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Gabriel Sherman Doesn’t Want to Write About Scumbags Forever (but He Probably Will)

The Roger Ailes biographer returns to his infamous subject with Showtime’s ‘The Loudest Voice,’ based on Sherman’s influential book about Fox News. Meanwhile, Sherman has moved on to another Fox News acolyte: Donald Trump. What is it like covering some of the 21st century’s most powerful—and loathed—men?

Showtime/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I know what people are gonna say about me,” Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) deadpans in the opening voice-over of The Loudest Voice, the new Showtime miniseries about how he created Fox News. “I can pretty much pick the words for you: Right-wing. Paranoid. Fat.”

It’s a wisecrack the real Ailes made to reporters, documented by journalist Gabriel Sherman in his 2014 Ailes biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, the miniseries’ source material. And it’s a fairly accurate representation of Ailes’s titanic media persona—though, by the time of his death a few years later, “predator” would’ve also made that short list of descriptors. Ailes first rose to prominence as a television producer and Republican strategist in the 1960s, then wedged himself firmly into a new echelon of power after creating the Fox News network for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in the 1990s. But his final year was a scandal tsunami. He was sued for sexual harassment by high-profile former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson in 2016 and subsequently ousted as CEO of Fox after additional testimony of abuse surfaced. He died in 2017.

The Loudest Voice opens with Ailes’s death, but quickly backs up to the beginning of his career at Fox News, using the second half of Sherman’s book as its narrative backbone. Both before and after Ailes’s downfall, Sherman was the infotainment maestro’s most dogged chronicler, and the miniseries isn’t a conventional biopic so much as it is a series of linked snapshots about how Ailes built Fox News and damaged the people around him. In the pilot episode, the spectrum of Ailes’s personality is on display, from his insult-comic charm and occasional genuine warmth for his coworkers to his hideous, mile-wide abusive streak.

Sherman, who cowrote three episodes of the miniseries, has now traced Ailes’s rise in two very different formats. The Showtime series is his first screenwriting gig, but it’s an outgrowth of a longtime fixation on capturing the excesses and successes of New York’s biggest egos. Sherman started his career right out of college at a pre–Jared Kushner New York Observer, working the real estate beat—which meant he got a taste for writing about power plays from megalomaniacs early on. “I feel like I’ve been thinking about covering Trump since I was a cub reporter,” Sherman said. After briefly working for Condé Nast’s short-lived Portfolio magazine, he wrote a number of cover stories for New York magazine, including a juicy dissection of a social media scandal that roiled the fancy New York private school Horace Mann, before joining the staff in 2008. John Homans, Sherman’s current editor at Vanity Fair, is the one who hired him for New York magazine, impressed by the young reporter’s relentlessness at tracking down sources. “He was this incredibly aggressive and amazing phone-caller,” Homans said. “He has that mixture of competitiveness and anxiety that someone is going to get past him. It motivated him to really be one of the reporters of his generation.”

Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in ‘The Loudest Voice’

Around 2010, Sherman found the story he would refuse to let go. He’d already written a bit about Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings, and had started planning a book about Fox News as an institution. “People would tell me in interviews, if you’re going to understand Fox News, you have to understand Ailes,” Sherman said. “It’s all his vision.” The project quickly shifted to an unauthorized biography, as Ailes refused to cooperate and did not want anyone else to talk, either. Sherman interviewed 614 people, ultimately granting anonymity to many who feared retribution. “It would totally destroy my life if it gets out that I’m talking to you,” one of his sources said. While there are many biographies undertaken without the approval of the subject, this one was notable for the ferocity with which Ailes tried to suppress the project. “Although he may not have intended it, Ailes’s confrontational response to the reporting of this book was as revealing as any comment he would have made in the course of an extended interview,” Sherman wrote.

Ailes went further than simply stonewalling his biographer; he sicced investigators on Sherman. They compiled a 400-page dossier on the reporter—and spied on him. “As he was writing the book, he’d tell me these stories, ‘John, I think I’m being followed.’ And I was like, ‘No one’s following you,’” Homans told The Ringer. “But he was following him. People in SUVs were chasing him around!”

