There is no better indicator of what the GOP machine is thinking than by checking the tone of certain AM radio shows in the state. And no one show toes the party line more than that of Charlie Sykes on 620 in Milwaukee, the show that Walker announced his endorsement of Cruz on this morning. Notice that it was Sykes who surprised Donald Trump with a withering phone interview yesterday, followed by a similar Trump hammerings on shows from (V)icki McKenna and Jerry Bader later on Monday.
What was sickening to me was how many national media outlets (especially “liberal” MSNBC) tried to portray Sykes’s grilling of Trump as some sort of great act of independent journalism, and a model that should be copied nationwide. For those new fans of Sykes, I have a tip for you - Charlie wasn’t doing it to try to “raise the GOP’s game” beyond the hate and simple-mindedness of Donald Trump. He was doing it because he was under orders to promote from the Wisconsin GOP to promote Ted Cruz.
What made Sykes’s act with Trump funny and disgusting at the same time is because Charlie Sykes and other Wisconsin talk radio hosts have used Trump-like racism and dog whistles to attract listeners to the GOP for decades. Let’s flash back to 2014, and Alec MacGillis’s excellent critique of the first loser in the GOP presidential primary- “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker.”
In 1989, as the crack-fueled crime wave was nearing its peak in Milwaukee, [AM radio host Mark] Belling began hosting a talk show on WISN, an A.M. station. Often, a man named Charlie Sykes would appear as a panelist or substitute host. Sykes, too, had started out on the left. His parents were World Federalists, a movement that called for global government and universal disarmament; his father, an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Sentinel, had managed Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign in Wisconsin. Sykes had adopted his father’s politics; he even ran (unsuccessfully) for the state legislature as a Democrat. He told me that he had grown disillusioned with liberalism while covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal in the late ’70s. “I was a reporter covering urban programs that were well- intentioned but utterly dysfunctional,” he says. “I thought: This thing doesn’t work as planned.”Yes, this is the type of “civilized” act that Sykes lectured Trump about when Charlie described the way the GOP operates in Wisconsin. So why did Chuckles not like it when the (also thrice-married) Donald got support by saying similar racialized garbage, and instead chose to go with the fundamentalist Ted Cruz, who would pull McCarthyist persectuions on Planned Parenthood, and wants random, SS-style patrols of Muslim neighborhoods?
Within a few years, Sykes had gotten his own show, on WTMJ, and for the next 20 years, he and Belling would share the airwaves: Sykes in the late morning, Belling in the late afternoon. Their styles are very different. Sykes is a thrice-married man-about-town with a smooth on-air manner and modish eyeglasses who has built himself into a multimedia brand, with a Sunday TV show on the NBC affiliate, books subsidized by conservative funders (his latest: A Nation of Moochers), and a subscription-based website, “Right Wisconsin” (which sometimes refers to Michelle Obama as “Mooch”). Belling is introverted and brooding—he zips in and out from the station’s suburban studio in his Jaguar, interacting with co-workers no more than necessary. His demeanor on air is more intense, with long foreboding pauses between his acid declamations. In one 2012 riff, he called a young black Milwaukee man who had died in police custody a “piece of garbage” and attacked “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib and roll over the top of them while sleeping on a futon on the floor.” Christopher Terry, who worked with Belling at WISN and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that Belling is more of a “true believer,” whereas “if Sykes thought there was money on the other side of the street, he would sell out in a second.”
Over time, the two shows became known by a single name: “SykesBelling.” In the halls of the statehouse, Milwaukee City Hall, and area county governments, elected officials, particularly insufficiently conservative Republicans, lived in dread of denunciations by the hosts and the tsunami of angry calls from listeners that would follow. Sykes is credited with, among other accomplishments, having blocked public funding for needle-exchange programs and having helped drive into bankruptcy an urban mall after harping on security issues there. In April 2013, he played a clip of “It’s Free (Swipe Yo EBT),” a viral video produced by a right-wing activist in which an African American woman raps about liquor stores where one can allegedly use a food-stamp card. Returning to the same theme later in the year, Sykes declared, “The number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits— welfare—now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers.” No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics. The only counterweights on the left are Wisconsin Public Radio, with its implicit but restrained liberalism, a lefty F.M. talk show in Madison with limited reach, and two African American talk-radio stations in Milwaukee, one of which recently went out of business.
