No, Charlie Sykes, There’s No Merit in Spotlighting Crackpots

As if Bret Stephens wasn’t bad enough, now the New York Times turns over valuable op-ed space to longtime Wisconsin right-wing radio host and frequent MSNBC guest Charlie Sykes–you know, the guy who hates Donald Trump but thought Scott Walker was just swell. Sykes tries to defend the sleazy decision by Megyn Kelly and NBC to provide a forum to a right-wing conspiracy theorist tonight, but doesn’t make a convincing case:

Indeed, when [the subject of Kelly’s interview] was merely a marginal figure on the paranoid right, the case could plausibly be made that he was better left in obscurity. But now that, at least according to [the subject of Kelly’s interview], the president of the United States has praised him and thanked him for the role he played in his election victory, it’s too late to make that argument. We can’t keep ignoring the fringe. We have to expose it.

We would naturally prefer not to reckon with the worst of what people do or say on the margins, but we have to. Especially if it seems possible to trace a line from vicious rhetoric on a computer screen to violent action. We can’t know exactly what drove a man to open fire last week at a field where Republican members of Congress were prepping for a charity baseball game, but in the aftermath of that shocking event, we can trace the shooter’s online presence to the fringe world on the left he inhabited where he railed that “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”

While [the subject of Kelly’s interview] has no exact analogue on the left, we have to watch him, and also watch out to make sure that something similar is not emerging on the left.

It’s hard to imagine what would be the left-wing equivalent of the individual Megyn Kelly has interviewed. It’s also hard to imagine why giving a media spotlight to every extremist with a following is necessary to “expose” such extremists. Did Sykes ever stop to think that the fanbase of the person Kelly has interviewed might increase as a result of his appearance tonight, that he might become even more influential because Kelly thinks he’s so fascinating?

Sykes continues:

It has almost become a cliché that we are a polarized country, but the reality runs deeper. We now have a politics deeply infused with paranoia and distrust not only of our institutions but also of one another. We do not simply disagree; we are at war. We do not merely differ with our opponents on matters of principle or policy; political paranoids believe that we are fighting in a twilight struggle for civilization. [the subject of Kelly’s interview], of course, didn’t create that culture, which has lain dormant on the political fringes of both the left and the right for years, but he has given it greater power.

Sykes is being disingenuous here. The force that did so much to divide our country, even before Fox News, was right-wing talk radio–the very industry that gave Sykes his prominence. The 1987 elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and the subsequent rise of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators (Sykes included) created a political culture “deeply infused with paranoia and distrust not only of our institutions but also of one another.” Sykes and his right-wing buddies paved the highway Kelly’s guest is speeding on.

Then, Sykes gets downright hilarious:

The dirty secret of many conservatives is that they never admit to actually reading Mr. Jones’s ranting, but they also never publicly denounce him.

For years, we imagined that we could simply ignore the crackpots because they were postcards from the fringe. But I’m haunted by this question: Had we done more to expose the viciously dishonest hoaxes, might things have turned out differently?

That same question might be asked of Sykes himself, who used his radio platform in Wisconsin to elevate Walker and move the Badger State to the hardcore right:

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”)…

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 [Sykes and his fellow right-wing radio host Mark Belling] 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.

In the past dozen years, two moderate state senators in metro Milwaukee have lost their jobs in Republican primaries after falling out of favor with [Sykes and Belling], while a third has moved sharply right to avoid their wrath. “The listenership is just so much higher here,” says Scott Jensen, the former Republican speaker of the state Assembly. “And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.” Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican state senator in southwestern Wisconsin who is retiring this year, is blunter. “Talk radio gets going and some of my colleagues end up wetting themselves,” he says. “It’s appalling.”

The subtext of Sykes’s op-ed is that by “exposing” the conspiracy theorist Kelly has interviewed, we’ll be able to return to the good old days of “reasonable” debates in American politics–the same “reasonable” debates that produced the likes of Scott Walker, thanks to Sykes. If you asked Sykes if there was a difference between what the Infowars dude does today and what he did for decades on Wisconsin talk radio, he’d swear up and down that there was a world of difference. However, he wouldn’t be honest.

Sykes concludes:

Since the election, President Trump has shown a persistent penchant for conspiracy-minded suggestions about his political opponents and elements of his own government. He suggested his predecessor plotted to wiretap him and has hinted at plots hidden within the “deep state.”

Where could he possibly have gotten such an idea?

From your industry, pal. All of it–and by running this interview, Kelly and NBC threaten to make this insidious industry even more powerful, dividing our country even more.

That’s serving the public interest?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.