Remember the “Fairness Doctrine”? It was an FCC regulation that required broadcasters to showcase opposing views on controversial issues. If a television host featured a guest speaking against LGBT equality, for instance, a pro-equality guest would have been required to balance the conversation.
The FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and officially removed it from the books in 2011. The policy’s demise helped pave the way for Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber.
On talk radio especially, opinion has replaced facts and spin has become the standard style of reporting. The impact has been particularly profound in the Milwaukee radio market, says Christopher Terry, who worked in local radio for many years and now lectures about it in UWM’s Journalism, Media and Advertising Department.
Milwaukee talk radio differs from that of other cities in two key respects, Terry says. For one thing, Milwaukee is not only dominated by right-wing talk radio, but also lacks any countervailing progressive voice.
Milwaukee talk radio is also unique in that the city has its own homegrown right-wing talk stars. Elsewhere, canned, syndicated programs imported from outside the market dominate the airwaves. But Milwaukee has produced its own hateful luminaries, including Jeff Wagner, Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, who’s subbed for no less than Limbaugh himself. This year Wagner’s name appeared as No. 96 on Talkers Magazine’s 2013 “Heavy Hundred” list of the 100 most important radio talk show hosts in America (the heaviest, pardon the pun, was Limbaugh.)
Despite Wagner’s vaunted rating, it’s Belling (WISN) and Wagner’s mentor Sykes (WTMJ) whom racists in Washington County are most likely to quote to their families over their evening six packs. Sykes has the vein-popping, eardrum-shredding “angry white man” rant down so pat that he makes it look easy — as if any garden-variety bloviator off the street with enough teeth to form consonants could do it.
Syke’s special area of reporting is people of color receiving public assistance. Besides his radio program, Sykes hosts the TV talk show “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes,” offers the subscription website RightWisconsin and has written seven books, including “A Nation of Moochers.” The fundamental message he disseminates is that the reader, listener or watcher would be rich today if not for welfare queens in northwest Milwaukee taking all their hard-earned tax money and spending it on crack.
Although facts hold no sway in Sykes’ world, it’s worth noting that welfare is actually a right-wing bogeyman that makes only a slight real-world dent in the economy. About 12 percent of the federal budget goes to support the broad category of “income security,” which includes programs that recipients actually help to pay for themselves, such as general retirement and disability insurance, federal employee retirement and disability, and unemployment compensation.
Two-thirds of the people who receive food assistance are white, and 40 percent of them work at jobs that don’t pay enough to feed their families. And despite Sykes’ belief that entitlement programs represent everything that’s wrong with America, his first ex-wife was forced to go on welfare for a few months in 1980 when he fell behind on child support payments.
In the noble tradition of other conservative leaders, Sykes has divorced two wives to marry his mistresses, which perhaps explains why he tends to avoid bedroom politics. In 2006, he expressed skepticism over amending the state’s Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, saying, “Gays who wish to marry don’t want to tear down marriage. They want in on it.”
Sykes’ primary objective seems to be re-making Wisconsin into a sort of libertarian tax haven where rich white oligarchs control — and profit from — the state’s resources and its limited activities.
Belling, on the other hand, has a conservative social agenda that derives from his devout right-wing Roman Catholicism. UWM’s Terry, who worked as a producer at WISN for 15 years, says he got the impression that Belling is the more earnest conservative of the two.
While Sykes is generally neutral on LGBT issues, Belling is staunchly anti-gay and aggressively promotes Christian fundamentalism. In 2012, he played a major role in pressuring the Department of Natural Resources to yank a permit to perform a popular, innocuous farce loosely based on the Bible from appearing in Lapham Peak State Park in Delafeld.
“The Bible: Complete Word of God (Abridged)” is one of a set of “abridged” plays that in recent years have taken on classics in a spirit of good fun. But Belling failed to see the humor, condemning the G-rated work as an attack on Christianity.
Issues related to sexual morality are often on Belling’s list of topics. He defended Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she was scheduled to testify before Congress in favor of requiring insurance plans to cover birth control. Belling told listeners that legalizing gay marriage would “create a law that gives (gays) special treatment.”
The good news about Belling and Sykes, according to Terry, is that neither they nor others of their ilk actually influence anyone or change anyone’s mind. People don’t tune in to learn the news or to acquire new ideas, Terry says. Studies have shown that right-wing talk listeners merely enjoy hearing their beliefs reinforced, he explains.
“This is emotional programming at its core,” Terry says. “Facts are inconvenient. Emotional appeals are much more powerful.”
And since talk radio’s bigest audience is older white men, it’s essentially an echo chamber of old white men telling other old white men what they already believe.
Arbitron ratings complete the picture. The top-rated station in the Milwaukee market is a country format, while the second most popular station plays oldies. The right-wing talk of WISN and WTMJ round out the top four stations, all of which specialize in content that appeals to older white men.
Says Terry: “The problem isn’t Belling and Sykes, and the problem isn’t Fox News. The speech isn’t the problem. The characters involved in delivering that speech aren’t the problem. The problem in First Amendment terms is that people tend to consume only one kind of media. People get locked in or zoned into only one kind of outlet. They get locked into one stream of information.
“With all the ways we have to communicate in our society, people still gravitate toward speech that already reflects their views. They aren’t willing to do what the First Amendment (intends for them) to do, which is expose themselves to alternative ideas.”
Ties that bind
A problem of special concern to Wisconsin is the umbilical cord that exists between Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and Milwaukee’s right-wing talk radio stars. It’s not clear whether Sykes and Belling get their marching orders from the governor’s mansion or it’s the other way around. But what is crystal clear is that they’re working every bit as in tandem as the Chinese synchronized women’s swimming team — delivering the same message points with the same rhetoric at the same hour of the clock on a daily basis.
The dissemination of partisan message points from the halls of power to the public through independent broadcast media is the virtual equivalent of propaganda — or at least free political advertising. But no one has yet found a smoking gun demonstrating an illegal connection between the two that would be actionable.
Not yet, that is.