HBO’s Chernobyl may be the most disturbing and relentlessly bleak show of 2019, but Showtime’s Roger Ailes miniseries The Loudest Voice may be the hardest and most unpleasant to watch. Created by Alex Metcalf (UnReal) and Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), The Loudest Voice tracks the creation and rise of Fox News under the stewardship of Roger Ailes, a perversely abusive tyrant and serial sexual harasser who had no reservations whatsoever about using his power to demean women, exploiting many of them with the same tactics — namely fear — that he employed on his viewers.
It’s very, very gross.
In fact, the entire miniseries would be gross enough without the added element of sexual harassment, but those scenes in particular — where he sticks a thumb in the mouth of an aspiring female reporter or asks her to twirl, or he coerces a reporter he’s already raped into coming to work for him — make an already unpleasant subject even more difficult to stomach.
But Ailes — as depicted by Russell Crowe in heavy prosthetics — is also a compelling, bellicose real-life villain, just one that is very hard to suffer. In the opening episode set in 1994-95, he convinces his boss at CNBC — who fires him over some HR violations (it’s not clearly stated, but the assumption is that they are of a sexual nature) — to relax his non-compete to allow him to work as a producer for a network that does not yet exist. Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) hires him to run Fox News, which is entering the cable news field only months after MSNBC decided to take on once-dominant CNN, at the time the only real player in the cable-news game.
Ailes’s vision, of course, is responsible for what Fox News has become — and all of that was apparent in what he was trying to build even before it went on the air. What’s remarkable and fascinating about The Loudest Voice, however, is how easily it could have gone a different way. The opening episode essentially depicts a war of visions between Ailes and Ian Rae (Jamie Jackson), a pioneer in tabloid news and a lackey for Rupert Murdoch. Rae (and by extension, Murdoch) wants the network to be taken as a serious news organization, even if it is one with a conservative bent (think Christopher Wallace), while Ailes’s only interest is in catering to the 50 percent of the country who do not feel listened to by the “media elites.”
Whatever one might think of the idea of “media elites” or “liberal bias” in news reporting, from a purely business standpoint, Ailes’s strategy was a sound and smart one. I don’t think it would have been that difficult, however, to cater to the very same audience without ignoring facts or honesty. A different producer with the same strategy could have taken a more positive, inclusive approach and created a conservative network that didn’t also endeavor to divide, but Ailes sought — particularly in the hiring of one of his first stars, a right-wing talk-radio clown show, Sean Hannity — to not only cater to one side of America, but to villify the other side. Ailes turned political disagreements into personal disagreements and sought to use wedge issues to divide America and strengthen his own base of support, the playbook Donald Trump essentially used in the 2016 election. It would have been genius if it had also not been so evil, and had it not been calculated by such a despicable, loathsome human being, one driven less by ambition and more by spite, as well as his own disgusting appetites.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see from a historical perspective and with 25 years of hindsight how the most destructive force in American media came together and eventually gave rise to Donald Trump. However, it’s also unsettling as hell and not just because of what an egregiously foul human being Roger Ailes was. It’s also because the villain in this story didn’t lose. He may have been ousted from his job in the last months of his life, but he lived to the age of 77 and the network he built still wields the same destructive force he set in motion. That’s the hardest thing about watching The Loudest Voice: The bad guy wins, the bad guy was real, and the rest of America (and the world) will continue paying for that victory for generations to come.
The Loudest Voice airs Sunday nights on Showtime.
Header Image Source: Showtime