NEW YORK — Whether it’s Dick Cheney or the prosecutors of the Central Park Five, Hollywood has lately taken a keen interest in the conservative forces that have shaped the country over the past 40 years.
Now, it’s time to add a media baron to that list.
On Sunday, Showtime will premiere “The Loudest Voice,” a seven-episode examination of the late Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, an accused sexual harasser who used fiercely partisan tactics to win viewers. An almost unrecognizable Russell Crowe plays the late Fox News chief.
In the series, largely liberal Hollywood again dives into the choppy waters of Republican drama. But “The Loudest Voice” goes further than did “Vice," the biopic of the former vice president, or Netflix’s Central Park Five treatment, “When They See Us." It tackles an active media institution with a large soapbox — and strong ties to President Trump. The series thus has the potential to shape perceptions and evoke reactions like few pieces of contemporary entertainment.
“This show is the last thing Fox News wants,” said David Folkenflik, a correspondent for NPR and author of the book “Murdoch’s World,” about media titan Rupert Murdoch, the man who hired Ailes to run Fox News. “The network wants to set a new course for themselves. They want everyone to think of Roger Ailes as a demon they’ve exorcised. And it’s not true.”
At the same time, the series could provoke ire from the left for its focus on Ailes at the expense of Murdoch and sons James and Lachlan, who the series often portrays as passengers or even obstacles to Ailes’s strategy of division.
“The Loudest Voice” drops itself squarely into the news cycle. Trump is a running theme and occasional off-screen character. He is referenced in the fourth episode, when a producer during President Barack Obama’s first term responds to Ailes’s questioning of Obama’s birth country by saying that Trump had just said the same thing on “The View.” The producer notes, with an incredulous smile, that Trump is making noise about a run for president. Ailes then orders up an appearance for Trump on “Fox & Friends."
Meanwhile, the beginning of the Democratic presidential debate season in Miami this week underscores Ailes’s aim of viewers siloed along conservative and liberal lines — “we will let all [the other networks] battle out for that [liberal] half and we’re just gonna own the other half," he is depicted as saying in the first episode. The Democrats obliged this year by refusing to let Fox News host any of its presidential debates, though several individual candidates have participated in Fox town halls.
Showtime doesn’t break down viewers by voting preference, but hits such as “Ray Donovan” and “Billions” are assumed to cross party lines. Whether “The Loudest Voice" can break out, though, remains to be seen. While episodes of “Homeland” can top 2 million viewers, other Showtime series are more niche affairs. And “Vice” performed modestly at the box office.
Still, the goal with “The Loudest Voice” is more than weekly viewers. Emmy attention, as is likely for Crowe, and general buzz are the lifeblood of a premium cable network like Showtime, which needs that attention to attract and keep subscribers.
After running Fox News to the top of the cable-news ratings for two decades, Ailes was pushed out in 2016 by the Murdochs when former anchors Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and other female staffers leveled sexual-misconduct allegations at him. The accusers said Ailes not only harassed or made unwanted advances but created a culture hospitable to alleged #MeToo offenders like Bill O’Reilly. Ailes died in May 2017 at 77.
Based on an unauthorized 2014 biography by New York Magazine writer Gabriel Sherman, the seven-part “Loudest Voice” focuses on key points in Ailes’s Fox News life. Each episode looks at a crossroads moment as the network evolved into an important rallying point for Republicans and a tremendous profit center for the Murdochs.
The series opens with Ailes starting Fox News in 1996. Later episodes move to the post-9/11 alignment with the White House of President George W. Bush Wand the anti-Obama messaging that would become a ratings cash cow.
“There were these important tentpoles to hang it on,” said Alex Metcalf, the show’s lead writer. “The 9/11 moment is when Fox began weaponizing fear. And with Obama it became about a nostalgia for a ‘lost America’ that’s so prevalent now.”
Metcalf said the aim was not a hit job. “All of these events are fact-based — Roger did what he did, and Fox News does what it does,” he said.
Whether it was war in Iraq or Obama’s citizenship, he said, the series sought to convey Ailes as a showman who blurred opinion and fact to fuel ratings and viewer anger, but to do so with the charm and grit that characterized him.
