If you want to be entertained by an outstanding performance and enlightened as to how we became such such a hopelessly polarized country, Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice” is the ticket for you.
I wrote a little about the performance of Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes, the founder of the Fox News channel, in a summer preview piece earlier this month, so I won’t go on about it here.
The most impressive aspect of Crowe’s performance in this seven-part limited series on the rise and fall of Ailes is the way Crowe uses his body to portray the legendary Fox News founder as a figure of menace and power.
It makes his confrontations with his boss, News Corp Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), all the more dramatic. It makes his scenes with Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), a Fox talent booker who was sexually abused by Ailes, too ugly and cruel to watch without a feeling of profound disgust for the monster systematically debasing this psychologically wounded woman.
For better or worse, “The Loudest Voice” will move you viscerally, and that is in large part thanks to the performance by Crowe.
But what makes this production most noteworthy to me is the way that it shows how Ailes bent the arc of media in this country to the point where many citizens today cannot tell the difference between news and propaganda. In a democracy, that is an existential development — one media story we need to understand much better than we do now if we want to continue to have a functioning democracy.
Just as “Sesame Street” made the election of Barack Obama possible in 2008 by helping transform America during a span of 40 years from an essentially segregated nation to a multicultural one capable of electing a person of color as president, so did the Fox News that Ailes created in 1996 make the election of Donald Trump possible 20 years later in 2016. That’s the kind of cultural transformation Ailes engendered when he created a channel that looked and sounded like a news outlet but functioned first and foremost as a political entity, a 24/7 provider of right-wing ideology aimed at both electing conservative politicians and exposing what it saw as liberal bias in the mainstream media.
Each hour of Showtime’s limited series covers a year in Ailes’ career at Fox News.
Episode 1, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday (June 30) covers 1996, the year he was hired by Murdoch to put a conservative news channel on American cable TV. Ailes had just been fired by CNBC, a business channel that he had been spinning as a great success. Having covered TV for The Sun at that time, I can tell you the success was mainly in his head.
Even though Ailes had solid TV credentials as a producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” an entertainment show that mixed the variety and talk formats and aired weekdays in syndication, his real talent was in the political use of the medium. In 1968, he ran the television arm of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, an effort that played a role in getting the Republican candidate elected.
Nixon was a terrible TV candidate, but Ailes staged “town halls” stacked with friendly questioners and bypassed the national media, which had labeled Nixon “Tricky Dick.” He did that in large part by limiting the candidate to interviews only with more pliable and easily manipulated local TV reporters thrilled to get a few minutes with the candidate on the tarmac as his campaign plane briefly touched down.
From those earliest days, Ailes saw TV journalism not as a force that could bring citizens truthful information about their nation and world, but rather a potential forum for propaganda and spin favorable to a candidate or political ideology.
That commitment to using TV for the political gain of a candidate or party rather than the enlightenment of viewers and citizens is what Ailes contributed to the political and media history of this country. And as he perfected the formula during his reign at Fox, the nation became much the worse for it. Crucial to his strategy was repeatedly accusing the mainstream media of the very kind of bias on which his channel was built — and obscuring that bias with the catchphrase “fair and balanced.”
As viewers will see in the first hour Sunday night, Ailes came to work for Murdoch in 1996 mainly sharing the media titan’s interest in ratings and money. And he did accomplish something pretty remarkable in getting a 24/7 channel up and running in six months. But if you actually watched it as I did in those days, you might remember what a scabby looking operation it was compared to CNN.
The look and feel of the channel did improve as prime-time hosts like Bill O’Reilly, whose TV persona seemed animated by working-class anger against elites, found traction and rose in the ratings.
By 2001, the year featured in the second hour, Fox News surpassed CNN as the highest rated news channel on cable TV. That’s what Murdoch hired Ailes for, and that’s what this son of a factory worker from Warren, Ohio, delivered for the Australian-born media magnate.
But that is also the year in which terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, and Ailes threw the full political force of his channel against what he saw as Muslim enemies of America. Ailes is shown working hand in glove with the George W. Bush administration even as it lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and led the nation to war.
From this point on, Fox News was first and foremost a political tool, a role it now prominently plays for Trump to the point where it is not much of an overstatement to call it state-run TV.
But while I and others have written about this until our fingers have all but fallen off, it has clearly not taken root with millions of viewers. That’s on us in the media for failing to explain it more convincingly, as much as it is on the millions of viewers who watch Fox News and believe it is the one genuinely honest news channel on cable TV. And there are millions viewing Fox each night as it remains the highest-rated cable news channel despite the forced resignation of Ailes in 2016 following revelations of his monstrous sexual abuse of female employees.
My hope for this series is that when it shows how Ailes shaped Fox into a tool of propaganda rather than journalism, viewers will understand it in a way they clearly didn’t when critics like me tried to tell them about it.
When they see Crowe as Ailes giving support to false allegations Democratic candidate Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., maybe they will understand the role Fox News played in promoting birtherism and using racism to try to defeat Obama in 2008.
In the film, viewers will see Murdoch himself accusing Ailes of using the channel to whip up “racial hysteria” during the 2008 election. And you have to go pretty far off the rails of fairness and balance to draw a rebuke from someone as sleazy as Murdoch.
When viewers see Crowe as Ailes giving the OK for Fox to run with a selectively edited video built on the entrapment and secret filming of ACORN workers in Baltimore in 2009, hopefully they will understand how Fox violated basic standards of journalism to score political points. Looking back, I don’t think I succeeded in doing that in my writing and TV appearances about it.
And when they see Crowe as Ailes telling his head of publicity to stonewall, obfuscate and lie to the press, maybe they will comprehend what a culture of dishonesty Ailes created and nurtured at this channel, which tells its audience on a daily basis that Fox News is the only source of news they can believe.
That’s a lot to ask of a limited series on an entertainment channel. But it helped me better understand the role Ailes played in making our media ecosystem so toxic.
And in writing about media for The Sun and appearing as a frequent guest on Fox and CNN media shows during Ailes’ heyday, I was a player in some of this drama.
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The first hour of “The Loudest Voice” premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.