Sitting in a room full of people deciding on the launch of a new television channel, the newly-appointed CEO says they must choose their audience. Targeting a certain section of people who would consume their content might seem like a logical idea, but it is met with disapproval. Roger Ailes does not budge. His agenda was clear: to change the narrative the Left dominated for 50 years and to cater to the Conservatives. Fox News channel, founded on October 7, 1996, by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdroch’s News Corp, followed this till he had to resign in 2016 on charges of sexual harassment. And in hindsight, it was an effective mandate, making Fox News one of the most successful TV networks ever.
Based on the book by the same name and New York magazine articles by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice is a fictionalised retelling of Roger Ailes’ life, the time he spent as the CEO and chairman of the news channel, and the way the media honcho revolutionised how news was presented on television by not merely transmitting information but shaping them.
Developed by Tom McCarthy and Alex Metcalf and written by the latter, the seven-part series, streaming on Hotstar, sheds light on the way Ailes operated from his unflinching favouritism which resulted in Republican candidates getting more air time to how he shut out those who disagreed, surrounding himself with people he trusted. Even as the shows peers into Ailes’ journey of setting up a hugely successful news channel, it is also a commentary on the changing American political climate during that time period, a revisiting of the cable television boom that started in the mid 1990s and a disturbing articulation of the perpetuation of sexual abuse in what would seem from the outside to be professionally run organisation.
However, it primarily preoccupies itself with presenting an intimate picture of Ailes, played by an almost unrecognisable Russell Crowe. It falls back on Ailes’ own words to provide both an introduction and a disclaimer about himself, “Right-wing, paranoid, fat” and uses his past as media consultant for Multiple Republican presidents to contextualise his political leaning.
The approach, personal and informative, becomes restrictive when it comes to delving further. We get to know how Ailes is, but not who he is. Right-wing, paranoid, fat serve as a template, but sans any subtext. His mind, the thoughts behind his actions all remain out of bounds while his defining characteristics — the hemophilliac, the abuser, the conservative — stick out as bullet points. For a show largely dedicated to Ailes, he himself remains an enigma, and while one might argue that it is a deliberate approach to make his brilliance incomprehensible and hence all the more alluring, it makes the character, on whom the series is pivoted on, automated and bereft of evoking much emotion except some detached repugnance.
The Loudest Voice takes time to pick up and despite its stellar ensemble is not consistently engrossing. But the show is a necessary watch for how timely it feels and the way it holds up in current context on more than one account. It does not just provide a glimpse into the working of a news channel that resembled the ideology of a single man but serves as an unlikely precursor to our present times where propaganda-driven content is increasingly replacing our understanding of news. It stands out as a cautionary tale by foregrounding how divisive, harrowing and fatally manipulative it could be.
The precedent set by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s (Naomi Watts) by calling out of Ailes in 2016 on grounds of harassment anticipated the #MeToo movement that broke out the following year and underscored the importance of speaking up and the change it can bring forth. And ultimately, the show which begins with the re-election of Democrat Bill Clinton as the President of America in 1996 and ends months before Donald Trump comes just as the US prepares for another Presidential election season. The depiction of the media house in the series might just refashion the way people think, and it probably will not be the way Ailes would have wanted.