The 20-year overnight conspiracy

Media Matters has discovered a conspiracy in Milwaukee media!

Wisconsin-based radio host Charlie Sykes may want to be the next Glenn Beck.

But a new marketing project aimed at spreading his hard conservative talk brand beyond home station WTMJ of Milwaukee to web, video, social media and perhaps other media outlets owned by parent company Journal Communications is drawing concern in the state’s media community. Sykes’ burgeoning network of platforms resembles nothing other than a smaller-scale version of the former Fox News host’s sprawling web-based empire.

The story quotes from two Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters, one of whom, interestingly, has been a Sykes guest:

“That is a fair comparison,” says Don Walker, a 34-year veteran of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is also owned by Journal Communications. “Glenn took this huge, I think risk, getting off Fox, or he was pushed, and he left Fox to form this very, very different venture. I think there is some comparison to that Charlie is making a move in a direction that he senses that he can make a move nationally, that he can make a move in a national direction.” …

“I know that it frustrates some people,” Craig Gilbert, who works out of the Journal Sentinel Washington, D.C., bureau said about his newspaper’s staffers. Gilbert called Sykes “a guy who takes sides in all these political battles” and said the radio host’s show “certainly has an impact on the Republican party, all of the conservative talk, on Republican primaries. It’s a venue where if you are a Republican politician, you can speak to your base in a sympathetic environment.”

Walker agreed.

“I think there’s probably people out there who feel we’re this large cabal and that we’re force-feeding our particular views on all our products,” he said about Sykes’ impact, later adding, “he does this show, I think it is highly, highly partisan, there is no mistaking where he is coming from. I think a lot of people, including journalists, feel that most of the time he is there just to repeat Republican Party talking points.”

I am twice qualified to comment on this. (Not on Beck, since I don’t watch.) I am a former employee of Journal Communications, specifically the Journal Community Publishing Group subsidiary that published the late great Marketplace Magazine until March 2011. Journal Broadcast Group owns the radio and TV stations, including WTMJ radio and TV in Milwaukee. Journal Sentinel prints the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I was also a guest on WTMJ-TV’s “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” for a couple years, and I have pictures to prove it:

I assume I’m not on the guest rotation anymore since I haven’t been on in more than a year and I’m now farther to the west. (That happens in media circles.) Which is fine. I greatly enjoyed being on his show, and I remain amazed how many people watched me on Sykes’ show.

Media Matters’ “discovery” of Sykes is hilarious. He has been on WTMJ since 1992. Before and since that, he’s written books, including A Nation of Victims, Dumbing Down Our KidsProfScam,The Hollow MenThe End of Privacy50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School, and A Nation of Moochers.

But it may be Sykes’ newest effort, the ambitious Conservative Politics Digital Project, which will extend his reach even further. The project, using the website, seeks to take his outspoken conservative approach and expand it to many platforms, including podcasts, web columns, videos, and on-location events.

Given his recent high-profile connections to some of the country’s conservative leaders — and the backing of a communications company that owns 48 television and radio stations in 12 states — observers say Sykes has the platform to push his far-right views nationally.

“He is a smart, ambitious guy and I would not be surprised to see him go beyond WTMJ,” said Jim Romenesko, who runs an influential media news website and worked with Sykes at Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s. Asked if Sykes could reach that national level, Romenesko added, “I think so, he’s smart, he’s very quick and I think he has what it takes to really capture the audience’s attention. He knows how to play that talk radio game.”

I would argue that Sykes has already reached “that national level,” at least in conservative circles, for obvious reasons that far predate whatever Right Wisconsin will become. In the last two years, with Recallarama getting national attention, for Wisconsin conservative talk radio to get notice is about as surprising as the sun setting in the west. Sykes has drawn listeners and advertisers for 20 years, which (combined with the inability of liberal talk radio to do the same) just drives liberals nuts. (Liberals are of course free to not listen or not patronize Sykes’ advertisers, but that seems insufficient to them somehow.)

