THE NEW YORK TIMES
Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes Gave Us Fox. These Shows Try to Make Sense of It All.
“The Loudest Voice,” “Ink” and “Succession” map out the influential world the two men created.
Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) begins narrating his own story, Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” as he lies dead on the floor. I mean, why wouldn’t he?
Ailes, who died in 2017, brayed and bullied his way to the center of media and politics. He built a noise machine, Fox News, that amplified conservatism and then devoured it. Even after he was forced out at Fox for sexual harassment, his worldview continued to blare from it.
What, you thought a little thing like dying would shut Roger Ailes up?
Ailes, a onetime campaign operative, programmed our current political environment. Rupert Murdoch, the Fox mogul, bankrolled Ailes’s furious vision in America while imposing his own in Britain. Together, they created a smash-mouth version of conservatism that married plutocracy with populism, reactionary politics with showbiz values. They exploited fear, prejudice and, in Ailes’s case, women.
Their decades of work paid off in 2016: in Britain with the success of the tabloid-fired Brexit campaign, and in America with the election of Donald Trump, the reality-TV businessman and “Fox & Friends” regular who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals (and who defended Ailes, his adviser in the general-election debates, after his sex-abuse disgrace). President Trump relied on a fervent, immovable base that Ailes laid the foundation for, with tools supplied by Murdoch.
We are living in their world, even if Ailes has departed it. Now television and theater are trying to make sense of how that world got built.
“The Loudest Voice,” the seven-episode series beginning June 30 on Showtime, is direct, damning and about as subtle as, well, Fox News. An ominous soundtrack follows Ailes (Crowe, plumped up and balded down) as if he were a monster from the deep. When Fox goes on air at the end of the first episode, we see an eerily glowing matrix of screens forming a Big Brother-ish American flag. This is less a biopic than a creature feature.
Based on Gabriel Sherman’s comprehensive bio-takedown, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” the series skips over Ailes’s early years: working on “The Mike Douglas Show,” developing Richard Nixon’s 1968 TV strategy, becoming a Republican media guru. Instead, we meet him in the mid-90s, pushed out the door as president of CNBC and plotting his comeback.
Ailes is a true believer. He believes in conservatism, believes the rest of the media is its enemy, believes it is his calling to help his side “reclaim the real America.”
But he’s also a TV guy. (Or a “Television Man,” the Talking Heads song that is one of several nudging musical cues here.) He knows that viewers respond to emotion, outrage, flash. And he knows that cable TV is different from TV in the broadcast-network era. You don’t try to make things widely palatable to everyone anymore. You need “the loyalty of the passionate few,” he says. “In politics, it’s called turning out the base.”
Fox News would be the continuation of politics by other means. It put a telegenic sheen on a conservative theme Richard Hofstadter identified in 1964, in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: the belief that “America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.”
This is not just a performance for Ailes, who in “Voice” is so paranoid he could be fitted for a tinfoil business suit. Even the solidly right-wing Murdoch (Simon McBurney) is unsettled by his underling’s fervor. At one point, Ailes orders an investigation of Murdoch’s wife, whom he suspects of being a Chinese agent.
But he gets ratings, and with them, power. He intuits that Sept. 11 will unleash a cry for war (and counsels the Bush administration on leveraging that blood lust toward Iraq). He knows that Barack Hussein Obama — he insists on Fox’s using the middle name, three guesses why — will create an existential panic in his viewers. He understands, as Donald Trump eventually will, that his people want enemies and they want total war. Whatever fever burns in Ailes, it’s contagious.
Crowe gives Ailes more East Coast bluster than his actual speaking voice had; he sounds a little like a more-educated Archie Bunker, looks a little like Peter Griffin in a suit. There’s a menace to him, but also the theatricality of a man whose entire career was understanding the power of media performance. Are you not infotained?
Ailes is most plainly monstrous in his harassment and abuse of women, in the office and outside it. “Voice” (in the three episodes I’ve seen) tells that story mostly through his decades-long victimization of Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), a former Fox booker whom he blackmails into, essentially, sex slavery. Their scenes — Ailes making Luhn dance, ordering her to her knees, video-recording her as a means of control — are horrifying, bordering on lurid.
What there’s surprisingly little of in “Voice” is Fox News itself, as mainlined by viewers. There’s ample behind-the-scenes (Ailes implementing the news crawl the morning of 9/11; wishing Sean Hannity would “engage his brain before he talks”; dismissing one Bill O’Reilly harassment accusation after another).
But we’re left to imagine what the audience responded to on air — programming that was full of the paranoia and rage that pumped through Ailes’s veins but was also charged with excitement. In Sherman’s book, Ailes visits his childhood home in Ohio, and the woman living there tells him she watches Fox because its hosts “were having more fun” than other channels’.
She doesn’t say that in the version of Ailes’s visit we get in the series. But we do see Ailes give a demagoguing speech to the locals, after Obama’s election, that demonizes immigrants coming to steal people’s jobs and ends with, “Together, we can make America great again!”
The line is so on the nose it could dislocate your septum. But as Ailes might say, it speaks to a larger truth: Fox News was Trump before Trump was. Whatever America we’re living in now, Roger Ailes got there years ago.