This op-ed originally appeared in the NY Daily News on May 18, 2017.
When we released “Outfoxed,” in 2004, the clear and present danger Roger Ailes presented to democracy was not as patently obvious as it is today. Back then, even liberals considered what he was doing basically legitimate news with some bad commentators. They assumed people would be able to tell the difference.
Flash forward to 2016 and the rise of Donald Trump. Now we know better. Roger Ailes made Donald Trump President. And if we don’t learn from how that happened, we are doomed to repeat it.
Part of what made Ailes successful was simply talent. He understood what made a story compelling, the importance of visual storytelling. He mastered the art of backing verbal lies with pictures, with video that, while often aggressively edited or taken terribly out of context, nonetheless provides the casual viewer with the comfort of having “seen it with my own eyes.”
He added Hollywood-style mood music to so-called news programming, signaling clearly for audiences who was a hero and who a villain, and exactly how they were supposed to feel about a particular story. He perfected the quick cut, the action-film editing that keeps the heart pumping and the rational reaction and pondering to a minimum. Reality television and news were not always distinguishable, and that was what Ailes wanted.
And of course, he was a bully. He perfected the art of bullying, though it did eventually bring him down. People were terrified of him, women in particular.
We made a film about a news organization where people were so scared of the boss that we had to hide their faces and voices. We could not get anyone to come forward on camera about the sexual harassment, but it was no secret even way back in 2004. Women were scared to come to work, scared to be in a room with him. His comeuppance was nothing compared to the very real psychological damage done.
Ailes made bullying cool. He hired, hyped and promoted infamous bullies — Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly. He made bullying not only acceptable but somehow desirable, as if the ability to yell louder, to interrupt more, to refuse to budge in the face of reality was the mark of a powerful person or a leader. It is not a long walk from Bill O’Reilly to Donald Trump.
Formidable as it was, Ailes’ talents — dubious and otherwise — would not have had the impact they did were it not for his pursuit of an agenda. Ailes did not suggest that his “journalists” use certain language, twist certain facts and omit certain others. Ailes insisted upon it. In “Outfoxed,” we exposed memos proscribing exactly what to cover and exactly how to cover it.
Ailes started with the story he wanted told, and bent everything within his formidable reach to tell it that way. He did so without apology, without qualms.
The result was what we have today: A society inured to lying, where truth is in the eye of the beholder, where being loud and vehement is the same as being correct. Technology helps spread fake news around, but Ailes made it normal, made it acceptable, to believe what one wanted to believe.
Now we are seeing a bit of a bounce back of the traditional values of journalism: getting facts right, digging beneath the surface — particularly in print. That’s heartening but it has to last, and it has to grow. We have to see a commitment from the mainstream media, and broadcast media in particular, to take on Fox News and fake news directly, to call a lie what it is and to refuse to cover the latest Twitter rant even if the ranter is our president.
In the meantime, remember Roger Ailes and pledge ourselves to vigilance in news consumption, in truth-telling and standing up to bullies, bigots and profiteers, be they behind the camera, or in front of it.
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