Sherman got the story anyway. The book follows Ailes from his Ohio childhood through his early years with Nixon and into his ascendance at Fox News. It presents Ailes as a zealous, conniving, jingoistic bigot—and one of the shrewdest figures in modern media. Despite their antagonistic relationship, Sherman speaks about the late cable executive with bald fascination mixed with his revulsion. “Understanding this person became this obsession for me,” Sherman said. He channeled the revulsion and begrudging respect into his work, ignoring Ailes’s intimidation tactics to conduct a sweeping survey of his friends, family, coworkers, and subordinates. The comfort with contentious phone calls that Homans had noticed early on in Sherman’s career became a critical asset.

“He almost has two personalities, in a funny way,” The Loudest Voice showrunner Alex Metcalf said. “Having dinner with him, he’s very affable, he’s just the charming guy he is. And then, as a journalist, he becomes a heat-seeking missile.” Sherman isn’t exactly conflict-averse. When his book received a negative review in The New York Times, for example, Sherman investigated the negative review. He then reported that a Fox News editor had helped plant the review to protect Ailes. Reviewer Janet Maslin denied these claims, although she did admit to a previously undisclosed close friendship with the Fox News editor in question. Whatever its motivation, the review—which cast doubt on Sherman’s reporting about Ailes’s behavior toward women—underlines the formidable reputation Ailes had at the time. Sherman didn’t know it, but publishing the definitive book on Ailes didn’t mean he’d learned everything about the man, or finished exploring his story. The darkest chapter wasn’t written yet.

After the Ailes book was published, Sherman felt adrift. “I went through a deep funk because I had been so focused on this one thing for three-plus years,” Sherman said. He decided to shake out of it by adapting his own material for the screen. HBO had optioned the book and then decided not to move forward with it, so he figured someone else might be interested. At first, Sherman and his wife, ProPublica editor Jennifer Stahl, started writing a black comedy loosely fictionalizing Ailes’s contentious takeover of his local newspaper. But their adaptation process was interrupted by the 2016 election. “I was just too busy with that to finish it,” Sherman said.

That’s because Sherman was on the Trump beat. But while he was too preoccupied to finish the screenplay, covering Trump meant that Sherman couldn’t stop thinking about Fox. The “Trumpworld” that Sherman covers for Vanity Fair is, essentially, a spinoff of the world of Fox News, populated by crossover characters like Bill Shine, Ailes’s former second-in-command and, until recently, Trump’s communications chief. (Shine resigned in March 2019.) “Half of Trump’s cabinet are former Fox News people,” he continued. “It was a natural way for me to cover the election, as I had a lot of those sources already.” Ailes was the most successful homegrown radicalizer in contemporary American history, and Trump the largest direct beneficiary of that radicalization. (In The Loudest Voice in the Room, Sherman recounts Ailes growling, during the Obama years, “I want to elect the next president.” Well.) Post-Ailes, Fox News became enmeshed with the Trump administration to an unprecedented degree.

“After Ailes was fired, I really wanted to find a new story,” Sherman said. But Trump’s rise had way too much overlap with Ailes’s fiefdom; Ailes had even joined Trump’s debate prep team during the campaign, and they had discussed plans to launch a Trump TV network. (The plan was abandoned after Trump won.) There were other similarities: Ailes and Trump had both climbed high by fomenting racist disinformation, both stood credibly accused of sexual misconduct by many women, and both sold themselves as outsiders while simultaneously moving through Manhattan’s power corridors. “One of the things that connects them both is that it’s a study of power,” Sherman said, though he noted a key difference: He believes that Ailes would recoil over Fox News’ current status as an instrument of the White House.

He was focused on Trump, but Sherman hadn’t finished reporting on Ailes. At the time of the biography’s release, Sherman had suspected there were more instances of harassment than the ones from earlier in Ailes’s career that he was able to document in the book. “I heard whispers of his behavior at Fox, but Fox employees were so terrified I couldn’t get any of them to speak,” he said. “I didn’t know the extent.” When former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes in 2016, she kicked off a wave of women testifying about Ailes’s abuse; Ailes’s behavior was finally impossible for Fox to ignore. The CEO resigned in July 2016, leaving with a $40 million severance package.

“When the women came forward after Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit, I was horrified,” Sherman said. He was galvanized to follow up on his reporting, publishing a variety of stories about Fox News’ response to the lawsuit, including its attempts to cover up other instances of sexual harassment within the network. He broke the news that former Fox News head of booking Laurie Luhn said that she had endured decades of sexual harassment and abuse from Ailes; Luhn told Sherman that it was “psychological torture.” He revealed that Megyn Kelly had told investigators that Ailes had harassed her too, publishing his account in July 2016; Kelly disclosed the harassment herself in the fall of that year. Until he died, Ailes never stopped viewing Sherman as a threat. “Gabe Sherman is a virus, and is too small to exist on his own, and has obviously attached himself to the Ailes family to try to suck the life out of them,” one of Ailes’s attorneys told The Daily Beast in April 2017. Ailes died the next month at the age of 77 from head injury complications, bringing his story to an abrupt end after an especially grim final chapter.

