BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This past Monday the nation's itchiest Twitter finger fired another salvo from the White House.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Trump tweeted that 'the press is so totally biased that we have no choice then to take our tough but fair smart message directly to the people.'
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: 'Something has to be done, including the possibility the United States starting our own worldwide network to show the world the way we really are.' [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: This of course is not a new idea. The US Agency for global media oversees multiple government broadcasters including Voice of America. Never mind that, the president has previously yearned for a station to call his own which seems odd now considering his special relationship with Fox News. But while that channel may act now like a seamless extension of the White House, it didn't start that way–at least not so blatantly.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Roger knew that in order to be successful you have to, sort of, cover your tracks a little. You can't come out and say we're a conservative and this is what we're going to do. You have to be smarter than that. You have to keep that fair and balanced slogan front and center.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexis Bloom is director of the upcoming documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now here is the man who almost single handedly built Fox News Channel from absolutely nothing to the most watched news operation in all of cable.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Revolutionary in American politics.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Was in the Nixon White House, worked on the reelection campaign for Ronald Reagan.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: You could really credit Roger Ailes with helping to create three Republican presidents. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Alexis, Welcome to On the Media.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Thanks for having me Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: This is the story of an evil genius. Can we begin with the genius part? At every stage of his career, Ailes' intuition seemed to counter conventional wisdom and the results seemed almost magic. You start in the 60s with a syndicated midday talk program The Mike Douglas Show.
ALEXIS BLOOM: He was one of the youngest produces ever on The Mike Douglas Show. He was very good at it. And when Richard Nixon came on the show, Roger Ailes made a play for him and sort of springboard it himself from Mike Douglas into Richard Nixon's life.
BOB GARFIELD: The political legend has it that in 1960, a sweaty 5 o'clock shadowy Nixon lost TV debate with JFK and blew the election.
RICHARD NIXON: But that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: What was Ailes' solution when he went to work for Richard M. Nixon?
ALEXIS BLOOM: In essence, Ailes said to Nixon, 'you know, baby television ain't working for you. Look at Kennedy, you know, he just wipe the floor with you. You've got to do something about your act because television has taken over from radio, you know, as the medium through which Americans will now understand politics. You have to stop sweating. You have to do something about your hair. We have to package you in a way that's more, sort of, heroic and less fumbling. I mean, he did the whole man in the arena series with Richard Nixon.
RICHARD NIXON: Thank you very much.
ALEXIS BLOOM: He put Richard Nixon in the round.
RICHARD NIXON: Well, thank you very much. But well considering, I think that all of our television audience in view of this sports consciousness of this great city at the present company, we understand so little about you.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Surrounded him by he said the American public. But it was, you know, all sorts of acolytes.
BOB GARFIELD: Wringers.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Yeah and shot him from high angles, you know, made Richard Nixon seem more like a big strong leader.
BOB GARFIELD: Well he succeeded. And there upon Ailes had a new career. He did political consulting for a number of years.
ALEXIS BLOOM: With dozens and dozens and dozens of candidates–all Republicans. But he crisscrossed America getting to know every state in every county getting a real hands on feeling for the American public.
BOB GARFIELD: And what the ordinary voter wanted. There is a sequence in the film about a commercial he shot for Mitch McConnell, now Senate Republican leader, but at that point running for a judgeship in in Kentucky. McConnell wasn't quite the outdoorsman ay?
ALEXIS BLOOM: No. But, you know, Roger had a keen sense that that was what was going to appeal to the population in Kentucky. So he plopped them into a fishing boat and he looks up and he goes, 'what do I do now, Roger? And Roger had already put a fish on the end of the line and he said, 'reel in the fish Mitch.'
BOB GARFIELD: But then he was pulled back into the world of TV. He was working for NBC at the time, for a new cable channel called America Talking.
ALEXIS BLOOM: It's live TV. It's 12 hours a day doing sex shows, weather shows. There are a lot of pet shows. What's America's saying today? That was his slogan for America's Talking and he loved it. People say that's when Roger Ailes was happiest. He had complete control of this channel. It was financed by NBC. But at a sudden point NBC decided that they were going to sell it to Bill Gates. He was left out of the negotiations and that pissed him off mightily. And Roger was filled with animus towards the suits at NBC. They said, 'you can stay, you can still run it.' He said, 'no.' He stuck his finger up at the suits and said, 'bye, see you later. And by the way, you know, you'll be hearing from me.'.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So I called Roger in his car and I said, 'Hey I heard something went down. Are you OK?' He said, 'Felicia I'm going to [bleep] I'm going to [bleep] like they've never been [bleep] before. [END CLIP]
ALEXIS BLOOM: Rupert Murdoch saw that Roger was out of work, immediately picked up the phone and said, 'let's do something.' And they built Fox News. And I think Fox News was always defined by its animus towards NBC. He was absolutely hell bent on showing NBC how good he was and beating them.
