By Robert Kraig, Executive Director
When we posted a blog last week, Suddenly the Smoke Clears Around Charlie Sykes, we did not expect it to spark a hail of childish (dare I say Trump-like) insults from the king of Wisconsin right-wing radio. I posted the blog on the day that Sykes made his surprise announcement that he is leaving his perch at Wisconsin’s top rated AM station after nearly a quarter-century. The blog was intended primarily for the many Citizen Action Organizing Co-Op members who are building our Radio-Active campaign to break the right-wing radio monopoly.
Although the blog was only on the Citizen Action of Wisconsin website, Sykes responded on his radio show, his media platform Right Wisconsin, and to reporter Mark Sommerhauser of the Wisconsin State Journal with the kind of personal invectives we have come to expect from Donald Trump himself.
The blog focused on Sykes’s public pose as a “principled” conservative that was shocked by Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP. This bolt from the blue purportedly prompted his well publicized soul-searching about right-wing radio’s role in creating a fact-averse conservative public receptive to racial and religious bigotry. We proposed that Sykes may be distancing himself from his long record of creating a reactionary “alternative reality” to land a national cable gig or to remake himself into a U.S. Senate candidate.
Sykes’s response to our little blog was swift. On his radio show, during a highly selective reading of my blog on the air (trying of course to avoid the most damning parts), Sykes nominated me for his “Left-wing fever-swamp hall of fame.” As I am a previous winner of Charlie’s “Deep Tunnel Award,” my trophy case is really filling up. Sykes similarly told Mark Sommerhauser of the Wisconsin State Journal that my blog was "ludicrous conspiracy mongering from the depths of the left-wing fever swamps." Not only am I apparently marooned in a “fever swamp,” but my imagination is also a “burning dumpster fire” according to Sykes.
Not satisfied with his “fever swamp” and “burning dumpster” images (which could be very fittingly applied to the daily rantings of right-wing radio), Sykes dredges up two dated movie references. He entitles his response on Right Wisconsin “So You’re Saying There’s a Chance,” complete with a picture of the Jim Carrey character from Dumb and Dumberuttering the one memorable line from the mediocre screwball comedy. He also compares me to the deeply paranoid character Captain Queeg from the Humphrey Bogart film The Caine Mutiny. Although this is a much better caliber of film, likening me to both the Jim Carrey and Humphrey Bogart characters generates a badly mangled metaphor.
Leaving mixed metaphors aside, the more important question is why is Sykes focusing his hack literary talent on our little blog? He claims that I am crazy and dumb for suggesting he would ever consider challenging U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin in 2018. I am by no means alone in hearing these rumors. Political reporter Mark Sommerhauser wrote: “Kraig is not the only person to share that suggestion with Wisconsin political reporters in recent weeks.”
What deserves explanation is why this suggestion of possible political ambitions set Sykes off. If someone said something way off base about me, like I was planning to run against Scott Walker or something along those lines, I would laugh it off, not fire off every invective I could muster. The original blog was really about Sykes's highly public retreat from three decades of hate radio, and his claim to be troubled by his possible role in creating an unreasoning and racially motivated public opinion on the far-right.
None of this means Sykes harbors political ambitions. All we really know is that for some reason he has decided to use the Donald Trump fiasco to distance himself from his hate radio past. Who know if Sykes is doing this to set up a run for office, a national cable gig, a more national audience for his next book, or just to burnish his own legacy as he rides into the sunset.
So why is Charlie so mad at us? More than likely, his salvos are merely to provide cover for his chameleon-like public evolution. It was our questioning of his motives, not the U.S. Senate rumor, which set Charlie off.
Not that Sykes’s latest pose is entirely new. Sykes has always been a strange amalgam of Sean Hannity and George Will, or one could say Hannity with an intellectual gloss. Sykes is often viciously partisan and divisive, but also has pretensions to being a conservative intellectual with something to contribute to the world of ideas.
It looks like Sykes has decided that the “man of ideas” version of himself will sell best in the aftermath of the Trump crashup. But the old Sean Hannity version of himself has hardly gone away. Stay tuned, as we will soon post a blog on how Sykes is still using dog whistle racial appeals to divide Milwaukee from its suburbs.
Whatever happens in the next stage of Sykes’s career, we must remember that the business model of right-wing radio is to tap into the ugliest emotions of their audience to build rating points, regardless of the social and political consequences. Unless there is a major change in Wisconsin’s media climate, there will be another Charlie Sykes just as damaging as the original.
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. If you agree, pledge your support for our Radio-Active campaign by joining our grassroots Organizing Cooperative today.