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Charlie Sykes 2.0

Oct. 18, 2016
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One of the reasons I occasionally shock people by referring to right-wing talk show host Charlie Sykes as my friend is that he was a friend to me at a low point in my life.

Getting fired is depressing, especially from a great job you’re known for doing very well. When The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel merged in 1995, my employer of 27 years publicly fired me, along with many other top journalists.

Because I was a high-profile liberal columnist, the ulterior motive in my case, besides economics, was to send a message the new paper would no longer be the liberal Milwaukee Journal. The newspaper was intentionally moving to the right.

One of the first to call was Charlie Sykes. We’d worked together at the Journal before he left to become editor of an underachieving Milwaukee Magazine, which he built into a first-rate magazine doing quality journalism.

Then he received the same jolt I had. Charlie was abruptly fired for his journalistic integrity. He wanted to publish a story critical of the Medical College of Wisconsin despite his publisher’s social and business connections to the institution.

When he called, Charlie was on his third media identity early in his talk radio career. He got the station to hire me to do a weekly left-right, point-counterpoint segment with him on his show and occasionally fill in elsewhere.

Our on-air dueling was always friendly and entertaining. We both enjoyed it until Journal corporate pulled the plug.

Talking off the air, I was aware Charlie still retained a healthy journalist’s skepticism about his strange new world. Charlie said he would sometimes share stages with ideological extremists who really were a little bit crazy.

We also recorded a televised left-right segment together for the original prototype of the long-running Milwaukee Public Television show “InterChange.” Charlie dropped out before the debut because he considered another conservative on that prototype show embarrassingly dim-witted. It turned out neither of them appeared on the show.

My wife, Kit, also was a friend of Charlie’s. She was executive director of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit running an alternative-to-incarceration program providing education and drug treatment for women arrested primarily on drug or prostitution charges.

Charlie emceed her agency’s annual awards luncheon recognizing women recovering from addictions to complete degrees, gain employment and reclaim their lives. Those women were more accustomed to being denigrated by right-wing radio hosts than being honored by them.

But, but, but . . .

 

From Outsider to Insider

I can’t express appreciation for positive qualities some may not realize Charlie ever had without also saying how disturbing it was to watch him shed his rational outsider’s perspective to become a tool for an increasingly vicious and extreme Republican Party.

After whipping up well-deserved public anger over a county pension scandal to drive County Executive Tom Ament from office, Charlie himself became a political force behind the election of Scott Walker as county executive and ultimately governor.

The supreme irony, of course, was that Walker raised the level of corruption in both county and state government, leading to years of criminal investigations, convictions and dishonest political manipulations to block prosecutions.

Donald Trump didn’t invent racist appeals to Republicans either. Charlie played an ugly, racist rap song popularized on white supremacist websites featuring a young black woman bragging that poverty was a constant party for black women living high on an imaginary flood of big bucks from taxpayers for having sex and pushing out babies.

Charlie also provided the original platform for Milwaukee County’s African American Sheriff David Clarke to develop a national following among white extremists for attacking other black politicians and Black Lives Matter. Clarke is now calling for mobs to take up “pitchforks and torches” to defend Trump’s crumbling candidacy.

More irony there. Thanks to Trump’s openly toxic bigotry—and probably because he considered Trump another embarrassing dimwit—Charlie got national attention as an early Never Trump Republican. Now Charlie has surprised many people by announcing he’ll end his radio talk show in December.

I don’t know any more about the reasons than anyone else. I tried a number that used to reach Charlie directly and got a recording that it wasn’t accepting calls “at this time.” I wouldn’t really expect him to say anything specific about what comes next until announcing it publicly.

There were previous rumors Charlie made a serious bid for the opening to head the vast, right-wing Bradley Foundation that went to former state Republican Party Chairman Rick Graber.

The departure coincides with Charlie’s upcoming book tentatively titled How the Right Lost Its Mind. It could herald yet another media career for Charlie as a tell-all insider critic of the political destruction of the extreme right.

Since I’ve ripped hypocritical Republicans who continue to endorse an ignorant, hateful bigot they know is unfit for office, I’m hoping Charlie’s new identity is his return as a decent, respectable human being. 

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