What's wrong with right-wing radio

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Posted by madcityradio.com on December 01, 2008 at 10:17:09:

Dave Zweifel's Plain Talk: What's wrong with right-wing radio

Milwaukee's right-wing talk radio clique, personified by WTMJ/AM's Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner, is still smarting over the tell-all piece that the radio station's former news director authored for the most recent issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Dan Shelley took the magazine's readers behind the scenes of the Sykes and Wagner shows and revealed how they methodically appeal to the segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and victimized by the media.

"To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered," wrote Shelley, who directed the news department at the Journal Co.-owned station for 11 years. "The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners."

Shelley wrote that conservative radio hosts around the country, including Sykes and Wagner, were e-mailed daily talking points from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They would also check frequently with other talk show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh's Web site and the online sites of conservative bloggers, to make sure everyone was on the same page.

He added that there is no way to win a disagreement with Sykes, for example.

"Calls from listeners who disagree with him don't get on the air if the show's producer, who generally does the screening, fears they might make Charlie look bad. I witnessed several occasions when Sen. Russ Feingold, former Mayor John Norquist, Mayor Tom Barrett or others would call in, but wouldn't be allowed on the air."

Shelley continued:

"To amuse myself while listening to a talk show, I would ask myself what the host would say if the situation were reversed. What if alleged D.C. madam client Sen. David Vitter had been a Democrat? Would the reaction of talk show hosts have been so quiet you could hear crickets chirping? Hardly.

"Or what if former Rep. Mark Foley had been a Democrat? Would his pedophile-like tendencies have been excused as a 'prank' or mere 'overfriendly e-mails'? Not on the life of your teenage son.

"Suppose Al Gore was president and ordered an invasion of Iraq without an exit strategy. Suppose this had led to the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. troops and actually made that part of the world less stable. Would talk show hosts have dismissed criticism of that war as unpatriotic? No chance.

"Or imagine that John Kerry had been president during Hurricane Katrina and that his administration's rescue and rebuilding effort had been horribly botched. Would talk show hosts have branded him a great president? Of course not."

In fact, it was Katrina that turned out to be Shelley's last straw.

"Until then, 10 years into my time at TMJ, while I might have disagreed with some stands the hosts took, I did think there were grounds for their constant criticism of the media. I had convinced myself that the national media had an intrinsic bias that was, at the very least, geographical if not ideological, to which talk radio could provide an alternative.

"Then along came the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Journalists risked their lives to save others as the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Afterward, journalists endured the stench and the filth to chronicle the events for a stunned world. Then they documented the monumental government incompetence for an outraged nation. These journalists became voices for the voiceless victims, pressing government officials to get help to those who needed it.

"Yet, while New Orleans residents were screaming for help from the rooftops of their flooded homes, journalists were targeted by talk show hosts, Charlie and Wagner among them. Not the government, but journalists. Stories detailing the federal government's obvious slowness and inefficiency were part of an 'angry left' conspiracy, they said. Talk show hosts who used e-mailed talking points from the conservative spin machine proclaimed the Katrina stories were part of a liberal 'media template.' The irony would have been laughable if the story wasn't so serious," he said.

Naturally, Sykes attacked the Milwaukee Magazine piece as part of a liberal conspiracy, a point that the magazine's editor, Bruce Murphy, made in his editor's column.

For those of you who are intrigued by talk radio and what makes it tick, you can read Shelley's whole story at www.milwaukeemagazine.com.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

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