The Loudest Voice

After he was fired from CNNBC owned by General Electric, Roger Ailes founded and built Fox News. Very often he was called brilliant. After all, had he not been an innovative Republican strategist and media consultant to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He culminated his political success by facilitating and even engineering the victory of his erstwhile fraternal twin, Donald Trump. And he was clever in protecting his own self-interest. Was he not clever in negotiating a non-compete clause from CNNBC with his exit payment that only included existing networks? Had he not built Fox News into a ratings bonanza?

In the 7-part series and biopic based on the book, The Loudest Voice in the Room,as well as the magazine articles of Gabriel Sherman who appears in the series, Ailes is often called a visionary. And he was – a mad man who invented and created a lying, divisive and destructive TV network in the guise of a news empire. It was devoted to fantasies and magical thinking disassociated from reality, all in the guise of a news organization but which Ailes called opinion TV. For Ailes, Fox made the news; it did not report it. And Ailes made it entertaining.

He personally represented those values. He was clever in selling himself as brilliant, successful and powerful, in the same way as he sold the fantasies and misrepresentations of Fox News. He was a purveyor of unhinged conspiracy theories and was one of the powerful Americans behind the vicious allegations of the birther movement. Ailes’ supreme sense of self-entitlement only displayed his unwarranted belief in his own superiority. But Ailes’ words and his actions reveal extreme ignorance combined with a very high opinion of himself. Yet he presumed that he understood everything better than anyone else.

However, if you expect to watch an insightful analysis into the media of TV or even business in general, this series is not it. Certainly, Ailes was clever in putting the network’s studio at street level, but this had been pioneered years before by City TV and Moses Znaimer in Toronto. Certainly, Ailes was skilled at taking handsome outspoken ruffians and turning them into anchors (Sean Hannity played by Patch Darragh). He followed CNN’s lead with even more obsessive coverage of 9/11 and the Twin Tower terrorism, but with much louder displays of patriotism and slogans calling for making America great again.  

If you expect a lesson in demagogic right-wing racist politics, this is not it, even though Roger Ailes was a demagogue and a racist. To view an excellent right-wing political biopic, see Vice, the series on Dick Cheney. The absence of close business, media and political analysis brought the series considerable critical opprobrium. However, if you want to watch one of the best, if not the best portrayal of pathological narcissism, this is it.

What was Ailes so-called genius? He saw the current television networks as inherently liberal, as committed to the principle of fair and balanced reporting and, therefore, as controlled by an intellectual elite while the other half of the country who did not want to think and reflect, who wanted to be told how and what to think, were starved and felt that they had no voice. Roger Ailes would give them that voice. Roger Ailes would be that voice. The voice of the voiceless. A singular voice. The loudest voice. Ailes would supply “real” balance, that is, an alternative illusion of balance to offset the liberal media with a blatantly and unabashedly right-wing agenda that he would offer.

Ailes claimed that he was brilliant. He was often called a genius. However, he was a one-trick pony. Just as Hitler was a master of radio and Donald Trump is a master of the twitter universe, Ailes became a master of cable TV. But like all such masters, he had a common trait. He was an authoritarian mentally disordered demagogue bereft of any principles. But he strongly held onto one immoral principle. As he claimed at the very beginning of the series, and repeats a number of times through the seven episodes, “Tell people what they want and then give it to them – not once, but over and over again.”

Roger Ailes was not brilliant. But the series is. It is the best portrait of an egomaniacal narcissist that I have ever seen. Russell Crowe who plays Ailes is superb. He looks like Ailes. He sounds like Ailes. He rages like Ailes. He pats women’s asses like Ailes. He bullies like Ailes. He is arrogant. He also eats like a greedy pig and is self-admittedly ugly. But he knows that. He knows that if you are fat and ugly, what matters in getting women is that you have power, that you exude power and that you exercise power. Crowe offers an amazing portrait of a man starving for power and able to exude it out of every pore in his body. It takes great artistry to portray such a one-dimensional megalomaniac and retain our fascination more than just interest.

What we are offered is a phenomenology of egomaniacal narcissism – not a dissection or analysis of it. Turn to some extraordinary documentaries to find that. What we get is the appearance of such a personality in a straightforward retelling of the Ailes trajectory. The series is a display, like the fireworks put on by Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore on July 4th. For both intellectuals and the man in the street all love pyrotechnical displays of light and flash and noise. Russell Crowe with his prosthetics (Adrien Morot was the makeup artist), his protruding belly and his shaky jowls, his weighty girth topped by a bald head, his beady eyes and succulent mouth, is an exhibitionist of all those traits of madness. We see him. We are not supposed to understand him. For such evil is beyond understanding. Most of all, we are not supposed to like his mindless posturing.

The trajectory starts at the end with Ailes collapsed and dead on the floor and offers us the route to that end concentrated mostly on the role anchor Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts) plays in revealing to the world his lechery, his browbeating, his misogyny, his insulting and gratuitously cruel comments and ridicule intended and successful in making beautiful women distrust and even hate themselves. Ailes required women to be meek and submissive while men are lauded when they are strong and proud – with a pecking order of course. And when he was finished with those women, or if they sought to fight back, he was scurrilous is spreading scandalous claims that damaged their reputations and ruined their careers.

