Every documentary filmmaker knows there is no objective visual truth. Presenting images means choice: The perspective you shoot, what you show and don’t. And most importantly, the choice of juxtaposition: The ability to create meaning with an edit is the filmmaker’s most powerful, and manipulative, tool.
Trying to instill this lesson to a group of young filmmakers I was teaching a few years ago, I sent them to document an immigrants rights march they were passionate about attending. As beginners, they were frustrated by how their footage didn’t capture the spirit and atmosphere of the event.
I showed them a wide array of examples, including clips of how Fox News covered other immigration marches, the Puerto Rican Day parade and the crowds at Obama rallies. Their jaws dropped. The power of the medium came crashing down upon them. They couldn’t believe how a disparate sequencing of shots – a close-up of an angry face shouting, an insert of particularly radical sign, a mild verbal altercation of a marcher – could completely alter how an event was presented.
Roger Ailes didn’t invent the idea of montage used for political, or even propaganda, purposes, but he was at the forefront of bringing these filmmaking techniques into the United States politics. In 1968, Ailes became the Executive of Television (his actual title) for Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968. Ailes controlled the visual presentation of physically awkward politician who on TV appeared uncomfortable in his own skin – a factor many believe cost him the razor-thin 1960 election versus President Kennedy – but who was capable of appearing in command when talking policy in controlled environments.
In 1996, after three decades of political media consultancy and helping two other presidents get elected, he launched Fox News using much of the same skill set. FNC wasn’t the first network, nor hardly the only, to bring a distinct visual language to the news. The glory days of network news – with its long dissolves and establishing shots, deliberate pacing that presented a sober gravitas – mirrored the concept that watching the evening news was part of one’s civic duty. In more modern times, CNN has mastered the visual language that tells us something is unfolding in front of the viewers’ eyes.
Media critics of Fox News often dissect the half truths, the ignoring of relevant facts, or the infamous memos from up top that dictate the day’s message and partisan take on unfolding news. Yet to listen to Fox News is to miss the art. It’s the equivalent of assuming the dialogue carries a film’s message. Like a well-directed movie, you can follow the story and appreciate the power of visuals carrying the message with the sound off. To watch Fox News is to see it wasn’t simply partisan, nor was it necessarily conservative.
Roger Ailes presented a world in which you, the viewer, were under attack. Fox showed you both what was in plain sight, but also uncovered what was hidden. Long-lens footage of illegal immigrants running, or survellience footage, could be juxtaposed with protestors and Democratic meetings. The “news,” or what was being said, would relate how this affected you, but the visual sense was one of being under attack. Didn’t matter if it was terrorists, atheists, college protests, or Bill Clinton whispering something into someone’s ear at event: It was them versus us the viewer.
I lived in New York post 9/11 through Trump’s victory, and to have family in all white, non-urban areas watching Fox News was possibly the most profound media experience of my life. The concerned phone calls fearing for my safety were common. I was living under attack. Soon I made a habit of turning Fox News on silent for 15 minutes a day to see how.
Most recently, the sense that New York was on fire, and chaos had taken over the streets in protest against the President-Elect, was possibly the most surreal. But what Roger Ailes could do with a shot of something on fire. There’s always something on fire on Fox News. Smoke. There’s always tight frames with uncontrollable movement swirling through. There were always low-angle shots of people’s anger and rage. There was always that one radical message on someone’s placard, or an unhinged speech, that in context of the world falling apart felt unsettling.
The dialogue and text reinforced another layer, one that related to politics, but that was secondary. Ailes was a partisan. He was advocating for his side, often unfairly, but the visuals were a larger worldview.
They presented a paranoia, a feeling the world was slipping into chaos, a sense there were forces coming to get us. At this point the political ramifications are clear, so in that sense they are partisan. Yet Ailes’ bio paints a picture of man of deep-seated paranoia, convinced there were forces out to kill him. He kept guns hidden in his office. Had a security force unparalleled for a public figure, with surveillance and operatives more akin to the world of espionage. Like the viewer, he too was under attack.
“You know Roger is crazy,” Rupert Murdoch was reported to have said about Ailes. “He really believes that stuff.”
It’s in that sense that Ailes has more in common with Roman Polanski than Ronald Reagan. To see Fox News as an visual expression of one powerful man’s vision of the world is more accurate way of understanding Ailes’ influence. And like Hitchcock, he would cast some blondes and dress them a particular way, because this was after all his personal vision.