WASHINGTON — I have this mischievous suspicion that Roger Ailes, the creator and chairman of Fox News, secretly admires the bloggers and other activists working to keep Democratic presidential candidates from debating on his cable network.

To be sure, Ailes will never say this. On the contrary, he is furious that MoveOn.org and others have struck a chord in arguing that Democrats have no business creating any formal link with a network that so openly favors conservative and Republican causes.

“Pressure groups are forcing candidates to conclude that the best strategy for journalists is divide and conquer, to only appear on those networks and venues that give them favorable coverage,” Ailes fumed earlier this year as Fox’s effort to sponsor a Democratic presidential debate in Nevada was falling apart. “Any candidate for high office of either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake.” Using that incendiary word “blacklist” was a nice touch.

What Ailes knows is that the campaign to block Fox from sponsoring Democratic debates is the most effective liberal push-back against the network that stars Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity since its debut on Oct. 7, 1996.

Ailes has been brilliant at having it both ways, insisting that his network is “fair and balanced” even as its right-tilting programming built a devoted conservative following that helped it bury CNN and MSNBC in the ratings.

While Ailes knew precisely what he was doing, his competitors flailed around. They dumped one format after another, sometimes trying to lure conservative viewers from Fox by offering their own right-leaning programs. Loyal conservatives preferred the real thing and stuck with Fox.

My hunch is that Ailes, one of the toughest and smartest in a generation of Republican political consultants, sees his adversaries as playing the kind of political hardball he respects. It’s why he’s angry. The anti-Fox squad won a second round on Monday when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton joined John Edwards in announcing that they would not appear at a debate scheduled for September co-sponsored by Fox and the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Fox debate saga is amusing, but it’s more than that. It marks a transformation on the left side of politics, driven by the rise of Internet voices and the frustration of liberals at the success of conservatives in using a combination of talk radio, Fox on television, and the Web to propagate anti-liberal, anti-Democratic messages.

From the late 1960s until the last few years, media criticism was dominated by conservatives railing against a supposedly “liberal media.” Hearing mostly from one side of the debate, editors, publishers and producers looked constantly over their right shoulders, rarely imagining that they could be biased against the left or too accommodating to Republican presidents. This was a great conservative victory.

The Bush years have changed that. Aggressive media criticism is now the rule across the liberal blogs, and new monitoring organizations such as Media Matters for America police news reports daily for signs of Republican bias, often debunking charges against Democrats. When you combine liberal and conservative media criticism you get a result that is more or less fair and balanced. Score a net gain for liberals.

Fox provided the new liberal critics with a target-rich environment. This, after all, is the network that last January floated a false report that Obama had been educated at a madrassa. The nicely staccato Fox report said of Obama’s alleged time in an Islamic school: “The first decade of his life, raised by his Muslim father as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa. … Financed by Saudis, they teach this Wahhabism, which pretty much hates us. The big question is, was that on the curriculum back then?” Talk about Innuendo City. Fox’s competition, notably CNN, went after the story and proved it untrue. Obama, as he recounted in his own book, went to an Indonesian public school.

Tell me again: Why do Democrats have an obligation to hold debates on Fox?

I am an avid reader of conservative magazines such as National Review and The Weekly Standard. But if these two publications teamed up to sponsor a Democratic debate, would anyone accuse Edwards, Obama and Clinton of “blacklisting” if the candidates said, no, thanks?

I admire Roger Ailes’ genius in building Fox News. I wish liberals could create a comparably powerful network. If Fox and such a network co-sponsored debates, I’d love to watch the fireworks. In the meantime, Ailes should be thankful to the conservative stalwarts who made his network a success and not be disappointed if his political adversaries take their business elsewhere.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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