Russell Crowe as the network executive.
Marketing consultant Kellie Boyle speaks in “Divide and Conquer” about how she revered Ailes. “I’d read his book and, in my industry, he was the man,” she tells the camera. She had dinner at Union Station with Ailes, after which he said that he could help Boyle. But: “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys,” Ailes said, according to Boyle. She didn’t accept Ailes’ advances, and later found out that she had been blacklisted for a big job that she had hoped to secure. “I wasn’t getting any of my calls returned,” says Boyle. A friend figured out that she was on a “no-hire list.” “That was the end of my career,” Boyle recounts.
The film, directed by Alexis Bloom, moves from that anecdote to a 1992 clip of Ailes telling interviewer Charlie Rose: “If you want to have tremendous political influence and still be a womanizer, drug abuser or an alcoholic, you only have one choice of career, and that’s journalism, because journalists won’t attack each other. They only attack all the rest of us.” Rose — who these days often finds himself paired in news coverage with Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and other predator types — gets a good chuckle out of the remark.
Alisyn Camerota, who escaped Fox News for a real-news career at CNN, talked about her request for more responsibility. “I wanted to try to anchor — I think that he saw that as, ‘What do I get out of that?’ And so when I went to him to ask him for more opportunity, he said, ‘Well, I’d have to work with you more closely . . . I’d have to train you, give you sort of tutorials. People might be jealous, and so . . . it would be best if we did it away from here, perhaps at a hotel sometime. Do you know what I’m saying?’ ” Camerota did know what he was saying, and she knew she would never do such a thing, as she explains: “I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I didn’t know if I was going to be fired if I didn’t do it. I didn’t know how he was going to make that happen. I mean, Roger was the king. His assistant was the head of [Human Resources]. And so it didn’t occur to me that there was somebody higher than Roger who could have done something. There wasn’t.”
Former TV correspondent Lidia Curanaj talks about how Ailes, during a job interview, told her that a Fox News woman had to have “the entire package. People want to see a woman from head to toe. And he looked me up and down admiringly and said you definitely are beautiful enough to be here,” recalls Curanaj, who said that Ailes requested the infamous “twirl” so that he could see all of her. “I just looked at him and laughed,” she says. She didn’t get the job.
When the mushroom cloud of sexual-harassment allegations fell upon Fox News, it was craziness, as the film demonstrates. The situation is narrated by Karen Kessler and Warren Cooper of PR firm Evergreen Partners. These folks add a little perspective to the scramble to stack up favorable comments about Ailes by Fox News talent, particularly high-profile women. Kessler: “They said all statements will be run through Irena Briganti, the head of public relations for Fox, who he told us was a ‘stone killer.’ And she was intensely focused on getting as many of the highest profile, and frankly, best looking, women on Fox to say that indeed he was not a harasser . . . And Irena was really proud that, in one day, she was able to enlist 22 people . . . ‘We’re up to 22, Roger.’ ” Toward the end of the film, Kessler notes that she doesn’t speak about her clients, though an exception was in order here: “In this case not only did we not have a contract, not only did we not have [a nondisclosure agreement], not only did we not have any legal reasons why we couldn’t — or get paid — but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong, and I can’t be part of that. And not only am I not going to be part of that, but I’m going to expose it so that these men one day can get some of what they deserve. Which is justice for their victims.”
Many of these stories have already appeared somewhere or other, often in news articles and features. They’re particularly powerful, though, in long form, unfettered by comments from other parties, legal edits, middling prose and so on. The stories, too, are more recent than the other political and cultural waste left behind by Ailes. He’d been working in politics and TV since the 1960s. The full force of his atrocities against women emerged just over two years ago.
Since the sexual-harassment crisis, Fox News has retooled its operation, a project that includes a brand-new HR operation designed to operate independently of powerful executives. When asked whether things have changed at Fox News, Camerota responds, “I don’t know. I don’t know. . . . He casts such a long shadow that his vision can actually go on without him.” To judge from Fox News’s post-Ailes programming, it must go on without him.