On Hyenas: Weinstein, Ailes, and Whoever Is Next to Fall
Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes resembled each other, not just in heft or in the heinous way they treated women, but also in their chief talent: Always loaded for bear, they barreled through any barrier or situation, knocking down anyone in their path, while allegedlly having a little grabby-grabby on the way. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tried Wednesday to describe the wider culture in which such men could flourish. But then he said that Weinstein and Ailes, like “hyenas,” had no choice. This is wrong: These men chose their destiny, and their choices have affected not only those they immediately harmed but their entire companies and, actually, much of the viewing public.
I know this because I was on the same course as Ailes. He even called me Ailes Jr. because—and this has been tough for me to recognize—he saw so much of him in me. But, with the help of others and with great difficulty, I chose to reject that life. In fact, I fled.
I know Ailes's psyche because it was also mine. As I observed, as I lived, I realized this from my time in Ailes's world: When one gets to a certain high position chiefly by knocking down obstacles, human or otherwise, three things happen:
1 You realize people will melt in submission to your will. You assume this is out of fear and respect, but actually it is either out of fear, tiredness, or disgust.
2 You realize you have isolated yourself from all of humanity, that you have no true friends, and that you are deeply alone. But even if you had a friend in whom to confide this sadness, you are afraid of saying anything lest your power start to crumble, because your power is the only thing that gives you meaning.
3 And then, because you have worked hard, because you are lonely, because you are surrounded by beautiful women, and because you know without you they just wouldn’t have these opportunities … it’s only fair …
And that is how it begins.
Does the twisted psyche of the leader of a company affect how the company operates? Was the sexual misbehavior of Weinstein and Ailes a symptom of general and widespread rot? Did their nastiness affect the images produced by the studio and the station? Have their methods and attributes rubbed off on the people who watched their movies or their entertainment-news?
Resoundingly, yes. Case in point: I was as close to Ailes as anyone and yet I did not witness the most egregious of the sexual harassment claims. The art of deception was part of the genius. Nevertheless, I knew his was a sad, sordid, bad world. Thanks to the help of a few friends and my sister, I began to see that our lifestyles spewed harm on so many. I knew I had to reject that way of life, despite all its promises and glories.
And so, in an almost miraculous moment of mania, I fled, without considering what I was up against. And for years I was publicly quiet. As we see in the Weinstein reporting, this silence always vexes outsiders. “Why didn’t you say anything back then?” they demand on social media. Well, I had to figure out who I was and how I needed to change and also because NewsCorp henchmen were chasing me through the Hudson Valley in black SUVs. Going up against the powerful is a dangerous game. They mess with your mind, your family, everything.
But, ah, there comes a time. And now that time has arrived in Hollywood. I hope in scrutinizing the bad actions of powerful men we look both to the roots of the problem and to the surprisingly wide consequences of such an abusive culture.
In rightly addressing the sex scandal we must not ignore all the other bad actions of such bad actors. This I think is what Stephens was attempting to say. We need a cultural recalibration. We need some gentleness, some mercy, some empathy. We get need to reject both the breathless, venomous spitshow that is Fox News (witness Hannity calling Senator Ben Sasse “useless”) just as much as the crass Hollywood that in its greedy, low-brow lust ravages the beautiful. The same Rupert Murdoch who allowed Ailes to proceed largely unfettered is also responsible for so much of the cultural content we consume via his studios. As we are seeing now, this cultural rot was not limited to the Murdochian empire. Murdoch's Ailes just played the game better than most, but we must not forget all the other players.
On the outside, it is easy to trash people. It is harder when you know them. I understand how some who were close to Weinstein had no idea or were in denial. I knew Roger well. For a time, we were pals. There were many moments of humanity and maybe—as I discuss in my book, Fake News, True Story (which, hint, hint, I'm trying to get published), there were almost some breakthroughs. He was sad. He had a hard time believing in love and beauty and friendship and truth. This seems pitiable but the consequences can be disastrous.
Even now, removed from that dismal circus, I have to battle the demons old old, and I have to resist the urge to lash out in hate and rage at the whole wide world. Choosing not to be a hyena is difficult but if you take just a little of the effort you apply to becoming number one in your field, if you take just a little of the bombast that you direct at others to improve themselves, to act better, to direct better—you can do it.