The executive’s downfall kick-started renewed interest in turning Sherman’s book into a fictionalized drama. “His firing made it easier to make the series,” Sherman said. Blumhouse optioned the book the week Ailes’s career imploded, but: “It wasn’t green-lit till after he died,” Sherman said. The dead can’t sue for libel, after all; it’s hard to imagine that Ailes would’ve responded to The Loudest Voice with anything other than rage. Crowe’s Ailes is a bloviating grotesque, gathering spit on the sides of his mouth as he chews out subordinates. And yet the performance is also perversely endearing. Crowe allows Ailes moments of avuncular humor and tenderness, which Sherman finds apt. “People like Roger Ailes are not cartoon villains,” Sherman said. “If they were, it would be easy to dismiss them.”

The show leapfrogs around between significant events in Ailes’s Fox News career, spending each episode on a different moment in time; the first episode centers on the debut of the network, while the second delves into Ailes’s response to 9/11. With its star conspicuously ensconced in latex to portray a rotund Republican powerbroker, it has obvious commonalities with last year’s Dick Cheney film, Vice. Like Vice with Cheney, The Loudest Voice very much wants its audience to know that Roger Ailes was a tumor on American politics. It doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a phenomenally-acted retread without the baroque storytelling flourishes that made Vice so strange.

Writing a show dramatizing the experiences of people who are still very much alive risks that some will be unhappy with their portrayal. In its most disturbing scenes, The Loudest Voice highlights Luhn’s ordeal, portraying her situation as blackmail-based sexual servitude. Luhn disputes her characterization in the upcoming show, and is suing Showtime, Blumhouse, and Sherman for $750 million. (Update: Luhn dropped the lawsuit on June 28. “The matter has been resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction,” her lawyer said in a statement.)

The screenwriting process also created a distinctly odd experience for Sherman. In the fifth episode, “Gabe Sherman” pops up, played by the actor Fran Kranz. “It was interesting seeing Gabe watch Fran and Fran watch Gabe while we were on set,” Metcalf said. “We started referring to the character as ‘the journalist’ in order to give it some distance.” Sherman found himself watching the most fraught phase of his life play out onscreen. “I would be on set watching the scenes of my character experiencing that harassment and it would trigger these flashbacks,” he said. “I had sleepless nights being on set for those days because I had sort of put how stressful that was behind me. Then I had to relive it.”

Sherman’s next project won’t require him to return to scenes from his own life, as it takes place when he was either not born yet or a small child. The Apprentice, Sherman’s screenplay about Trump’s relationship with Roy Cohn in ’70s and ’80s New York, is currently in development. “We have to find a studio to make it,” Sherman said. While he’s excited about the film, Sherman has no plans to give Trump the same comprehensive biographical treatment he gave Ailes. “I wouldn’t be able to find my own way into the story,” he said. “I don’t think I would want to spend every day of the next three years thinking about Donald Trump.” Sherman is still actively investigating Trump—the week we met, he’d published a juicy story about Trump’s prenup agreement with Marla Maples, which would cut off their daughter, Tiffany, if she joined the military or the Peace Corps. It was the type of revelation that would’ve been a bombshell about a sitting president any year before 2016, but which registered as a blip in today’s cacophonic mess. “It got a little attention,” Sherman said. “But then it just came and went.”

Still, Sherman doesn’t see another way for himself. Like Ailes pre-empting his critics, Sherman is both proud and resigned to double down on who he is. “I don’t want to be friends with anyone I’m writing about,” he said. “There’s a level of honesty in what I do, because if they don’t like it, I don’t care.” He sometimes daydreams of writing about something nicer. “I do wonder what it would be like to write about a subject that you really are rooting for,” he said. When one of his cats recently got sick, Sherman was inspired by a trip to an animal hospital, and pitched a book that chronicled life inside the institution. His agent said it was a good idea—but too off-brand for the Chronicler of Assholes. “It’s what I’m good at,” he said. “We can’t choose what we’re good at.”

This piece was updated with new information after publication.

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