The downfall of Roger Ailes — the larger-than-life media mogul who created Fox News and died in disgrace in 2017 — is a compelling subject. So much so that next year, Nicole Kidman will star in a forthcoming (as-yet-untitled) movie as Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News anchor whose sexual harassment lawsuit led to Ailes’ ouster from his own company. (John Lithgow will play Ailes.) In Showtime’s dueling project — an eight-episode miniseries — Naomi Watts will play Carlson, and Russell Crowe will costar as the bombastic Ailes.
But before we see those fictional renderings of Ailes' collapse, there is Alexis Bloom's meticulous documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, in theaters and on VOD now. Ailes is a notably different topic from her previous documentary, 2017’s Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which Bloom codirected with her husband, Fisher Stevens.
Bloom picks her projects in part by what “they show us about how the world works,” she said. “Carrie and Debbie showed me so much about family and about love and about the ties that bind — and how complicated that could be.” With Ailes, he’s “a very specific character, but resonant in so many ways.”
Executive producer — and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker — Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, and many more) brought Bloom to the project when it was the vaguest of ideas at his company, Jigsaw Productions. Gibney had a notion to pursue a documentary about Rupert Murdoch, the 87-year-old media emperor, whose 21st Century Fox owns Fox News. “These investigative projects are funny,” Bloom said. “You just tug at strings. So we tugged at strings for ages. And then it soon became apparent that Roger was a force within Murdoch's world.”
In Fox News, Ailes built a propaganda machine that has poisoned American politics since its 1996 founding. But he was booted from his own company in July 2016 — an achievement that seemed inconceivable even as it was happening. In her extensively detailed lawsuit, Carlson said she had been fired for rebuffing Ailes’ “demands for sex as a way for her to improve her job standing,” and that Steve Doocy, the cohost of Fox & Friends, had “engaged in a pattern and practice of severe and pervasive sexual harassment.” Carlson came armed, having secretly recorded meetings with Ailes for over a year.
21st Century Fox quickly launched an independent investigation of Carlson’s allegations, initiated by Murdoch’s two sons, Lachlan and James, who were no fans of Ailes. In a pattern that would now look familiar after the post–Harvey Weinstein reckoning on sexual assault, but was then still new, a cascade of women — more than two dozen women, including Fox News' then-marquee star, Megyn Kelly — reported similar stories to Carlson’s.
Carlson filed her lawsuit on July 6, 2016; Ailes was forced to resign from Fox News on July 21 — his titanic fall occurred in a mere 15 days.
Ailes was removed from his kingmaker platform on the very day when Donald Trump — whose candidacy had been bolstered by Fox News throughout his campaign — addressed the 2016 Republican National Convention. The images from that day are among the first we see in Divide and Conquer, with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo dancing on the floor of the Cleveland arena. This sharply contrasted with the cable news channel having to break into its own coverage to announce their leader’s forced ouster.
Bloom knew Ailes’ fall meant they stood a chance to tell his story. “When he was deposed from Fox, we thought, this is the perfect time,” she said. “It’s a chink in the armor. We would not have been able to make this film had Roger still been the head of Fox News.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to get financial backing. They were told no by multiple places — always with a dash of terror, because Murdoch is still one of the most powerful businesspeople in the world. “We went to several outlets who shall not be named because I want to carry on working, who said, 'We can't make this film; we can't give you money,’” Bloom said. “Media titans in New York know each other, and maybe don't want to tread on each other's toes too much.” Eventually, A&E Indie Films, the cable network's documentary arm, which has produced such movies as The September Issue, Gibney's Client 9, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, and more, agreed to fund it.
Since Trump’s election, Fox News has elided its interests with his administration — and vice versa. A number of former Fox News employees now work in the Trump administration: Most prominently, former Fox News copresident Bill Shine is the White House’s deputy chief of staff for communications, and Heather Nauert, a former Fox & Friends anchor, is Trump’s nominee to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations.
Ailes is dead, but we’re still living in his world. “You can see the echo chamber of Roger in other men who we are forced to contend with now politically,” Bloom said pointedly, without mentioning Donald Trump. “That kind of egomaniacal, tone-deaf, power-hungry, white man.”
Bloom talked to BuzzFeed News about the difficulty of investigating Ailes’ life, calibrating the balance of Divide and Conquer’s story, and how the #MeToo movement affected the project.
Ailes always knew his hemophilia would kill him — and it did.
Ailes was born in 1940 and grew up in Warren, Ohio, which in the ’40s and ’50s was a small, factory-driven city. Ailes — handsome, funny, and popular in high school — had a mostly idyllic, Midwestern childhood. But he was also diagnosed with hemophilia, which, according to his lifelong friend Austin Pendleton — the ubiquitous character actor, think My Cousin Vinny — informed Ailes’ worldview. In Divide and Conquer, Pendleton says Ailes understood how to tap into other people's fears because of his own acute ones, and recalls him saying, “It’s like you walk around all your life with a time bomb in you.”
Ailes was right. In May 2017, as production on Divide and Conquer was ramping up, the semi-exiled Ailes fell in his Palm Beach, Florida, home at age 77 and hit his head. He died a little more than a week later.
At the time of Ailes’ death, he had been aware there was a documentary being made about him, but the filmmakers hadn’t yet had any direct contact with him. Ailes was vengeful, paranoid, and obsessed with his image — so yes, it was so much easier for the film that he died. “He would have sued the pants off us,” Bloom said.
Bloom didn’t want Divide and Conquer to be a #MeToo documentary.
In spite of Ailes’ influence on politics and news, Bloom discovered he was a bit of a Who to nonmedia people. “If I was with the kids at school, or hanging out with friends, or whatever,” she said, few people knew of him. And of those who did know Ailes’ name, “Most people said, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who got done for sexual harassment,’” Bloom said.
