The New Charlie Sykes
He's confessing his errors and getting lots of publicity. Could there be a connection?
In December 2008, I published a story for Milwaukee Magazine called “Secrets of Talk Radio.” Written by Dan Shelley, the former news director for WTMJ Radio, it detailed how conservative hosts like Charlie Sykes win listeners:
“To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered… There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.” And more often than not the bad guy is the “mainstream media,” Shelley added.
“The most frequent victims of this,” Shelley noted, “were Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley. Charlie knew they would rarely call or e-mail to answer his criticism, so he could both criticize decisions they had made and blast them for not having the guts to come on his show and respond. What little credibility they had among Charlie’s audience would decline by a thousand cuts.”
Sykes attacked the newspaper far more often than his WISN radio counterpart Mark Belling, probably because WTMJ was then owned by the Journal company and Sykes needed to prove his independence. And it was a game he couldn’t lose, because no matter how the paper tried to respond to “prove” it didn’t lean liberal, Sykes could always find something to complain about.
And to assure that only his viewpoint won the day in these and other discussions, he engaged in on-air censorship. “Calls from listeners who disagree with him don’t get on the air if the show’s producer, who generally does the screening, fears they might make Charlie look bad,” Shelley wrote. “I witnessed several occasions when Sen. Russ Feingold, former Mayor John Norquist, Mayor Tom Barrett or others would call in, but wouldn’t be allowed on the air.”
Sykes was outraged about Shelley’s story back then, but it has now suddenly dawned on him that what he was doing was steadily undermining the mainstream media and the very idea there is such a thing as facts. In an interview with Business Insider‘s Oliver Darcy, he admitted there is no way to contest Donald Trump’s frequent lies because “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers… All conservative hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted to the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media…But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there. And I am feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind at that. And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute?’”
Doh. You were a big contributor, Charlie. And while some of that was generated by Sykes’ conservative views, it was also about ego (Sykes hates having on a listener who might best him in a discussion, which has made his show particularly one-sided) and about branding, as he now concedes. Sykes made money — and hosts like him are very well paid — by relentlessly undermining the credibility of the media.
Sykes, in short, knew very well how his listeners felt on various issues. They were, after all, calling his show and emailing him every weekday, year after year.
So it is a bit difficult to believe Sykes, whose recent bout of confessions have included an interview with Politico where he describes his surprise to learn that many of his listeners are racists. “When I would deny that there was a significant racist component in some of the politics on our side, it was because the people I hung out with were certainly not,” Sykes says. “When suddenly, this rock is turned over, there is this—‘Oh shit, did I not see that?’”
As Esquire writer Charles Pierce has written, “Sykes knew damn well who his “allies” were when he was calling the First Lady “Mooch,” or when he was calling a black man who’d died in police custody “a piece of garbage,” and when he referred to “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib and roll over the top of them while sleeping on a futon on the floor.”
“Sykes knew who his ‘allies’ were when, as Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express reported, he aired a blackface rap parody,” Pierce continues. “It features a young, black woman calling herself Chapter Jackson, who acts out every racist stereotype of poor, black, single mothers that bigoted audiences find hilarious. Ms. Jackson is knee-deep in black babies in a house full of women slutted up like prostitutes while she writhes and raps that her life is a constant party paid for by taxpayers. She repeats the obscene refrain: ‘All you have to do is f— and nine months later you get in the big bucks.'”
The appeals to racism by Sykes and Belling so struck writer Alec MacGillis that his 2014 New Republic feature story on Gov. Scott Walker was mostly about how the governor’s political success was inextricably connected to the poisonous, racially divided climate the talk show hosts helped create in Wisconsin.
Sykes was angry about that story, too, but now tells Politico that his next book — which will be titled How the Right Lost Its Mind,” he lets us know — will examine whether there was “some grain of truth” in the New Republic story.
Which makes a nice promotion for the book. Indeed a recent story in Right Wisconsin, written and edited by Sykes, lets us know about all the admiration and publicity he’s winning with his recent confessions.
Sykes portrays himself as a hero for refusing to support Trump. “I am dealing with the daily flood of emails on how we’re never going to listen to you anymore,” Sykes told Politico. “If I lose listeners, that’s a price I’ve just got to pay.”
But a short-term controversy like that can simply goose up ratings, while Sykes wins tons of coverage and kudos from the national media for opposing Trump. It’s even helped gain Sykes exposure on liberal MSNBC. Sykes has always been savvy about using the media to gain attention. He has also been a master at transforming himself politically, famously from liberal to conservative (though it was really more like a switch from neo-liberal to neo-con) and then over time on talk radio to full-fledged conservative, all to strategic and promotional advantage.
I’m not saying there isn’t any sincerity to Charlie’s periodic transformations and confessions. But he’s always been very aware of how it might play.
When Sykes was my boss at Milwaukee Magazine in the mid-1980s, he was mercurial and elusive, but could be very funny — and deeply cynical — about mass audience America. He is far too smart not to have known — with strategic precision — who his metro-area listeners were. Like Claude Rains’ chief of police in Casablanca, who was “shocked, shocked” to know gambling was going on, even as he pocketed his winnings, Charlie has always understood how you gain ratings — and make money — by appealing to the worst instincts of conservative listeners. His sudden surprise about the impact of such demagoguery makes for good click bait, but the story turns out to be quite different than the headlines suggest.