A.J. Bauer is visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and co-editor of News on the Right. Reece Peck is assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island (CUNY) and author of Fox Populism. Each week, they’ll recap the new Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice.
When last we left Roger Ailes, in the closing scene of The Loudest Voice Episode 2, he was overseeing an excavation project on his newly purchased land in Putnam County, New York — dynamite blasts clearing space for his personal doomsday bunker, juxtaposed with “shock and awe” scenes from the U.S. bombing of Iraq.
If Ailes’ dramatized response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 emphasized the collapsing distinction between news and propaganda at Fox News, it also involved the merging of Ailes’ ego with that of the nation itself.
Episode 3, “2008,” opens with Ailes safely ensconced in his Hudson Valley estate, once again transfixed by a television screen, gripped by another looming threat. Barack Obama has just claimed enough delegates to win the Democratic Party nomination for president, and Ailes (Russell Crowe) is shook.
“This was the moment,” stock footage Obama intones with nostalgia-inducing gravitas. “This was the time when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.”
As the crowd goes wild, a close-up shot of Ailes’ face and clenched fist makes palpable his rising blood pressure. Not only has the Democratic Party nominated an “African socialist who wants to redistribute the country’s wealth,” they’ve found a great communicator. Ailes, whose primary gift as a television producer is recognizing the ineffable qualities that make for great talent, sees in Obama not only an ideological threat, but a formidable opponent.
“Barack Obama has managed to trick the entire media, except for us, into getting behind him and his socialist ideas and manifestos,” Ailes later warns a room full of Fox executives. “That man is a danger to this country.”
This episode is bookended by flag-waving of a different sort than last week’s mandatory lapel pins. From teaching his son Zachary (Brady Jenness) to hoist the flag, to addressing a veterans rally in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, Ailes is depicted as a champion of the sort of “small-town values” that, thanks in no small part to Fox, have become a euphemism for white working-class identity politics. Like the network he helms, Ailes inhabits and embodies not so much the United States as a fictional “real America.”
Meanwhile, we watch Ailes achieve peak racist uncle. His jokes are growing edgier — he greets News Corp. shareholder Saudi Prince Al-Waleed (Juri Henley-Cohn) with, “Well I’m just glad you didn’t hit any buildings on the way in,” and asks Obama campaign manager David Axelrod (David Cromer) if he’s running on “CP Time” — and his coverage suggestions increasingly sound ripped from the conspiratorial subject lines of those endlessly forwarded right-wing emails.
“His name is Barack Hussein Obama,” Ailes reminds the control room. “Always use his middle name.”
“Where are we with Obama’s Islamic education?” Ailes asks during a production meeting, insisting without evidence, but “on very good authority,” that the Democrat had attended a madrassa as a child.
“Where are we with the Michelle Obama tapes?” Ailes asks Bill Shine (Josh Stamberg), who is “still chasing” nonexistent audio of the future first lady saying “I hate whitey.”
At this point, the wall between news coverage and political campaigning has completely disappeared, with Ailes treating production meetings like a campaign war room — brainstorming ways to make the opposition research, and rumors, stick. No longer merely spinning true events so that they fit the conservative worldview, Ailes is now manufacturing “fake news” out of whole cloth to defeat Obama.
“How are we in the race?” Ailes asks to kick off what’s nominally an editorial meeting. John McCain’s down in the polls, and his message is “as limp as Liberace’s handshake.” Ailes takes control, suggesting the now well-worn Fox tactic of framing completely unsubstantiated claims as questions.
“A fist-bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently,” a Fox anchor spins a playful on-stage interaction between Michelle and Barack, as Ailes and Shine giggle mischievously.
But the fun proves fleeting. The Obama campaign has had enough and finds a sympathetic ear in News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney). While Ailes, ever the misogynist and xenophobe, blames Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng (Julee Cerda), for brainwashing him with her liberal globalist agenda, for once Murdoch comes across as savvier than Ailes.
Ailes has hitched his worldview to a white nationalist nostalgia that feels on the nose in its familiarity (the episode ends with Ailes giving a speech that concludes “We can make America great again!”). But Murdoch, true to life, seems to recognize that an Obama presidency will be good for business. Fear, as Ailes should know, is an excellent driver of news ratings. And besides, a giant multinational corporation like News Corp. needs to maintain cordial relations with those in position to grease the regulatory wheels.
What might appropriately be framed as a clash between pure conservative ideology and realpolitik (the ideology of power) is instead refracted through an overly presentist “nationalist” vs. “globalist” narrative lens. Whatever the true stakes of the conflict between Ailes and Murdoch, it comes to a head when Ailes is lured to what he is led to believe will be a one-on-one meeting with Obama. By the time Ailes is allowed into the ornate hotel conference room, he finds Murdoch munching on leftovers as Obama exits.
“Rupert is telling me to stand down,” an emasculated Ailes later sulks to Fox booker Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis). “He’s crossed the line and he expects me to just sit there and take it. Can you imagine how that feels?”
Actually, as a smash cut to Luhn on her knees more than implies, she can.
As had been alluded to in the first two episodes, Ailes has taken Luhn as his mistress. Ailes lured her, against her clear reservations, to join Fox in Episode 1 — promising a unique opportunity and television industry stardom. By 2008, Luhn is a shell of her former self: on edge, self-medicating, and seemingly desperate for a way out of her arrangement with Ailes.
In a grotesque and gratuitous scene, we witness Ailes sexually assault Luhn — demanding that she don a “uniform” of black lingerie, commanding her to dance for him before coercing fellatio. The scene, which alternates to POV angles shot by Ailes using a camcorder, nods to his obsession with the televisual, but at the expense of privileging a pornographic male gaze.
There is nothing subversive or critical in The Loudest Voice‘s depiction of Ailes’ most dastardly sexual abuses. By emphasizing Ailes’ apparent kinks (the roleplaying, the video recording, the choking, the domination), the show resorts to the same prurient entertainment logic that Ailes used to justify his discriminatory treatment of women employees, both on air and off.
Ironically, the show’s retrograde treatment of sexual assault occurs in an episode that finally passes the Bechdel Test (albeit with an asterisk). Beth Ailes (Sienna Miller) comes into her own in this episode — channeling Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in Vice, the fervently ideological political spouse. She gets involved in the local historical society and even conspires with Roger to take over the local newspaper.
At lunch in Manhattan with Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino), Beth opens up about her boredom with small-town living. Of course, Judy is Roger’s assistant and proxy (she reports back to Roger that Beth “needs a project”), but at least on the surface, we are treated to a brief respite from the show’s overwhelming male dominance.
While Ailes technically wins Murdoch’s assurance of complete editorial control of Fox in this episode, cracks are beginning to emerge in Ailes’ complete domination of the show itself.
The first two episodes saw a three-dimensional Ailes stomping through a two-dimensional world, with a flat supporting cast. Now we find Beth, Laurie, and Rupert vying for our attention — not to mention Seth MacFarlane‘s delightfully foul-mouthed portrayal of Ailes’ enforcer Brian Lewis. This episode also introduced us to Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts), who so far is going along with Ailes’ sexual harassment, but with a look in her eye that promises vengeance.
Ailes is still certainly the loudest voice, but thankfully he’s no longer the only one.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime’s parent company.)