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.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have been exploited for many ignoble ends over the years: from rebranding Rudy Giuliani's abysmal mayoralty to branding Glenn Beck's Tea Party knock-off — not to mention the U.S. war in Iraq.
Might as well add "humanizing Roger Ailes" to that list.
Episode 2 of The Loudest Voice, "2001," brings us back to that fateful day, this time from Ailes' point of view. As it was for so many of us, it's a typical morning for Ailes — he wraps his English muffin in a paper towel and kisses his wife, Beth (Sienna Miller), and infant son goodbye, all while micromanaging Fox & Friends from his cell phone.
Ailes' workday begins, as workdays at Fox back then seemingly did, with defending a conspicuously off-camera Bill O'Reilly — whose unspecified "newsroom banter" requires a payoff. "Look, I know O'Reilly's a pain in the ass, but look at his numbers," an exasperated Ailes tells legal. "Just take care of it."
Moments later, Ailes learns of the first plane striking the World Trade Center from a cell call, and he's watching monitors with henchman Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane) as the second plane hits in real time. Ailes (Russell Crowe) is compellingly gobsmacked as he realizes it's no accident. His first impulse, stammered to assistant Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino), is to call his wife with instructions to stay put. See, Ailes is a devoted husband and father. His second impulse is to dispatch Fox anchor Shephard Smith to the roof with a camera crew.
Though on its face "2001" is a recounting of the days and weeks following the attacks that changed the course of U.S. history, this episode revolves around a series of scenes depicting personified tensions between the journalistic and political fields — in other words, the fragile walls separating news reporting from propaganda; we watch them buckle in real time under Ailes' heft.
At first, Ailes' TV news improvisations seem prescient, innovative, even justified. He speculates that the attacks must be the work of al-Qaeda, and pushes John Moody (Mackenzie Astin) to run with that narrative, rather than waiting for better-resourced outlets to take the lead in verifying the facts on the ground. He invents the news ticker to keep viewers abreast of the latest in what he rightfully realizes is a developing story. He orders Moody to re-run video of the towers collapsing over and over on loop. "It's not a regular news day," he shouts at a hesitant Moody. "This is Pearl. F---ing. Harbor."
Ailes seems earnestly shaken, and his barking orders at subordinates is interlaced with copious stock footage of the attacks' immediate aftermath — more than enough for viewers to empathize with Ailes, or even to relive their own traumatic memories of that day.
"This is going to be a day that defines us," Ailes concludes a tense first production meeting, as the attacks are still unfolding. "As a country, and as a people."
Also, it's more than implied, as a network.
If the attacks briefly inure us to Ailes, or at least seem to validate his foreboding paranoia, he quickly shows his true colors as a ruthlessly calculating tabloid producer. Wearing a grimly defiant smirk, Ailes overrides the humane objections of old friend Chet Collier (Guy Boyd) and orders his squeamish crew to air exclusive footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning Twin Towers. "Run it," Ailes explains. "We need everyone in the goddamned world to see what these animals have done to us."
In the weeks following the attacks, Ailes is in his element — boldly redefining the professional standards of television journalism by mixing tabloid style with conservative ideology. He mandates American flag lapel pins for all staff. On and off screen. At work and even while "screwing a hooker in a cheap motel" — a "joke" that elicits laughs on screen, even as it nods knowingly to viewers' awareness of Fox's notoriously toxic work environment.
Referencing the network's ongoing ratings battle with CNN, Ailes articulates a clear vision for conservative news that remains a touchstone for Fox, and indeed for the rest of the conservative mediasphere, to this day. "We're going to be fair. We're going to be accurate. And we're going to put American values first," Ailes tells his newsroom during a November 2001 pep talk. "CNN are going to want to please and appease the rest of the world. And we don't give a f---. Let them do that. Let them do that because we stand with America."
Despite moments of newsroom camaraderie, this episode continues the series trope of conveying Ailes as an auteur — the singular genius behind Fox News. He constantly butts heads with underlings (and even, at times, superiors like Rupert Murdoch, whom Simon McBurney plays as more feckless than conniving in his own right). Their commitment to journalistic principle or tried-and-true television news standards are used as a foil to illuminate Ailes' putatively unique vision.
Apologize when Geraldo Rivera is caught lying on air about witnessing a friendly fire incident among U.S. troops in Afghanistan? "No apologies," Ailes tells Brian Lewis. "He's our guy."
Pull back on totally unsubstantiated claims that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? "What are you a f---ing cheerleader on the first date?" Ailes tells John Moody, again with the misogynist humor. "Pull back? F--- you!"
Unbeknownst to tentative toadies like Moody and Lewis — the latter at one point warns Ailes point blank, "We cannot be seen to be running Bush's propaganda machine, that's just not our job" — Ailes has a running backchannel with the George W. Bush administration. When Bush's senior political adviser Karl Rove calls for advice shortly after the attacks, Ailes intuitively knows the administration is keen to target Iraq. He drafts a confidential memo — his words appear in a teleprompter read by Vice President Dick Cheney (John Rue) — and begins shifting Fox's coverage toward that end. To police his staff's commitment to the cause, he institutes a deeply creepy surveillance system, relying on his assistant, Judy, and an expansive array of closed-circuit TV cameras (he complains when the installer won't put them in the bathrooms).
The result is a strong insinuation that Ailes was not only the architect of Fox News but also of the Iraq War. This is far too simple and conspiratorial a depiction of Ailes' complicity, and it reduces a rogues' gallery of neoconservative hawks — Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, to name only a few — to bit players in Ailes' grand plan. Again, where historical context would be clarifying — Ailes had long run in the same conservative circles as the war's true architects — The Loudest Voice doubles down on depicting Ailes' as a singular visionary.
That said, there is something refreshing about Ailes' sense of panic in the episode's final minutes, as Bob Woodward makes public Ailes' secret collaboration with the White House. True to form, or at least to plot, Ailes uses the opportunity to effectively blackmail Dick Cheney, promising cheerleading war coverage for full access to administration officials. But that Ailes, a known Republican strategist turned newsman, would be afraid of appearing partial implies the last vestiges of an old paradigm — when journalist and propagandist were different jobs.
Ailes was by no means the first to blur those lines, and those lines were often fraught to begin with. Still, Ailes' visceral reaction to exposure is the first hint The Loudest Voice gives us that he wasn't entirely in control. Journalistic professional and political ideals still held some weight; public shame still carried political consequence. The Loudest Voice may be a flawed vehicle for telling us how we got to our post-truth impasse, but at least it's helping us measure the distance we've traveled to get here.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime's parent company.)