Ailes demonstrated an ability to bully and blackmail women into silence until Gretchen’s courage smoked out an array of women demeaned by Roger Ailes. However, the road to Carlson is paved with much worse – Ailes’ excruciatingly painful mistreatment of Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) who was also a beauty queen now reduced to going down on Ailes so she could remain in front of the camera. And there were so many others.

The series is advertised as telling you how Ailes built Fox News. It does no such thing even though, after he was fired as a result of sexual harassment claims mounting at the network he then headed, CNNBC, the seven episodes follow the trajectory of Ailes twenty years as head of Fox News with the largest cable audience in history. You learn why it was successful. Know your target audience and know them better than they know themselves. Hire people with very specialized and demonstrated skills behind the camera and men with the same predatory instincts and lack of any ethical principles in front of the camera. And beautiful women who will cow tow to your advances. He demanded deference, even self-debasement. As part of that lesson, you learn that powerful and extremely rich men like Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), who funded and owned Fox News, can be manipulated and effectively controlled as long as you produce what they most want – money.

When all relationships become transactional,  when there is only the necessity of advancing self-interest, when empathy and sympathy are considered faults and weaknesses, when strength requires crushing others who are not absolutely loyal to you and when success is defined as not caring for another but caring for yourself, then what you watch is the portrait of a social psychopath. Roger Ailes had a lethal and ineradicable narcissistic personality disorder. More precisely, he exhibited this disorder but, until the very end, profited from it rather than suffered as a result.

Ailes’ guiding rules which are stated throughout can be easily summarized. Paranoia is not a psychological condition needing treatment but a necessary protective device in a ruthless world. Liberals are bad because they are weak and bleeding hearts. Right wingers display strength, with the emphasis on display. Never display weakness. Never apologize. Never back down. Change in response to pressure is weakness. Roger Ailes always needed to be right.

Geraldo Rivera on air did not even know the location of Afghanistan. The cause? Not ignorance but the “fog of war.” Problems always can be traced to others. Solutions always require being more yourself. Double down. No moderation. Eventually, Ailes’ public relations genius, Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane), became exasperated by the extremes to which Ailes was willing to go in blatantly lying. He walked off into the sunset.

And do not display any authentic empathy, for sympathy for another is weakness. Strength is not caring for another but for yourself. Strength requires crushing those who challenge you. Displaying strength includes hitting below the belt and paying no attention to objective truth. Selling a message, not the portrayal of objective reality, was the goal. For everything was opinion and subjectivity. Never admit fault and always blame others. Further, there are no grays. If another is not with you, he or she is against you.

(Blind) loyalty and unquestioning compliance are the highest values, but Ailes himself was a person incapable of exhibiting any loyalty whatsoever – to his colleagues, to his employees and especially to his own obsequious wife, Beth, played by Sienna Miller. He preached family unity but he offered the unity of a dictatorship. He exemplified the epitome of hypocrisy that made him incapable of seeing or understanding himself. Instead, grandiose displays substituted for honest revelation of his own feelings of inadequacy. The result of this packet of inner resentment was the need to lash out, to humiliate and degrade another.

Dominate. Berate. Humiliate. Bully. Exploit others. Disparage others. Insult others. Blame others. Roger Ailes was an outsized personality and Russell Crowe plays him with outsized skill and force. The keys to the portrait are the psychological revelations and displays. Ailes was starved for adulation. He was a hemophiliac who received beatings rather than recognition or praise from his father. He was driven by an uncontrollable urge to flaunt his abilities and, therefore, his madness. Though steady in the realization of his ambition, he was psychologically unstable, prone to self-delusion and large swaths of lethal incompetence.

Subject to mood swings, he would rage like a bull with unreasoning fury and turn on a dime to play the obsequious and charming flatterer and then revert to a bombastic bully.  His mercurial need to humiliate others and boast about himself were products of his own low self-esteem. He had an overwhelming need to dominate others, even hurt them, rooted in a deep hurt as a child. 

When he ate his midnight snacks, he seemed to be a friendly Dagwood Bumstead advising his new young editor of the local newspaper he had purchased. But the advice he offered was bizarre and infantile. Most of all, it was untethered from constraint. He offered no concession to common sense and was himself consumed with instilling a specific sensibility in the average American while manipulating the external world to his own advantage. For all relationships are transactional. Further, Ailes preached paying attention to his own inner gut and not really dissecting the world out there.

In the end, he exhibited lethal incompetence because he increasingly reified his own thoughts and clung to them like lifesavers. In the end, when he was finally fired by Rupert Murdoch, he most exhibited his inflated and exaggerated sense of his own self importance. Hence, the extreme consistency of his underlying self as he exhibited deep inconsistency in dealing with the changing world. Fox News continues to thrive even though Roger Ailes had been shown the door. For Ailes had built the foundation and the general architecture within which Fox continues to operate.

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