Is It Time to Root for Roger Ailes?

The making of Showtime’s series about the Fox News founder.

From left, Russell Crowe and Roger Ailes. Photo: Courtesy of Showtime (Russell); Alex Wong/Newsmakers/Getty Images
From left, Russell Crowe and Roger Ailes. Photo: Courtesy of Showtime (Russell); Alex Wong/Newsmakers/Getty Images

On July 21, 2016, Gabriel Sherman, a journalist then at New York Magazine, was standing on a residential street in Cleveland, his newly fractured elbow in a sling, simultaneously covering the Republican National Convention and the forcing out of Fox News’ charming, conniving, and seemingly omnipotent ring­master, Roger Ailes. Sherman’s phone flashed an L.A. area code, and he fumbled for it with his one good arm: Someone wanted to turn his first book into prestige-cable TV.

That book, the Ailes biography The Loudest Voice in the Room, had upended Sherman’s life — he’d been followed, threatened, and slandered on right-wing sites — even before its 2014 publication. Then it sold modestly, received generally positive reviews (but was panned by some critics with friends in high places), and made barely a dent in Ailes’s reputation. “I thought of it as somehow fundamentally changing the way people thought of him,” Sherman says now. “Then it was over, and nothing changed.” HBO had optioned it, but by the time of the convention, the option had lapsed. Yet finally, as he scrambled in Cleveland, the tables were turning. Ailes was out, Hollywood was interested again, and The Loudest Voice in the Room was en route to becoming a Showtime limited series.

The Loudest Voice is based on Sherman’s book as well as his follow-up reporting for New York on Ailes’s pattern of abuse. The show is produced by Tom McCarthy, who previously made Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film that did more to valorize journalists than any movie since All the President’s Men, and Sherman is a writer on it. But the reporter is not the hero. Sherman survives as only a minor character (played convincingly by Fran Kranz) and serves mostly as an offscreen prod to the growing paranoia of Ailes (played in convincing prosthetics by Russell Crowe). This epic belongs to Roger.

The series picks up Ailes’s story in 1996, dramatizing the brutal months during which he built Fox News. But Sherman’s entanglement began in late 2010, when he sold his book idea. Sherman pursued an on-the-record interview, first through Ailes’s flack Brian Lewis (played with oily precision by Seth MacFarlane) and then by approaching Ailes at events (only to be yelled at and shoved by a bodyguard). Over the next three years, both writer and subject became certain his every move was being tracked by the other. Sherman got a death threat; Ailes grew increasingly paranoid about leaks and even fired Lewis. “Gabe learned more after writing the book about the impact he was having on Roger,” says McCarthy. “There was something very Trumpian about it.”

It wasn’t easy for Sherman to watch Kranz playing him at his most vulnerable — reading anti-Semitic smears, begging Lewis to call off his Breitbart attack dogs. “I had banished a lot of those feelings,” Sherman says. It didn’t help that Crowe, staying in character, gruffly ignored Sherman on set while masked as his nemesis. “I was reliving parts of my life, just with different people. It was weird.”

Even the launch of the book was painful to relive. The show plays it as a win for Ailes. “It was a Pyrrhic victory, a false summit,” Sherman says, knowing about the third act, which he covered in this magazine’s pages: Ailes’s downfall at the hands of Gretchen Carlson and others alleging that he’d tried to sexually coerce them. Sherman’s own reversal began after HBO dropped the option. He and his wife, Jennifer Stahl (who edited the book), wrote their own script, a fictionalized version envisioning Ailes as “a modern-day Citizen Kane” glimpsed piecemeal through former loyalists.

The day that Ailes officially resigned, Sherman sent the script to his friend Josh Raffel, then the head of marketing at Blumhouse Productions. (Formerly a press agent for Jared Kushner, Raffel went on to serve in the White House.) That same day, Sherman was on the phone with the head of Blumhouse’s TV team. They didn’t want Sherman’s Rashomon treatment; they wanted the whole life, with real names, and it had to be “Roger-centric.”

The following May, Ailes died. “Once Roger passed away,” says McCarthy, “it was almost like the spell was broken.” (Also, he could no longer sue for libel.) Nonetheless, Ailes comes off sympathetically in the show, at least initially. In the opening scenes, he is shown outsmarting MSNBC, putting together a crack team of Fox News assassins, and sharing a quiet, tender dinner with his future wife, Beth. “If it’s only a show for Roger haters, we’d fail,” says showrunner Alex Metcalf. Or as Sherman puts it, “If we did our jobs right, you’ll sort of want Ailes to defeat me. I’m the antagonist.”

In the writers’ room, Sherman dug into his Rolodex, getting back in touch with his sources. He also had to figure out how to turn himself into a character. “We had to call him ‘the journalist,’” says Metcalf, “because it’s really disconcerting” to refer to your own doppelgänger by name.

Sherman instructed Kranz on his reporting process, while Kranz took notes on his mannerisms. The resulting performance was, Sherman admits, disturbing. “He was like this train that was not going to be stopped, and he was kind of monotone and very contained,” Sherman says. “And I’m like, Wow, is that me? Am I on the spectrum? Am I just like this robot who’s not affected by insane amounts of stress?” (Stahl showed a photo of Kranz in character to their 18-month-old daughter, who said, “Dada!”)

Sherman still goes back and forth on the question of who won the war over Ailes’s legacy: “It’s a tragedy, right? I mean, he died before he could see his greatest creation, which was having a president who governs like a Fox News talking head.” Post-Ailes, the network is running strong — for now. “The ratings are great, but the ratings are beholden to their fealty to Trump,” Sherman says. “A lot of the question about what happens for Fox won’t be answered until we know what happens to Trump.”

The journalist’s future too depends on the president. Now a correspondent for Vanity Fair, Sherman has a new movie in development. It delves into Trump’s relationship with another villainous political player, Roy Cohn.

The Loudest Voice premieres June 30 on Showtime.

*This article appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Is It Time to Root for Roger Ailes?