Suddenly the Smoke Clears Around Charlie Sykes

Why We Must Build the Capacity for Right-Wing Radio Accountability

by Robert Kraig, Executive Director

It has been sickening to watch right-wing talk show host Charlie Sykes reinvent himself before our eyes this election year, fashioning himself as a “principled conservative” who is risking his career to speak truth about Donald Trump. Almost as repulsive is the way national media outlets like MSNBC and NPR, desperate to show how welcoming they are to conservatives, are falling hook, line, and sinker for Charlie’s latest performance.

Unlike their gullible national counterparts, Wisconsin progressives who have long endured Sykes’s malignant influence on state politics have understood all along that we are witnessing not a public repentance but a cynical pivot to the next stage of Sykes’s public demagoguery. Still, it seemed like Charlie was playing with fire, saying he had suddenly come to understand that some of his listeners are racists and xenophobes.

Today the smoke finally cleared, when Sykes abruptly announced he is leaving his radio and weekly television show at the end of the year. What is Charlie’s next career move? While some might speculate that he has been angling for a national cable gig with his frequent paid appearances on MSNBC, the hot rumor in Republican political circles I am told is that he is planning to challenge U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin in 2018.



If Sykes is planning to run for U.S. Senate, his frantic efforts to cut himself off from his record as a divisive right-wing radio host make perfect sense. Running for statewide office means addressing a much bigger and more diverse audience where an alternative reality on basic economic and environmental facts, racial and religious hatred, and vicious partisanship don’t play nearly as well as they do among angry suburban AM radio listeners.

Before we let Charlie redefine himself as a “principled conservative” who regrets everything he has done to drive rating points and promote his brand, let’s briefly examine the chasm between what he is saying now and how he has operated on the air for three decades.

First, the old Charlie was a purveyor of almost every counterfactual myth the far right has to offer. The new Charlie now claims that the stock and trade of right-wing radio, the degradation of mainstream media, created a non-fact-based alternative reality that was a fertile breeding ground for Donald Trump.

As Politico and many other media outlets have reported, Sykes now claims it is important to step outside the bubble of conservative media. But has Sykes really disavowed any of the major “big lies” of the far right? Not that I know of. I will believe him more when he admits that human-caused global warming is a real danger to survival and that the GOP justification for Photo ID is based on lies, just to name two of the counterfactual positions Sykes took daily on the public airwaves.


Second, the old Charlie was a shameless exploiter of code racist (dog whistle) politics to rev up his suburban audience against Milwaukee. The new Charlie claims to be surprised that his audience harbors racist attitudes.  He toldPolitico“When suddenly, this rock is turned over, there is this—‘Oh shit, did I not see that?’ . . . . There’s got to be some serious introspection, because of the things that we either didn’t see, or that we ignored, or that we enabled.” The New Republic, Bruce Murphy in Urban Milwaukee, and Charles Pierce in Esquire have reprised examples of Sykes’s overt exploitation of racist stereotypes.

Charlie Sykes is too shrewd not to have known that he was exploiting racism to gain rating points and win elections for right-wing candidates. I remember during one of the elections where right-wing Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was challenged, that Sykes ginned up a conspiracy out of whole cloth about how Milwaukee would become a national magnet for criminal “illegal aliens” if Clarke lost. This is exactly the kind of discourse Sykes claims to find distasteful in Donald Trump. It was a Get-Out-The-Vote tactic to build the emotional intensity of his Republican listeners in a Democratic primary. I remember tweeting that Sykes was engaged in dog whistle politics. Charlie retaliated by retweeting my tweet to his whole followership, assuring that I got a good taste of his listeners’ hatred and fear of Mexicans. It’s of course impossible to believe that Charlie did not know exactly what he was doing.

As Charlie Sykes fades from the Wisconsin radio scene, it is critically important to realize that this is not about one unprincipled charlatan of the public airwaves. The business model of right-wing radio is to tap into the ugliest emotions of their audience to build rating points, make ad money, and elect conservative candidates to office. Unless there is a major change in Wisconsin’s media climate, there will be another Charlie Sykes just as damaging to the public good and the creation of a just Wisconsin as the original. In addition, we can’t let Charlie Sykes run away from his right-wing radio past if he runs against Tammy in 2018.

That is why we need progressives to support Citizen Action’s Radio-Active campaign, which is in the middle of a 60-day membership drive to create a permanent right-wing radio accountability project. Citizen Action’s Milwaukee Organizing Co-op, which has over 250 member-owners, decided through a democratic process that an essential piece of building an equitable Wisconsin is breaking the right-wing radio monopoly.

If we can recruit 250 new member-owners by November 13, we will launch a permanent campaign to hold right-wing radio accountable and force media owners to provide a balance of views on our public airwaves. If you, like me, are appalled by what Charlie Sykes and the other right-wing demagogues who dominate the public airwaves have done to Wisconsin, we need you to join us.

To build an equitable Wisconsin, we must join together break the right-wing radio monopoly. Pledge to join our Organizing Cooperative today.



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  • commented 2016-10-05 19:34:39 -0500
    Be careful what we wish for. A contrite Charlie Sykes is as dangerous as a quiet Scott Walker.