Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Walker, Sykes and Belling

The New Republic feature story on Scott Walker and talk radio is juicy stuff. But is it true?

By - Jun 19th, 2014 12:52 pm
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Mark Belling

Mark Belling

The feature begins with conservative talker Mark Belling ridiculing Congresswoman Gwen Moore, in a snippet that captures all the ugliness of what has long been one of the city’s most popular radio shows:

“Gwen Moore simply occupies a seat. A very large seat. … The woman is so fat and out of shape, she literally can’t get to the floor to vote anymore. … It’s time to vote and here’s Gwen: ‘I’m out of breath! Blew-ee, blew-ee!’ ” (Here Belling affected the exertions of an overweight black woman.) Or, he continued, perhaps there was another possibility: “What do you think the chances are she was sitting on the toilet? … Maybe Gwen was sitting there on the crapper and this was one that was not working out too well for her or something. ‘Blew-ee!’ ‘Congresswoman, you’ve got to vote.’ ‘I am sittin’ on de toilet!’”

New Republic magazine’s senior editor Alec MacGillis goes on to note other mean-spirited, racially-charged statements made in the past by Belling, and we are soon rolling along on his juicy tour of the racial politics of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes

No, it is not a pretty portrait, and it is getting national discussion, while leaving Belling, Charlie Sykes and many Republicans in an uproar. I think critics have a point about its portrayal of Scott Walker; some of MacGillis’ conclusions are dead wrong and the story’s headline, “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker,” is as misleading as it is grabby. But any Milwaukeean who reads this knows immediately that MacGillis has captured some very uncomfortable truths about Milwaukee’s racial divide and the role of talk radio. And because he is a very good writer, he offers deft portraits of Sykes, Belling and Walker.

MacGillis was able to convince Walker’s mother and others to discuss the governor’s upbringing and it’s gripping stuff:

“His father, Llewellyn, was a Baptist minister, and before Scott could even read, he was summoned to the front of church to offer prayers. At age seven, in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, where Reverend Walker served on the town council, Scott founded the ‘Jesus USA Club’ and would hop up on an improvised soapbox to raise money for a state flag outside the village hall…Walker went door to door to campaign for a classmate’s father who was running for local office. Walker’s parents told me that his teacher asked him why he was doing that. ‘Because he’s a good man,’ he informed her.

“…Walker was the prototypical preacher’s kid, acutely aware of the need to present a genial face to the world. ‘When you’re a ‘P.K.,’ you live in a fishbowl and are trained to be careful so that you don’t do anything that embarrasses your parents,’ says his mother, Patricia.

“’Sometimes, in high school,’ Patricia recalls, ‘he’d stay awake thinking of all the things in the world he could do something about.’”

“…His friends would apologize if they swore in his presence, and he wasn’t much for chasing girls. ‘He was a very nice-looking young man, always very neat in appearance,’ says Neill Flood, the town’s fire chief, whose daughter was a year ahead of Walker in school. ‘He was the kind of guy who liked everyone, and everyone liked him. There was never any physical attraction for Scott, girls being all over him.’ On Scott’s prom night, his mother recalls, he, his date, and some friends stayed up very late talking politics.”

That’s a great narrative, and one I suspect Walker will love. But conservative blogger Ann Althouse, whose lazy, narcissistic blog is for some reason a big hit nationally, concludes that MacGillis actually has a secret agenda here: to suggest that Walker is gay!

MacGillis’s grabby narrative next brings us to Walker’s student years at Marquette University, where “He would literally say, . . . ‘God has told me I’m chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies,’ even in casual conversation,” recalled Glen Barry, a classmate of Walker’s. “On occasion, Walker would compare himself to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., noting that they were both the sons of Baptist ministers.”

In Walker’s freshman year, he was put in charge of an investigation into a lavish homecoming dinner that had been charged to student government accounts, and the future governor decided he wanted to impeach the students. It’s an absurd scene, with Walker questioning people as to how their corsage was paid for and ending with all the defendants being acquitted. Walker soon earned the nickname of “Neidermeyer,” after the authoritarian frat-house enforcer in Animal House.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider, the long-time Republican aide who nowadays spends much of his time defending Walker in his columns, offers a tone-deaf take on MacGillis that complains about his portrayal of Walker in his early days as a legislator.  “Colleagues from both parties recall him as an amiable backbencher” MacGillis writes, who “seemed most intent on cultivating a constituency via the airwaves.”

