Op Ed

Sykes Exits Cruel World He Helped Create

His talk radio show was part of the problem. Will he help find solutions?

By - Dec 20th, 2016 02:17 pm
Charlie Sykes. Photo by Michael Horne.

Charlie Sykes. Photo by Michael Horne.

Citing personal reasons, Charlie Sykes, Wisconsin’s most prominent and entrepreneurial “journalist,” maybe polemicist is the better word, is moving on, presumably to greener pastures –possibly beyond the Wisconsin pastures that he harvested so well.

His sayonara piece last week was in the New York Times, not the equally liberal Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, his former employer that he lovingly called “the dead tree.” The local paper was his sparring partner.

I, for one, wish him well.

I have followed his brilliant career since hiring him as an editor of a weekly suburban newspaper right out of college, where he was at the top of his class. He was a liberal then, and he clearly had the right stuff. Charlie was an excellent, ambitious young journalist, who clearly was going someplace fast. He has since referred to himself as a “recovering liberal.”

Whether his jump to the right was a coming of age or the result of market research, of a combination of both, we will never know.

Of the talk show hosts, he has been among the most civil. It’s a low bar. Early on in his 23 years on WTMJ, he would cut people off and belittle them. But he mostly got over that.

And he worked hard. He mined major issues to find conservative themes, like school choice that he championed. And wrote eight books on those subjects, not the make-up of a lightweight.

No one would ever accuse talk show hosts of being listeners. They are yakkers by nature of their business, but Charlie, in his later years, at least acknowledged that the other party might have something to say. He still commandeered 80% of the airtime, but at least gave a token 20% to his callers. That proportion gave the show a semblance of a dialogue with the public.

Leaders who are really trying to solve problems do a lot of listening. They ask questions. Let us not be naïve, though; talk shows are about ratings, not about solving problems. It’s show biz.

Further, journalists/pundits (I was one) are always on the outside looking in. They never do the heavy lifting of causing things to happen. They don’t have to make the hard calls. They are in the Bob Uecker cheap seats (though Bob really played baseball).

As one business savant has noted, the opposite of arrogance is humility, and humility is the willingness to learn. No talk show host would ever be accused of being humble, being a listener or a learner. They have THE ANSWERS.

Are we not lucky to have such Sherpas to guide us through life?

As with his earlier shift to the conservative right, Sykes appears to be in another phase of self-discovery. He was a Never Trumper, as I was. And the Trump campaign surfaced the reality that Republicans care more about being in power than about the conservative principles that Sykes espoused and thought had carried the day in earlier elections. He took a lot of flak from the Trumpians and became disillusioned with their departure from principle.

Amidst the hyper-partisanship of today’s politics, he sees a flight to tribalism and even personality-centered loyalty. For now, it’s all about Trump and being the party in power, not the party of conservative principles. In his eyes, they sold their souls.

An insight he doesn’t offer is what talk show hosts have done to fan the flames of partisanship. Charlie ridiculed his opponents on the left. He did little to reach across the political divide to find pragmatic solutions. He dug the gulf between left and right deeper.

He also belittled the mainstream press, under-cutting its credibility.

He helped to create a cynical world of politics where no leader or journalist gets much respect.

In that vacuum, the country got a bizarre election in which issues and principles took a back seat to the politics of personality, his versus hers. Insults ruled. It became a binary contest: which person was the least worst.

Both candidates were labeled liars, so what they said mattered little.

As one result, other than lowering taxes, the country has only glimpses of where we might be headed in the next four years.

If his personal situation permits, Charlie should stick around in some capacity to help find a way forward. He is writing another book.

My read of the election is that the voters are looking for solutions to difficult and complex problems like immigration, income inequality and stagnation, trade and jihadist attacks. If Trump turns out to be a problem solver, “Great.”

If not, we will need a new party, a Pragmatic Party, one that sheds excessive partisanship, dumps the cult of the personality and gets on with innovations that solve problems, one by one.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

10 thoughts on “Op Ed: Sykes Exits Cruel World He Helped Create”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    Is he genuinely remorseful and looking to make positive contributions going forward, or is he cynically cashing in on his moment in the sun as a conservative the media loves because he speaks ill of Trump and right-wing media? I guess time will tell.

  2. RMH says:

    “His sayonara piece last week was in the New York Times, not the equally liberal Milwaukee Journal Sentinel”

    Only a right winger could think those center/center-right rags are “liberal”

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    That is indeed strikingly obtuse RMH. Did anyone read the recent JS editorial about the election and Russian hacking? It spends more time lambasting Democrats and Clinton and repeatedly highlights the reasons she lost. It reads like something you’d find in The New York Post or Wall Street Journal. It’s undeniably a right-wing editorial, as if the editorial board was more worried about being perceived as too hard on Trump after he won the state and the presidency than it was in being rational and reasonable.

  4. Jason says:

    Vince we can all agree on some kind of Russian involvement but can we also agree that Obama’s administration did everything in its power to influence the Israeli election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015.

  5. fightingbobfan says:

    I’d be curious for someone to come forward with what positive things Sykes has done to erase the damage to race relations and the demise of Northridge.

    In Milwaukee’s political climate, these rant shows are a luxury we can’t afford.

    From a personal standpoint, myself and others were banned from calling in not because we were going to violate TMJ’s FCC license, but because thin-skinned Charlie couldn’t handle dissent. If fact I learned I could even call into the sports programming.

    From what I know about liberal talk shows, they have the guts to deal with right wing callers and they often do it in a civilized manner.

  6. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Amazingly, WTMJ may have done worse with Sykes’ replacement. They are now giving a 3-hour daily show to a current State rep, John Jagler. How is this straight-up propaganda not a violation of campaign and FCC laws violation (excessive in-kind donation) in addition to being unethical as hell?

    “Wisconsin’s radio station, WGOP!” It is well past time to demand balance and accountability in Wisconsin talk radio, as it is as destructive a force as any in this regressing state

  7. John says:

    Jason, I take your point, but what was done was pretty upfront, just as Netanyahu’s courting John Boehner and Congress was a pretty upfront. But please also recognize that the US didn’t conduct a cyber attack on Israeli servers. Cyber-espionage by an adversary some describe as an enemy is pretty serious stuff.

    As for Charlie, I do think he saw $$$ being put in front of him by much bigger markets, and like phony liberal Ed Schultz who is now a shill for Russian government interests, he’s sold out and moving on to fatten his pocketbook some more. Having said that, I must say he’s interesting to listen to.

  8. Mike Carey says:

    He created far more of the divisiveness of the voters than he is credited with. He promoted, and allowed the republicans to promote their propaganda on the largest media outlet in the state. ANd then has the ball to criticize mainstream media. He was it. Good riddance. Never bothered to listen to him because it was never about informing people so they could make better decisions, it was always about pushing a conservative agenda, and they paid him well to do it. He was not a talk show host. He was propahgandist, not unlike Joseph Goebbels.

    “There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the **er, and this will always be “the man in the street.” Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.”

    “Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated
    are confident they are acting on their own free will.”

    Joseph Goebbels

  9. Thomas says:

    “Good riddance” to Charlie and to his faux outrage re imagined liberal plots and schemes in WI. I fear that Sykes will try to re-brand himself as a recovering reactionary in the wake of the Trump debacle to earn credence from a gullible national audience. He could not have believed half of what he said on the radio for 23 years here. My guess is that he will court the stupid listeners of the entire nation for greater infamy and bigger bucks,

  10. SteveM says:

    You’re right, John. As far as we know the US doesn’t get involved with elections, wink wink, just infrastructure. #Stuxnet

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