I’ve written before about what’s known in state political circles about the Sykes Effect, Sykes’ influence on state legislators within earshot. Sykes’ show is available online, but can’t really be heard on the radio west of Madison or north of the Fox Cities. Sykes may reflect Republican views, but Republicans don’t always reflect Sykes’ views. If Journal Communications were really serious about expanding Sykes’ presence, they’d be looking to syndicate him at least statewide. That hasn’t happened. (And that arguably would detract from his show since listeners outside Milwaukee are not necessarily interested in Milwaukee issues.) If Journal Communications were serious about expanding Sykes’ “cross-platform” presence, he’d be writing a Journal Sentinel column.

To say Sykes is a doctrinaire right-winger isn’t accurate; those who claim he is evidently don’t listen to his show. He touted Tom Barrett for Milwaukee mayor over then-mayor Marvin Pratt. A well-known Madison liberal talk show host has been a caller more than once to his show. Liberals get to be on the show because Sykes wants to debate them; evidently they don’t want to be on his show to have their views challenged live on the air.

The irony of Journal Sentinel reporters’ accusing Sykes of damaging their work is also hilarious. How many times does Sykes appear in the Journal Sentinel? Only in letters to the editor or opinion columns written by others. Sykes’ show is not shedding advertisers or listeners. The Journal Sentinel is another subject, given media reports about their layoffs and given the visual evidence of the size of their daily newspapers. Walker and Gilbert apparently ignore the repeated conservative complaints about the Journal Sentinel’s liberal bias. (And note that Media Mutters — a phrase stolen from James Taranto — Not all of those complaints are justified, but the Journal Sentinel put the column of Eugene Kane, no one’s idea of a conservative, on a news page, and has done that with other non-conservative columns as well. (Kane is no longer employed by the Journal Sentinel, but he’s still writing a column, which is now in the Sunday opinion section, where opinion columns belong.)

Consider as well the Journal Sentinel’s editorial bent, as demonstrated in its recent unsigned editorials:

Look back over the past several issues and find a remotely conservative opinion that reflects the view of the Journal Sentinel as an institution of influence. (The JS apparently liked the choice of Paul Ryan for vice president, which is a more parochial opinion than political view.) The Journal Sentinel has for years stated one set of guiding principles and the written editorials contrary to those principles, which is the result of editorials by committee.

To say that Journal Communications is pushing a right-wing agenda is no more accurate than basing a company’s motivations on the public statements of its most visible employees. (Do you think Anderson Cooper or Piers Morgan represent the official corporate views of CNN?) The bottom line of Journal Communications, a publicly traded company, is its bottom line. Sykes makes money for Journal Communications, which is why the Journal Broadcast Group employs him, and why they’re apparently looking to expand the Sykes brand — so Journal makes more money. (Profit is a foreign concept to many liberals and much of the media, which is why I had to point that out.)

Sykes nicely blends sarcasm and self-promotion on his own blog:

But considering the source, the article is actually rather mild even with the usual liberal/media talking points about talking points, etc.  I am accused of being a “pot-stirrer” who takes sides. Um, yes. Guilty.

Of course, the comparison to Glenn Beck is both flattering and silly; but I encourage this sort of rampant speculation wherever possible. (BTW: A Nation of Moochers is my seventh, not sixth book. But I quibble.)

I must confess that I took special delight in this comment:
 “(Sykes) is like a flea that spreads the bubonic plague”
My work here won’t be done until I infect the whole nation. (And drive every liberal nuts, which increasingly seems like a doable goal.)

The last line sums up everything. Sykes is attacked because he’s effective, and many liberals who tout their views publicly hate to have their worldview questioned. Sykes touted Scott Walker over Mark Neumann as the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee. Note who won. Sykes touted Ron Johnson over phony maverick U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. Note who won.

The answer to speech you find objectionable is always the same — either reply with speech of your own, or don’t read or don’t listen.


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