Ted Bobrow

Outing a Bully

By - Nov 20th, 2008 02:52 pm

It’s a truth many of us learned on the playgrounds of our youth: nobody reacts to criticism worse than a bully.

So it’s no surprise that conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes responded to a negative article in the December issue of Milwaukee Magazine with a longwinded, sniveling diatribe that leaves the reader wondering why a guy who makes a living attacking people is so damn thin-skinned.

To anyone who listens to the Sykes show on WTMJ-AM, or any of the formulaic right wing radio talk shows, much of the criticism outlined by the station’s former news director seems fairly obvious.

Sykes, Mark Belling on WISN-AM and their ilk carefully select topics designed to stir up anger in their predominantly conservative audiences. They seek stories that confirm their world views and look for people to vilify. These could be public officials, bureaucrats, parents, school administrators and run-of-the-mill average citizens. Anyone, really, who provides them with the opportunity to demonize government and show how our hard-earned tax dollars are wasted.

And, as Dan Shelley says in the article, Sykes is obviously very bright and very good at what he does.

Sometimes Sykes can be very entertaining. He engages in a kind of verbal ju-jitsu that takes the inert energy from the many absurd stories generated by newspapers and elsewhere and builds it into an inflammatory narrative designed to entertain and anger his listeners.

I get it and I can actually enjoy listening to it, in small doses, as I do Lewis Black and Dave Chappelle.

But what bothers me is how manipulative he can be when dealing with listeners who call in. Those who agree with him are treated with kid gloves; they are thoughtful, insightful, clever. Callers who disagree with him are broken down in two categories. The inarticulate or weak ones are dangled as useful foils who give him the opportunity to throw the sarcastic jabs and belittling blows to diminish the caller.

The brighter, more effective and persuasive callers with contrary opinions are quickly dispatched with a “thank you for your call.” It’s a cowardly tactic quite typical of the playground bully.

Belling engages in a different tactic that accomplishes the same result; he raises his voice at callers and belittles them to the point you wonder why anyone would ever listen to this jerk. In fairness, it must be pointed out that Belling seems to yell at everyone but in the world of talk radio there are significant gradations to screaming.

It’s also revealing (and disturbing) that Sykes is given his platform by Journal Communications Inc., which owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WTMJ-TV and WTMJ-AM. Sykes regularly attacks the newspaper as a part of the liberal media though the same company pays his salary and profits from his success.

Sykes is also given a platform on television every Sunday morning through a show that purports to be public affairs programming. He surrounds himself with mostly like-minded fellow travelers from conservative media as well as a token, usually sycophantic, liberal.

But that’s enough about this topic. It’s been said by more than a few observers that too much attention is paid to the influence of right wing radio. Most people who listen aren’t swayed by what they hear; they are either already true-believers or they are merely entertained by the shock talk.

My response has always been that liberals need to find their own ways of reaching their own audiences and recent developments on air and online are encouraging.

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