“We really tried to walk an emotional middle ground,” Metcalf said.
Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming who oversaw the drama, said, "You need to show an arc, you need to give a sense of a mad genius, you need to have something to root for. You can’t be completely villainizing.”
The series can evoke viewer sympathy particularly as Ailes looks like he won’t get Fox News off the ground. And it at times leaves ambiguous whether Ailes sowed public divisions or simply capitalized on them.
Still, the overall portrayal is negative, showing a man who treated the news as entertainment vehicle, the electorate as his clay and female staffers as his property.
The series is likely to be picked apart by critics on the right for playing loose with the facts and an anti-Fox agenda.
In the second episode, for instance, Murdoch visits Ailes’s house on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, as Ailes lays out his vision for a flag-waving network. In a later episode, Ailes gives a speech in his Ohio hometown in which he uses the term “Make America Great Again,” suggesting that Ailes laid the rhetorical groundwork for Trump’s candidacy.
Both moments, Sherman and Metcalf acknowledge, were invented for dramatic purposes, though Sherman notes that Murdoch stayed at Ailes’s home on another night, in 2003, during a blackout in New York City.
Fox News has yet to comment publicly on “The Loudest Voice,” and the show’s producers said that they’ve not heard from the network. Asked for comment about the show, a Fox News spokesperson said that Showtime "had not reached out to the network to attempt any fact checking of material from the 2014 book or New York Magazine stories.”
But many who worked on the show said they are girding for a public disavowal.
“We think we made a balanced portrayal that we hope will be watched by everyone not only the left,” said Marci Wiseman, co-president of producer Blumhouse Television. “But we’re realistic. There might be fostering [of criticism] in certain circles. It would be disappointing but, in this climate, I don’t think surprising." Crowe, it should be said, has supported Obama.
The show also shines an unwanted light on current Fox News personalities. The network remains under fire for its ties to Trump via Sean Hannity, who is reportedly in close contact with the president; according to New York Magazine, they speak most weeknights before bed.
The prime-time host, who is depicted early in the series as a newbie bumbler, was thrust into the news again last week when apparent messages between him and Paul Manafort seemed to show them collaborating.
Asked for comment on the Hannity-Trump relationship, a Fox spokesperson referred The Washington Post to a quote Hannity previously gave Forbes that "Nobody has ever gotten my relationship with Donald Trump right, ever.”
Paradoxically, the creators say Ailes would have frowned upon Hannity’s overt connections to the Trump White House.
“Ailes would never have allowed that to happen,” said Sherman, who also serves as writer and co-executive producer. “He would say that ‘fair and balanced’ only works if you have plausible deniability,’” referring to the Fox slogan. “Now, there are no guardrails. Trump calling a host directly and giving him talking points would make Ailes roll over in his grave.”
The series could be seen as divisive within conservative ranks in other ways. Despite years of a profitable partnership, Ailes and the Murdochs ended on bad terms, and Ailes’s widow, Beth, blames the Murdochs for his ouster, according to a person familiar with the family who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to appear to be wading into the argument. Beth Ailes did not respond to The Post’s email request for comment.
The family has also not been shy about pointing a finger at Ailes’ accusers. At Ailes’s memorial, his son Zachary reportedly said, “I want all the people who betrayed my father to know that I’m coming after them and hell is coming with me.” He was just 17 at the time, so it was unclear what form that would take.
Among those presumed betrayers are Carlson, who fueled the internal investigation by filing a lawsuit against Ailes. Carlson, depicted in the show by Naomi Watts, did not reply to an email seeking comment about the series. A publicist, Annick Muller, said that “due to Gretchen’s settlement and nondisclosure agreement with Fox, she has not participated in the series at Showtime” and sent along a statement from the anchor.
“I haven’t seen the Showtime miniseries, but it’s an honor to have such an amazing actress like Naomi playing me," Carlson wrote. "I’m grateful that Showtime is using its platform to shine a light on the challenges faced by women who’ve been harassed in the workplace. It’s my hope the miniseries will continue the national conversation about harassment as my documentary ‘Breaking the Silence’ did in highlighting the ‘every woman’ story of this pervasive epidemic.”