To shift the focus of Divide and Conquer to be solely on Ailes’ collapse at Fox News might have seemed tempting, especially as the film was shooting during fall 2017, when the Weinstein investigations in the New York Times and the New Yorker were published that sparked the revival of Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement. There are a number of Ailes accusers in the documentary who speak movingly about how Ailes' predation affected their careers.
But Bloom was determined that the movie be about Ailes’ whole life. “We knew that we wanted to tell a story about what Roger had done to America,” Bloom said. “Specifically in politics, and specifically his divisive impact. Yes, he was awful to women — and I saw that as an unsurprising offshoot of that. But we didn’t ever want to make a #MeToo film.”
Considering its 107-minute runtime, Divide and Conquer ably covers Ailes’ professional accomplishments, from his start as a producer at The Mike Douglas Show to how he invented the job of the political media adviser. Ailes approached Richard Nixon — who desperately needed help with his image, having lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 largely because of a sweaty debate debacle — at Mike Douglas, and steered Nixon’s successful presidential run in 1968. He shaped the political careers of nearly every major Republican from then on, including steering a come-from-behind win for Mitch McConnell in first Senate campaign (he made McConnell run an ad showing him fishing). He also helped concoct the infamous, racist Willie Horton ad that propelled George H.W. Bush to victory over Michael Dukakis.
As Ailes becomes more successful in the narrative, his propensity for sexual harassment provides the spine of Divide and Conquer. But it’s not lurid, and it’s not overkill. “We wanted to portray the women’s stories respectfully, honestly, and with power,” Bloom said.
“We just went through all of the material and calibrated,” Bloom said. “Is it too much sexual harassment, are we now not interested in the political aspect because he's such a dirty rotten pervert that that's the only thing we can focus on?”
Bloom does think that some interviewees were inspired to talk to her because of the #MeToo movement.
There was difficulty to getting interviews for Divide and Conquer that Bloom had not experienced previously, even with her prior investigative work on PBS’s Frontline documentaries and as a producer on Gibney’s WikiLeaks documentary, We Steal Secrets. “The world of Fox is hermetically sealed,” Bloom said.
Bloom needed to find creative ways in — she talked to Megyn Kelly off the record, but Kelly opted not to go on camera. Carlson is bound by the nondisclosure terms of her $20 million settlement, so she can’t talk. Former Fox News employees, including Glenn Beck, once the network’s biggest star, and ex-anchor Alisyn Camerota, an Ailes harassment survivor, are interviewed on camera, and are especially astute and insightful. But there are no current Fox News employees in Divide and Conquer.
Bloom did, however, find firsthand witnesses to Ailes’ final days at Fox News, Karen Kessler and Warren Cooper, from the crisis PR firm Evergreen Partners — and the story they tell is the stuff of both comedy and drama.
Kessler and Cooper had been referred to Ailes through Trump, and when they arrived at the Ailes home in Cold Spring, New York, it was utter chaos. In a living room with a “chintz” design aesthetic, Beth Ailes, Roger’s loyal wife and protector, and Irena Briganti, Fox News’ fearsome head of public relations (still!), were rushing around talking on the phone. They would trash Gretchen Carlson, ask about the status of Megyn Kelly as someone who might defend Ailes, and tally the number of Fox News women who were willing to support him publicly. “We’re up to 22!” Briganti said to the room. Ailes, meanwhile, was hooked up to an IV, getting a vitamin drip.
When Kessler remarked that these sort of cases usually settle, Beth Ailes jumped up and said: “We will never, ever settle this case. You need to understand something: Roger is more important than America.”
They were in Ailes’ living room for days, and every time they tried to offer advice, Briganti told them “stand down!” Bloom described Cooper and Kessler as “the last healthy gene being put into a petri dish of squalor.”
After this story was published, Briganti contacted BuzzFeed News to say she was only on the phone and was "not present in person at the meeting." She also "denied trashing Carlson or Kelly."
Crisis PR people, by the nature of their jobs, are reticent to give interviews, so Bloom had to pursue them for a long time before they would agree to talk on camera. They never did sign a contract with the paranoid Ailes, who, according to Bloom, kept putting in “more and more vigorous provisions in terms of privacy and the NDA,” said Bloom. “And it bit him in the ass.”
She thinks they agreed to talk because of the evolving conversation surrounding workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault, which has led to soul-searching for some. “All of this dark pallor, from Trump and cover-ups and Michael Cohen and Harvey Weinstein — publicists and lawyers covering for them. At some point, they decided, That’s not us,” Bloom said. “We don’t owe allegiance to these dark mandarins. That’s not our purpose — our purpose is to help you manage a crisis. But it’s not to help cover up a crime.”
“I can't be part of that,” Kessler says in Divide and Conquer. “And not only am I not going to be a part of that, but I’m going to expose it so that these men can one day get what they deserve. Which is justice for their victims.”
As far as justice goes, Bloom has a practical suggestion for the Murdochs: Rehire Fox News women who quit, were fired, or were even paid settlements to leave.
“The women who were harassed by Bill O’Reilly and Ailes and the like — bring them back,” Bloom said. “For the women, they just want to work again. I feel like with Murdoch and their mea culpas, and saying they cleaned up Fox — wouldn’t it be a radical idea if they rehired some of the women who were abused at Fox, who were genuinely good at their jobs?”
Whether that matter of reparations could ever be on the table is a compelling question for Lachlan Murdoch, who is embarking on the reconfigured New Fox after most of the assets of 21st Century Fox are sold to Disney.
Hope Hicks — Donald Trump’s former communications director, and New Fox’s chief communications officer — did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
This story has been updated with a comment from Fox News publicist Irena Briganti.