Divide and Conquer doc details Fox News founder’s sexual scandals and a lot more that’s appalling

Divide and Conquer doc details Fox News founder’s sexual scandals and a lot more that’s appalling
Documentary on the rise and fall of Fox News baron Roger Ailes. Directed by Alexis Bloom. Opens Friday at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. 107 minutes. STC

When Fox News baron Roger Ailes found himself in the boiling waters of sexual-harassment allegations in July of 2016 , the person he immediately called to for help was Donald Trump .

Ailes resigned from Fox on July 21, 2016. It’s the same day that Trump, no stranger himself to accusations of sexual improprieties , spoke at the Republican Party leadership convention as its nominee, en route to becoming U.S. president.

One alleged predator slips beneath the waves; another surfs to victory. But this doc by Alexis Bloom (Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) shows just how long Ailes, who died in 2017 at age 77, dodged his inevitable fate.

Described by former schoolmates as “mercilessly funny” during his breezy Eisenhower years of the 1950s in blue-collar hometown Warren, Ohio, Ailes would go on to become mercilessly ruthless in the way he exploited people both professionally and sexually.

While working at talk-show giant The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s, Ailes schmoozed his way from junior producer to executive producer, stepping on the heads of older and more qualified candidates.

Master media manipulator Roger Ailes (centre right, with name tag, talking to Richard Nixon), in Divide And Conquer: The Rise and Fall of Roger Ailes, opening Friday in Toronto.  (Handout photo)

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He jumped ship from the show in 1967 after convincing one of its guests, presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, that he could craft a media strategy to finally win the White House for the humourless, clueless, power-hungry Nixon.

Ailes did what he promised, borrowing camera angles from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi booster Triumph of the Will, making Nixon seem like a man of the people. The feat was documented in The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’ landmark book on the distortions and manipulations of election campaigns.

Looking like a jollier version of Alfred Hitchcock — Bloom even uses Hitch’s old TV theme at one point — Ailes would later craft successful Republican presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the latter via the infamous “Willie Horton” attack ads against Democratic rival Michael Dukakis.

Ailes was motivated by his personal mantra: “We have a desperate need to return to the basics” in America. This credo found further expression in the right-wing politics of Fox News, which he started in 1996 with the backing of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

“Return to the basics” evidently included the base treatment of women, as the thrice-married Ailes chased female subordinates with an entitlement born of confidence he could get away with anything.

“He needed that feeling of having a harem,” says one of many woman interviewed in the film, all of them describing Ailes’ appalling tactics: any woman who refused his outrageous sexual demands was placed on a “no hire” list.

Ailes was a #MeToo villain before the #MeToo movement began. But Divide and Conquer is more than a rap sheet of his crimes against women.

Those testimonies are there, to be sure, but the film works best in breaking down Ailes’ motives and methods. The title is actually a misnomer: Ailes didn’t divide his enemies so much as he corralled like-minded believers into an “us vs. them” vision of America, where the “them” were unfeeling ruling elites in Washington, D.C.

Ailes and his political allies curried favour with red-state Americans, even if Fox News reporters patronized the audience with newsroom jokes about “rilin’ up the crazies.”

“Roger always knew the lowest common denominator in people,” another woman says of him, and boy, did he ever. As this doc shows, he went as low as he could possibly go, until his repugnant behaviour finally caught up with him — as it must to all such men.
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