“This isn’t remotely true,” Schneider complains. “In those days, Walker was universally seen as active and ambitious. (I was a legislative staffer at the time, and the joke was always that the most dangerous place in the Capitol was between Walker and a microphone.)”

Exactly. Walker was far more interested in building his name than passing legislation and was not a party insider or loyal follower of Gov. Tommy Thompson. MacGillis and Schnieder are actually saying the same thing, but Schneider can’t recognize it because he’s never been a reporter and has spent his life doing public relations.

MacGillis goes on to nail Walker’s great talent, which even then was clear to the savvy Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who “started sending Walker on television and the radio talk shows when he couldn’t make it and quickly realized that his colleague had an unerring ability to stay on message. ‘He’s the kind of guy you can wake up at three a.m. and ask him a question, and he’ll have a nice sound bite for you,’ says Jensen.”

Belling and Sykes became essential to Walker’s rise: the little-known assemblyman was frequently featured on the Sunday morning TV shows of both radio talkers (Belling no longer has the show), they tirelessly promoted him in his run for Milwaukee County Executive, and helped him defeat Mark Neumann in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

“No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics,” MacGillis writes. I suspect few mid-sized cities have two conservative talk shows ranking near the top of radio ratings, though I would have liked to see some documentation.

MacGillis instead, offers us anecdotal takes: “’The listenership is just so much higher here,’ says Scott Jensen… ‘And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.’ Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican state senator in southwestern Wisconsin who is retiring this year, is blunter. ‘Talk radio gets going and some of my colleagues end up wetting themselves,’ he says. ‘It’s appalling.’”

MacGillis offers a deft take on the radio squawkers: “Sykes is a thrice-married man-about-town with a smooth on-air manner and modish eyeglasses who has built himself into a multimedia brand, with a Sunday TV show on the NBC affiliate, books subsidized by conservative funders (his latest: A Nation of Moochers), and a subscription-based website, “Right Wisconsin” (which sometimes refers to Michelle Obama as “Mooch”). Belling is introverted and brooding—he zips in and out from the station’s suburban studio in his Jaguar, interacting with co-workers no more than necessary.”

Sykes clearly cooperated with MacGillis and does his best to charm the writer. He jokes about how often Walker would send him email messages. (Sykes, and to a lesser extent, Belling have since complained that MacGillis was off on some details here but Sykes makes clear Walker’s intimate ties with the two: “He keeps in very close touch with us…I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott.”) Both radio hosts have long jumped to do anything to support Walker, and have bragged about their impact.

Sykes tells MacGillis he grew disillusioned with liberalism while covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal in the late ‘70s and seeing the failure of urban programs. “I thought: This thing doesn’t work as planned,” Sykes says.

The only problem with that story is that Sykes was still liberal (though hawkish on national defense) in the mid-1980s as Milwaukee Magazine’s editor; I worked under him and he was a huge fan then, ironically enough, of the New Republic, which he probably told MacGillis. Sykes went to serve (in the late 1980s) as an aide of liberal Milwaukee County Executive Dave Schulz, who was known to offer rhapsodic speeches about the dignity of welfare recipients.

MacGillis is clearly fascinated — and amused — by the endless contradictions of Sykes. He includes a great scene of his tagging along with Sykes at the state Republican convention, where the a session called “Media panel,” they are informed, “is closed to media.”

“To Sykes’s irritation, the GOP bouncer failed to recognize him and wouldn’t let him in. ‘To hell with these guys,’ Sykes muttered and retired with three associates to the bar area, where I joined them for drinks. Moments later, a young woman materialized to apologize profusely for the mix-up and to assure Sykes that he was welcome upstairs. Playing hard to get, he told her he might make an appearance later.”

It’s quite a moment, Sykes not being allowed inside the castle after all of his endless shilling for Republicans.

“Over Sykes’s second glass of wine,” MacGills recounts, “we got onto ‘The Wire,’ which Sykes loves, a fact that, along with his cerebral manner, was making it hard for me to reconcile him with his abrasive on-air persona. I asked whether his rhetoric was contributing to Milwaukee’s polarization. ‘I don’t think radio shows change people’s perceptions, because people’s perceptions are based on people’s own experience,’ he said.” In short the ugly rhetoric of Belling and more coded statements of Sykes don’t help inflame racism in metro Milwaukee; they have no impact. Yet Sykes eagerly claims credit for Walker’s defeat of Neumann, and constantly touts his impact on elections.

The reality is that Sykes and Belling make much of their living by savaging the city of Milwaukee for residents of surrounding counties. Sykes actually tells MacGillis about the moment when, based on his listeners’ reactions to an education issue, “I realized we weren’t a Milwaukee station anymore.”

“Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population (in Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties) is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country,” MacGillis writes. “During a break in the (GOP state convention) proceedings, Jeff Johns, the genial chairman of the Ozaukee County Republican Party, warned me about Fond du Lac Avenue, which bisects the black swath of northwest Milwaukee. ‘You don’t want to travel that at night,’ he says. ‘You’re basically traveling the colored section.’ He also voiced suspicions about Democratic turnout operations in Milwaukee, with campaigns ‘picking people up for their votes’ and rewarding them with ‘free meals and benefits.’”

MacGillis is so struck by the racial divisions in metro Milwaukee that he makes the mistake of overstating its state-wide impact. The reality is the the huge Republican turnout of the WOW counties is neutralized the huge Democratic turnout of Milwaukee County, which means Walker has to win the rest of the state. While he certainly ran against Milwaukee in the 2012 recall election, and hasn’t been very helpful to the city as a governor, he won because independents and even some Democrats in this state didn’t think a governor should be recalled for passing a piece of legislation, no matter how some people hated it.

As for MacGillis’ central conclusion, that Walker has inflamed partisan and racial divisions in this state and is therefore not a viable Republican candidate for president, he couldn’t be more wrong. His hard-edged conservatism is just what red meat Republican primary voters want in a candidate.

And should Walker win the GOP nomination, his emphasis on cutting benefits for government workers has been proven to have appeal for a thin majority in a state that has supported the Democratic candidate for president in seven straight elections. Yes, Walker has polarized Wisconsin, but he is very good at running campaigns based on cutting taxes and deemphasizing his unpopular stands on social issues like same sex marriage. Walker won’t be seen as a racist candidate for president because he has never made the sort of statements his buddies Belling and Sykes use to “entertain” their listeners. He has simply benefitted from them.

Short Take

Sykes’ column complaining about MacGillis is nothing but nitpicking and far below of the quality of the writing Sykes did back when he was a real journalist, but if you’re curious and want to pay to read it, here is the link.

24 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Walker, Sykes and Belling”

  1. Perhaps its time to do some digging on the left wing bloggers be interesting to see what can be found out who knows, perhaps we will find that all roads lead to the Democratic Party paymasters?

  2. Steve says:

    Isn’t paymaster another word for Republican? The entire party is for unlimited campaign contributions and corporate and 1% rule over the 99%.

    I thought that was common knowledge.

  3. David says:

    I don’t believe that talk radio caused the issues of segregation,wedge politics, etc., but they definitely have exacerbated the problems. The “us against them” mentality is great for their ratings which is basically making two groups of people hate each other. Namely the liberal city vs. the conservative suburbs/ country. Its so clear by the way they frame the arguments, whether its the deep tunnel, public transportation, etc. Its scary because they twist the issues to fit their narrative. I’m sure this happens on the left, but no left wing outlet has the same influence as the constant blathering of conservative talk radio. Even scarier, its the only news source for some. Never has there been so much anger and divisiveness, and never has so little gotten done. Ratings equal dollars for Belling and Sykes so its very hard for me to believe that they have anyones best interests in mind other than their own. When I hang out with friends in Lake Country, it’s a constant attack on the Milwaukee, black people, Mayor Barrett, Obama,freeways, the trolley, and they’re all experts.Furthermore, they’re angry. Talk radio and reality TV have a lot in common.They have it all figured out. The worst part is, they use the same simplistic, mean spirited tone they hear everday, all day on the radio. And the spin becomes really obvious when you happen to know a lot about an issue that Sykes or Belling decide to have as a topic. They ignore details, facts and context just to trump up anger and outrage.

  4. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The mag is not on my reading list. I start with Foreign Affairs,not Bill’s, Economist, Weekly standard and many left wing articles to see what everyone is saying.
    Silly articles like that in Republic are not worth reading.
    Try to shorten up your columns, Bruce. Now everyone reads text, tweets, no more than 4 paragraphs.
    We held Scott’s first fundraiser in out backyard when he ran for Assembly.
    Have known him for 20 years, disagree on people he had around him, at times, and some of his stands, but mostly like him as honest guy, out to do the right thing.
    Have never caught him in lie as I do many journalists, especially on TV.
    He has pulled off fiscal miracle in state and hope that he is re-elected.

  5. 2fs says:

    WCD’s suggestion that “everyone reads text, tweets, no more than 4 paragraphs” might be one reason Walker does so well: he is, as the NR article notes, a master at staying on-message, and hammering the same, simple point home over and over again. Sure, quite often he’s wrong…but proving that requires details, facts, nuance – all the things that, per WCD, no one bothers with any more.