BILL O'REILLY: Hi, I'm Bill O'Reilly. Thank you for watching on our very first day. Well, we're going to try to be different– stimulating and a bit daring. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Fox News Channel wasn't quite today's Fox News but pretty close. This is Bill O'Reilly again in the editorial meeting with his staff.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A library board in Helena Montana voted unanimously to keep the book The Joy of Gay Sex on the library shelves.
BILL O'REILLY: All right. That's good. Book that for the D block on Tuesday. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: But it wasn't just the incendiary content and the blowhard male hosts like O'Reilly. It was also the women–blond, tight clothing and legs actually lighted from below. Every woman on Roger Ailes' air was the weather girl. No?
ALEXIS BLOOM: He called it on-air talent stripers at one point. You know, he said, 'we got the same girls but shinier poles.' He knew that the way to keep the demographic, which was older and male, glued to the screens was as sort of heavy and heady combination of fear and sex. The only thing standing between you and the apocalypse are these hot babes. And it worked.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's get to the truly evil part of the equation. Ailes was a serial sexual predator who actually extorted sex out of job candidates and staffers with a sort of drug cartel silver or lead proposition. Sleep with me and your career will advance. Refuse me--.
ALEXIS BLOOM: And your career is over. He was famous for his not so charming one liners. One that sticks with me is 'if you want to play with the big boys, you got to lay with the big boys.' The woman in question demurred said he made a call to the Republican National Committee.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So I asked a friend to ask around. Then he called me back very quickly afterwards and said, 'you're on a no higher list.' [END CLIP]
ALEXIS BLOOM: And essentially ended her career.
BOB GARFIELD: Now we know that being shoved aside when America's Talking became MSNBC put a gigantic chip on Ailes' shoulder, but he told a story from his childhood in Warren, Ohio that he claimed was the root of of his mentality.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He told me the story that when he was a boy, he and his brother had bunk beds. And Roger was on the top bunk and his dad watched him and opened up his arms and said jump Roger, jump. And Roger jumped and his father stepped away. And Roger fell on the ground. And his father looked down on him and he said, 'don't trust anybody.' [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: It's almost unbelievable. I mean Ailes' was a hemophiliac. A fall to the floor could have caused him to bleed out internally. But in his own Citizen Kane narrative, this episode was his rosebud.
ALEXIS BLOOM: But was it his rosebud? I mean, as with all things Ailes-en and you have to take another look. I spoke to Roger's brother, Robert, who said there's absolutely no way that his father would have done that to him.
BOB GARFIELD: And it turns out and I'm sorry to spoil your film, because you saved this for practically last, but this story is a trope. It's been told many times before by many a celebrity about their own childhoods.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Roger was a fabulist. He told stories that weren't true all the time–both about himself, about the way he was treated by his family, about what had happened to him. You know, he had this kind of alternate narrative about himself and his life. And I think most of it was in service of this image of him as an aggrieved outsider. Somebody, you know, who had gone through a lot–upon whom bad things had been done. And in some way it was kind of a justification for him being such a thug.
BOB GARFIELD: Now incredibly, since Ailes ouster over a serial sexual harassment and his death a year later in 2017, Fox News Channel hasn't mellowed. On the contrary, it's gotten more extreme, more hate speech, more conspiracy ravings, more explicit collusion with Trump's Whitehouse. What do you suppose Ailes would have made out of the Infowars-ization of his baby?
ALEXIS BLOOM: The one thing that was of vital importance to Roger Ailes was the audience. Not losing the audience. Do not lose your numbers. And he would have been pleased that Fox is doing so well. Because they aren't doing well. And so, you know, in that regard Ailes would have been right on board with where Fox is now. You know, on the other hand he'd like to keep sort of fig leaf of journalism intact, not appearing to be so explicitly propagandistic. He like that notion of fair and balanced. It gave him cover. So I don't think he would have been pleased with Sean Hannity jumping on stage with Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: I talked about the caricature aspects of Roger Ailes as some sort of evil mastermind. You know, there's also some risk of caricaturing the Fox audience which we've said has fed on the kind of ginned up rage that is the channel's product. But, you know, his audience is not a monolith. Is there a way to view them more charitably than maybe I have done to this point in the conversation?
ALEXIS BLOOM: You have to view them charitably. I mean, they're us. They're Americans. There's plenty of people who watch Fox News who you and I would like very much and we need to have perfectly constructive pleasant interactions with. They were also good reporters on Fox. But the people consuming it think that it's news. And it's not, it's entertainment. And there's a large section of America who only watch Fox News. They depend on it as their only news source. They don't read newspapers and they don't watch any other channels. And that's the problem. It's not necessarily that Fox exists but that it sort of masquerades as something that it's really not.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexis, thank you very much.
ALEXIS BLOOM: Thanks for having me Bob.
Alexis Bloom is director of the upcoming documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes in theaters December 7th and on demand.