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Fox News chief knows how to count

Opinion column

Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel, is a very smart man. And he knows how to count, a skill that has apparently eluded many of his fellow conservatives.

Moreover, he runs a business and wants to make a profit. He reports to a boss, Rupert Murdoch, who did not become the 106th-richest person in the world by ignoring the bottom line. Neither Ailes nor Murdoch can afford to substitute ideology for reality.

This helps explain the "course correction," in Ailes' words, that's been taking place at Fox News in recent months. The cable channel has jettisoned some of its most incendiary personalities — Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Dick Morris — while reaching out to a rising tide of Hispanic voters and potential customers. "The contributions being made by Latinos are extraordinary," Ailes recently told Eliza Gray of The New Republic, "and we need to talk to them."

Just as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana warned fellow Republicans not to be the "stupid party," Ailes doesn't want Fox to be the stupid network. Stupid doesn't sell.

When Murdoch hired Ailes to start Fox News in 1996, they were building on the work of another brilliant media strategist, Newt Gingrich. We can debate endlessly whether the mainstream media — the big papers and big networks — are endemically liberal. But there's no doubt that conservatives believe they are, and that gave Gingrich his opening.

While he was still a backbencher in the 1980s, representing a congressional district in Georgia, Gingrich carved out new channels of communication that could be used to reach and recruit conservative cadres. Utilizing the technology of that pre-Internet era, Gingrich would make cassette tapes, expounding the gospel according to Newt, and send them to like-minded activists.

He'd gather those same activists in Holiday Inn conference rooms on Saturday mornings and address them by satellite hookup. And he and his young allies would make speeches on the House floor after the regular sessions had concluded. No one was there, but that didn't matter. The speeches were carried on C-SPAN, and any audience was better than none.

Above all, Gingrich saw how talk radio could emerge as the bully pulpit of the conservative movement, and he became a fixture on shows run by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. When Republicans finally captured the House of Representatives in 1994 and Gingrich became the first GOP speaker in 40 years, talk radio hosts were honored guests at his swearing-in ceremony.

Ailes and Murdoch followed the same formula of appealing to disgruntled conservatives when they created Fox News a year later. They knew what they were doing. Fox has been by far the most popular cable network for the last decade. But lately, ratings have slipped, and so has the network's credibility. According to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, the number of viewers who said they trusted Fox dropped from 50 percent to 40 percent.

One of the problems is demographics. If the Republicans cannot build a party for the future based on grumpy old white men, Fox cannot build a network on that same foundation. That's why Ailes is making such a big effort to target Hispanics. As he told The New Republic, they constitute a "tremendous business opportunity."

Ailes is right when he says that "the Latino audience is an essentially traditional audience" that is open to appeals based on "traditional American values." Many are small-business owners and entrepreneurs who like the conservative message of lower taxes and less regulation. But they won't even listen if the pitch comes from a party or a network that is wrong on immigration. That's why Fox hosts such as Sean Hannity have shifted sides and endorsed measures that eventually would provide citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Even Ailes says, "I don't have a problem with a path to citizenship."

Immigration is only part of Fox's problem. During the election, the network became a sealed echo chamber for Republican views, shutting out voices and evidence that pointed to a GOP defeat. On the eve of the election, Morris predicted a landslide victory for Mitt Romney. And on election night, analyst Karl Rove refused to accept the clear signs that Ohio — and the country — were going for Barack Obama. At that point, Fox looked like the stupid network.

For Ailes and Murdoch, who crave credibility, that had to be a mortifying moment. They've always been able to count — votes, audiences, profits. That's why they're correcting their course, and why the Republican Party can learn a lot from them.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.