    Problem is, reality tends not to be describable in 140 characters or less. That’s a huge problem – for Democrats, but ultimately for all of us if we’re going to rely on Twitter politics.

    I’m glad Bruce Murphy still writes in paragraphs. We need more of that.

  6. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Tell you what, Wayne- You give left-wing bloggers the same amount of air time to spew unchallenged propaganda on the PUBLIC’S airwaves as SykesBelling get every day, and you have every right to look into their background. Deal?

    Good rundown of a vital article from MacGillis, Bruce. But you pulled your punches at the end. If you don’t think Walker uses Sykes and Belling and Icki and the others say the dirty things that allow him to keep his hands relatively clean on racial politics, you’re a lot more naive than I think you are. Notice that Scotty has never said “Belling/Sykes/McKenna need to cool down their language because we shouldn’t act this way.” That’s because he finds that act acceptable, if not downright encouraged.

    As someone who graduated from the same high school as Walker’s kids, I know exactly what the Gov means when he says “You don’t want to be like those people in Milwaukee”- and it makes the dogs bark. Loudly.

  7. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    the Left wing radio guys are the worst. Course no one listens to them or reads the Leftwing crap.

  8. David says:

    Right wing talk radio is pure theater WDC.Thats why people listen. High ratings do not mean its credible.Its just entertainment. Just look at cable TV. Its on par with The Real Housewives of Orange County.

  9. Observer says:

    Interesting breaking news today may have doomed Scott Walkers hopes. Not just WCD’s usual villains, but Newsmax and Fox News, even Reuters and the Guardian feature Scott Walker in less than a positive light. Tomorrow’s Sentinel headline is prominently featured in the NY and LA Times along with the Washington Post. All that work by Sykes and Belling for naught.

  10. Dawn's Early Light says:

    “Yes, Walker has polarized Wisconsin, but he is very good at running campaigns”

    Yes – running illegal campaigns.

  11. PMD says:

    Talk radio is poison. My father-in-law and aunt listen to it daily: Limbaugh, Belling, Sykes, etc. Not only do they constantly repeat verbatim what they hear while trying to pass it off as original thought, which is amusing, they also mimic the angry, aggressive, and combative tone that permeates talk radio. It turns them into extremely unpleasant people, people I love and get along with as long as politics are not mentioned. It’s sad how talk radio does that to people. I tried listening to Air America years ago and hated it, for the same reasons I hate conservative talk radio. It was a lot of yelling and angry rhetoric, and it wasn’t adding anything constructive or meaningful to discussions of very series issues. In my experience, people who listen to talk radio have nothing of value to say.

  12. tim haering says:

    Bruce, that’s a lot of virtual ink to waste on some else’s dubious journalismo. And panning Schneider for not being a journalist. Neither was McILheran before him. Did you patty-cake Paddy Mac, baker’s man? Bake a fake as fast as you can. YOUr take tastes great, but I wish it had been less fillling.

  13. PMD says:

    Schneider is a joke. His columns could be press releases from the governor’s office or campaign. Doesn’t appear to have an original or insightful thought in his head. It’s embarrassing how much he lobbies for and defends Walker. He should be an obscure blogger and not someone with a regular column in the state’s largest paper.

  14. fightingbobfan says:

    All across the country the right talk radio format is dying — along with its listeners. In major cities, Limbaugh after advertisers abandoned him after his Sandra Fluke tirade — is now on the 25th ranked stations.

    Not here in Milwaukee. Because of number of radio stations no one broadcaster has an audience beyond 8%. Nevertheless, Sykes, Belling and Icky are at the top of the ratings.

    Right wing talk radio serves one function. To give their angry listeners a place to vent, to be lied to and to be given validation for their sociopathic views.

    It really makes you wonder what’s wrong with these people in the WOW counties. Thanks in large part to government help — they have fled to the former pasture lands and now live better than any one else. Apparently money does not buy contentment.

    One time in a moment of bi-partisanship I campaigned for a Republican friend in Brookfield for the assembly. He had no chance of winning this Republican primary. You know what the resident’s biggest issue was? Not education. Not the economy. It was conceal and carry.

  15. John G. says:

    It would be awfully hard to separate the racists from the rest of the Republican party. How is Belling’s invective regarding Gwen Moore not getting him blasted off the air for a time again? That is horrible.