Carlson appeared to endorse the portrayal though, appearing at a premiere in New York Monday and warmly meeting people such as producer Jason Blum at an after-party at the Plaza Hotel.
Before the screening, Showtime executive Gary Levine saluted Carlson to the room as someone whose "bravery helped the story come to light,” to loud cheers.
The portrayal of Ailes’s alleged sexual misconduct could open criticism from conservatives that liberal Hollywood is ignoring its own violators. Showtime is owned by CBS, which last year weathered its own #MeToo scandal when Leslie Moonves, its chairman and chief executive, was accused by at least six women of sexual misconduct or assault, leading to his ouster.
Wiseman said that she would respond to such criticism by saying that “toxic masculinity and abuse of power is unfortunately repetitive in history. I don’t think it’s only some companies that are subject to that," she said.
In light of that, she and the other Blumhouse Television co-president, Jeremy Gold, called it “brave” that David Nevins, the former Showtime chief who was promoted to chief creative officer at CBS after Moonves’s departure, backed “The Loudest Voice.” “He championed this project when I’m sure he knew more than we did about what could unfold in a difficult corporate environment,” Wiseman said. “That takes a lot of courage.”
Meanwhile, the show could be viewed critically on the left for letting the Murdochs off the hook. According to the first episode, Rupert Murdoch appeared to have little interest in a conservative outlet until Ailes stressed how lucrative it could be. The few politically minded appearances Murdoch makes in the subsequent three episodes tend to focus on such areas as his emphasis on good personal relations with Obama; one of those appearances includes Murdoch criticizing Ailes’s Obama coverage as “irresponsible.”
“The idea that Rupert wasn’t looking from the outset for a conservative voice is not true,” Folkenflik said. “He just trusted Roger to have the voice.” Liberals could also point out that the heavy focus on Ailes offers a way for Fox News to say it has turned over a new leaf, even though the tone he set remains.
Sherman’s book, on which the writers relied heavily, was a bestseller that received some good reviews but also mixed ones from the New York Times and Slate. The Times criticized it for a lack of attributable sourcing.
The project encountered plenty of bumps early in its life.
HBO first optioned Sherman's book but then publicly dropped it with little explanation, fueling social-media chatter that it faced pressure from its parent company, which also owns CNN. Richard Plepler, the head of HBO at the time, replied in an email this week that he was out of the country and not available to discuss the issue.
Other producers balked too. “It was very controversial — not a lot of companies were champing at the bit to make this,” Sherman said. “Roger Ailes ran a very vicious P.R. campaign against anyone who wanted to take it on.”
Blumhouse, which is behind horror hits such as “Get Out” and “The Purge,” would later buy rights and set up the project at Showtime, also hiring Tom McCarthy, the director of “Spotlight,” as a writer.
The initial idea was to tell the story from multiple points of view, with Ailes as a mysterious figure akin to the lead character in “Citizen Kane.” But writers eventually settled on making it Ailes’s story, particularly after his mid-2017 death “released the pressure valve a little,” Metcalf said.
The shooting also offered some surreal moments. It’s unlikely that Rupert Murdoch and Ailes ever sat in adjacent makeup chairs bonding over 1970s funk. But that’s what happened with their on-screen avatars.
“Russell would be at one end of the makeup trailer and I would be at the other,” said Simon McBurney, who plays Murdoch. “There would be days when we’d just listen to artists like Betty Davis for most of the 3½ hours it took them to get us ready."
The Showtime series will compete with two other Ailes projects — an A&E documentary from last year and a feature film from “Game Change” director Jay Roach due out later this year.
The viewership ceiling for either scripted project remains to be seen, particularly outside the world of liberal-minded media; the work risks becoming part of the same inside-the-tent echo chamber it seeks to portray.
Metcalf, in a sentiment Ailes might have appreciated, said his chief hope is that Americans watch.
“If people on the right are ticked off about the show I would consider it a compliment,” he said. “If people on the left are intrigued by the show, I’d consider that a compliment too.”