The reality is that Walker, Sykes, and the puppetmasters at the Wisconsin GOP all work together on these things - the only question is “Who orders who?”. This is why Sykes’ legit, adversarial questions to Trump are noteworthy, because he asked The Donald more tough questions in 15 minutes than he has of Walker in the last 15 years. That’s no accident, as the Forward Institute’s Scott Wittkopf pointed out this coordination between WisGOPper-gandist radio hosts and Walker four years ago, revealed in documents released as part of an open records request.
Two sets of email chains specifically name Charlie Sykes, Vicky McKenna, and Jerry Bader in statewide broadcast radio; and former TMJ4 television Executive Producer Julie Pearl. The reach of these media outlets through syndication is virtually statewide; and is a flagrant use of on-air broadcast as a full-time campaign mechanism for the Walker Administration – outside of the campaign.This is what makes it so unsurprising that Walker flopped so badly on the national stage- he couldn’t do scripted interviews with talk show hosts, the media companies weren’t reliant on his advertising dollars (like JournalComm and other Wisconsin broadcast stations were), and Scotty wasn’t solely dealing with media members that relied on his access for their careers. Once he stepped out of the Wisconsin cocoon, his lack of substance and failed policies got him eaten up by the big boys.
The first set of emails is from [then-] Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie to Governor’s staff, and Walker himself; though the email is redacted along with one other email address. The email is dated June 7, 2011:Important to note the contact is initiated by Cullen Werwie to Charlie Sykes on Monday, June 5; soliciting an appearance for Walker on June 9 to explain how his reforms are already “producing positive results.” Sykes confirms, and Werwie replies on June 7, sending an attachment titled “6.9.11 Bader Sykes McKenna briefing”
The “Meeting Briefing” for the radio hosts is an outline of talking points, strategically planned for not only Walker’s interviews; but for the hosts themselves.
The audio archive of Sykes’ show from June 9, 2011 shows that all major points from the above briefing were discussed – many with Walker himself. The CEO ranking and “job creators” message, supposed savings for local schools, and the Middleton/Cross Plains teacher arbitration issue were all discussed in the Walker interview. Sykes touches on the other primary points during the balance of his show.
The Jerry Bader show from June 10, 2011 was staged as a “call-in” show for Walker’s segment. The points covered during this segment encompass most of the memo. Walker’s fiscal reforms already working, increased pension and health premium contributions by teachers saving districts money, local government savings, and the favorable CEO rankings/”job creators” message were all discussed during this call.
Also remember that Sykes hosted a GOPper-ganda event last week in Waukesha with Cruz and (equally crooked fundamentalist) Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley as his “special guests”. This gives me little doubt that someone gave Chuckles and the rest of WisGOP’s spokespeople an order to promote Cruz and denigrate Trump (and to a lesser extent, Kasich). If the WisGOP establishment wishes to do that, it’s their prerogative, but to pretend that the recent pro-Cruz, anti-Trump act of Sykes and McKenna and other right-wing talk show hosts is any kind of independent uprising of thought is foolish. These people know their roles, and know how to recite their lines convincingly, and anyone thinking they are making an independent analysis IS A SUCKER.
Let’s see if the national media does a bit of digging into this, as the coordination between media and the Wisconsin GOP is a real story, and may explain why the state of play may be quite different than other states. The Bubble-World created by GOPper-ganda radio and the rubes who buy into it help explain why Wisconsin politics are in the mess that they are today, and why a progressive state that used to be a paragon of clean governance has been allowed to degenerate into a corrupt cesspool that is economically underperforming.