  16. Andy says:

    So this is a blog about a garbage article from the democrats and the garbage responses from republicans. I’ll never get these few minutes back… Disappointing start to the morning.

    Fightingbob, I got a chuckle out of your question about what’s wrong with the people in the WOW counties… why the heck would anyone want to live better?? That American Dream thing is rubbish! Great schools, peace and quiet, safe neighborhoods, privacy, low property taxes?? Why would anyone want that?!

  17. partypanther says:

    I have to agree with David Above. 620/1130 are entertainment for anyone with a basic understanding of issues, however there’s a certain amount of people that take it as gospel and apply no critical thinking to the points made. I think it definitely shapes the views of people outside of Milwaukee and creates this Us Vs. Them mentality mentioned in the article.

    The thing that I find most interesting is the daily email that must come from republicans on topics for the day. I can turn on Dan O’Donnell, Vicki McKenna, and Mark Belling and hear them all make the same cockamamie remarks with the same exact talking points in the exact same day, however their average listener gets so excited to hear it that they think it’s truth, when it’s really just a well crafted talking point from someone in the Governor’s office or the republican party.

    The other way that they will sway their listeners is to refute a point and go against the grain(like Belling supporting the Kenosha Casino) and then harp on that like they’re unbiased and fair because they go against the hand that feeds. It’s all a manufactured game to achieve the highest ratings.

  18. Justin says:

    I have a number of acquaintances who are also glued to the right wing HATE radio stations of 620 and 1130. All day they listen to the spewings of WGOP, and the often racist hatred of Mark Belling. Many people in this area are absolutely addicted to the hatred for others that is found on right wing radio and TV 24/7.

    These people live in the white outer suburbs in Waukesha and Ozaukee County and rarely venture into the Milwaukee County and definitely not the city of Milwaukee. Some of them actually believe that there are roaming black gangs in Greenfield, West Allis, and Wauwatosa just waiting to attack, and murder white people who come to Milwaukee. These are not elderly folks, they are younger in their 40′s and 50′s. Where do they get these crazy thoughts? Talk radio-especially Mark Belling. These are educated people, many of which have college degrees who think this way-because their only contact with people of a different color is when they go to a Packers game in Green Bay. Not coincidentally, nearly all of these folks STILL have a “Stand With Walker” bumper sticker on their Chevy Suburban.

  19. Observer says:

    Justin, I’m putting on a hat just so I can tip it to you for your post. I feel sorry for those people in a way because Milwaukee and I mean all of Milwaukee has much to offer people. There will be a street festival The Garfield Jazz, Gospel and Blues Festival on July 19. I’ve been going every year since it began maybe 20 years ago. Geared towards adults, I’ve never seen a hint of trouble. I’ve tried and tried to get my WOW friends to come along but I’ve never gotten one. The food and entertainment make this one of Milwaukee’s best. The neighborhood shocks Milwaukee friends that go, as they didn’t know a suburban type neighborhood like this exists in the Inner City. If any conservatives reading this go, you’ll find better parking south of Garfield (Garfield is closed from the just east of the X-Way to Dr. MLK Drive) than you will north of it.

  20. Mike Bark says:

    A few thoughts:

    - Bruce Murphy is partially responsible for the rise of both Scott Walker and Charlie Sykes. Had it not been for the pension scandal I’m not sure Walker is ever able to ascend to the Governor’s chair and that scandal had a lot to do with Charlie Sykes getting a much bigger profile because Sykes was actually out there leading recall rallies and such.

    - If one actually listens to both shows I’m not sure how one can conclude that they are putting out the same talking points. Sykes is much more of an establishment guy who is very interested in being a part of the story. As such he does way more interviews than Belling and is also very reticent to criticize a Republican. Belling on the other hand does his own thing. Yes, they are both conservative so they are going to agree on a lot.

  21. Observer says:

    Damn that Crispus Attucks.

  22. Observer says:

    For those that care to read it, here’s a similar story on Iowa City, Iowa. http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/24408-how-the-media-stokes-racism-in-iowa-city-and-everywhere

  23. leisureguy says:

    Maybe Sykes loved TNRs “neo-liberalism” back in the 1980s? Pro-contra, anti-affirmative action, making fun of Jesse Jackson. Back then, I always felt like Marty Peretz’s thumb jabbed into my left eye every time I opened its cover.

  24. bruce Murphy says:

    Yes, that’s part of what Sykes liked about the publication then, their skepticism on such issues. On the other hand he was very supportive of state Dems and opposed (and mocked) Tommy Thompson when he ran for governor in those days.

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