Roger Ailes is kvetching. “The president likes to divide people into groups,” he huffs into the phone. “He’s too busy getting the middle class to hate rich people, blacks to hate whites. He is busy trying to get everybody to hate each other.” With that off his chest, Ailes gets back on message. “We need to get along,” he says.
It’s an unexpected plea from the Fox News CEO considering his impressive record of provocation. But recently, “getting along” has become an imperative for the conservative movement. Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by nearly 50 points, and now almost everyone agrees that the Republican Party needs to improve with Hispanic voters to have a shot at the White House in 2016. That could also be Ailes’s last year at Fox News: His contract expires then, when he’ll be 76 years old. So if Roger Ailes wants to see a Republican win what may be his last presidential election as a major player, he’ll need to try to make conservatism more palatable to Latinos. Which, of course, he will.
“The fact is, we have a lot—Republicans have a lot more opportunity for them,” Ailes says. “If I’m going to risk my life to run over the fence to get into America, I want to win. I think Fox News will articulate that.”
There have already been signs of evolution. Sean Hannity, long a staunch opponent of “amnesty,” recently came out in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the GOP’s immigration Moses, has been putting in lots of face time on the network. Rubio’s fans include Bill O’Reilly, who called his immigration plan “fair.”
Old habits die hard, however, and some of the delicacies of the immigration debate are lost on these recent converts. Just after the election, O’Reilly chose as one of his show’s best moments a clip of himself saying: “I’m not committing a hate crime by saying ‘illegal aliens’ are just that.” Similarly, Hannity tells me: “I’ve used ‘illegals’ all these years I’ve been on TV....I don’t see it as an offensive term.”
Neither do many Fox viewers. A National Hispanic Media Coalition survey in September found “a consistent pattern whereby Fox News audiences are indeed more likely to hold negative stereotypes about Latinos.” For the average Fox News anchor—not to mention fan—immigration reform is a harder sell than Ailes and other Republican elites admit.
Still, Ailes sees the Latino audience as a “tremendous business opportunity.” Latinos primarily get their news from Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision. When it comes to English-language cable news, the Latino audience is up for grabs: Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all average fewer than 100,000 Hispanic viewers during prime time, according to Nielson, a fraction of the roughly two million people who tune in to Univision’snewscast, “Noticiero Univision.”
In 2010, Fox launched Fox News Latino, a mostly English-language news website aimed at second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans. The site was the first of its kind, and NBC and The Huffington Post have since created competitors. Ailes says Fox may expand the site to include a 24-hour video news stream. (Cable television stations are hard to obtain, especially after Al Gore sold Current TV to Al Jazeera—or to “the oil people to get rich,” as Ailes describes it.)
“The contributions being made by Latinos are extraordinary, and we need to talk about them,” Ailes says. The Fox News Latino stylebook uses “undocumented immigrant,” and the site downplays immigration stories compared with some of its rivals. “Fox News Latino has a mission to point out the positives of the Latino population, operating within the framework of making America great,” Ailes says.
That’s not as blandly neutral as it sounds. “Hispanics who get on government programs are doing only a little better than they were in the old country,” Ailes elaborates. “Fox News Latino will show people how opportunities exist, that whenever we are overregulated, or there is too much government, we lose freedom. We lose power. That is, historically, one hundred percent true.”
History aside, there is logic to it. “Latinos tend to doubt deeply big government,” says Jorge Ramos, the head anchor at Univision. “Remember, we are coming from countries in Latin America where we are so used to corruption.”
There are other issues too, like abortion and religion, where Hispanics’ views tend to align more closely with the GOP. After the presidential election, a Hispanic Leadership Network poll of four swing states found an average gap of 13 points between Latinos who considered themselves conservative and Latinos who actually voted for Romney. Ailes wants these people not just visiting Fox News Latino, but watching Fox News, too.
“I happen to think that the Latino audience is an essentially traditional audience and will go to Fox News for traditional American values,” Ailes says.
The hitch, of course, is immigration. “Unless the Republican Party changes its position on immigration, it doesn’t matter what they do on other issues,” Ramos says. The challenge is the same for Fox News.
“They are too far gone as a brand,” says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “My generation is never going to forget what they’ve done, what they continue to do even now. They have enticed an audience to be prejudicial and discriminatory.”
Ailes knows Fox needs a new message on immigration, even as Fox News Latino draws attention to other issues. “Republicans haven’t used the right language,” Ailes says. “They keep talking about illegal immigration.”
“I think the word ‘illegal immigration’ is a false name,” he continues. “You are talking about two separate issues. One is sovereignty. . . . The media trying to make America feel guilty because we want borders—that, to me, is complete bullshit. Immigration is a separate issue. . . . We should all defend sovereignty, then take a Judeo-Christian approach to immigration. I don’t have any problem with a path to citizenship.”
Rubio has recently taken up a similar line, supporting a path to citizenship only after the Obama administration takes additional steps to enforce immigration laws. But nowhere has the rhetorical problem that Ailes describes been more apparent than on Fox News. “OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HALTS DEPORTATIONS FOR UNDOCUMENTED CHILDREN,” read Fox News Latino’s headline on an A.P. story last summer. As Media Matters pointed out, Fox Nation, the red-meat section of FoxNews.com, headlined the same wire story: “OBAMA ADMINISTRATION BYPASSES CONGRESS, TO GIVE IMMUNITY, STOPS DEPORTING YOUNGER ILLEGALS.”
“There’s an assumption that Fox News Latino is softer on Latinos than Fox News in general,” Ailes says. “That’s ridiculous.” Whether Fox’s Hispanic audience will note a difference remains to be seen. So far, Ailes insists, things are going well—but he’d rather not let his competitors in on his secrets. “I don’t want to get into strategic thinking on this,” he says. “If these dumb bastards invent their own channel, I’m not going to help them.”