Thursday, September 13, 2007

Live Blogging: Charlie Sykes at the Marquette Law School

Mike Gousha does the introduction, mentioning that Sykes has written six books.

Gousha mentions that Sykes also has a talk radio show, and writes a newspaper column. Sykes replies that it all fits together -- when you start thinking about things, you can talk about it, and write about it too. Particularly, talking about it requires conciseness.

Gousha is questioning Sykes about the book. Sykes notes that some of his “rules” have been around for years, first published in a Sykes column, and passed around the Internet (often attributed to Bill Gates.)

(One of his rules is “be good to nerds, since you may end up working for one.” Sykes says that since Gates is the most famous nerd in the world, it seems natural to attribute them to him.)

Sykes discusses the concept of “bubble wrapping.” Eventually, people have to face the real world, and they are not prepared for it.

Gousha mentions Michael Barone’s concept of a “soft America” and a “hard America.” Sykes embraces the concept.

Gousha: how do you perceive your role as a talk radio host, mentioning several things.

Sykes: “all of the above.” Sykes admits to wanting to be entertaining. “What is the alternative” he asks, “being boring?”

Gousha: Now much “clout” do you think you carry? Gousha quotes Bill Kraus. Kraus says Sykes not only defines Republicans but “runs the admissions department.”

Sykes says that Krauss overlooks the fact that people actually listen to him, and agree with him.
Sykes says he’s a conservative, not a Republican. “We have an allegiance to certain ideas.” But some Republicans think Sykes should be “on the team.” Sykes says he holds Republicans to their expressed ideas.


Sykes says there is increased polarization in American society. There are few conservative Democrats.

Gousha asks Sykes if talk radio is part of the reason for polarization.

Sykes points out that there are many more voices now than before.

Gousha asks about Michael Savage, who calls members of the Supreme Court “vermin.” Sykes sees Savage as out of bounds.

The Mainstream Media

Gousha, playing the devil’s advocate, asks whether Sykes, when he was on the staff of Milwaukee Journal, was pressured to bias stories.

Sykes replies that reporters are not conscious of bias. They swim in a liberal sea, and don’t see their own bias.

Leftist View of Media

Gousha repeats the leftist claim that the media are run by rich capitalists, and thus have a conservative bias. Sykes replies that the culture in the newsroom is what drives bias.

The people who see the media as conservative, says Sykes, are Ed Garvey leftists, and people like Kevin Barrett (9/11 conspiracy theorist).

Sykes then wonders why the media don’t reflect the attitudes of the audience. In southeast Wisconsin, it’s about equally “red” and “blue.” Talk radio only succeeded because there was an “opening” because of the lack of conservative views.

Is Sykes “Burned Out” Talking About Politics?

Gousha says that he detects that Sykes, on the radio, sometimes just doesn’t want to talk about politics. Sykes admits this is true. Says that sometimes he would rather talk about his root canal than about politics.

How Did Sykes Become a Conservative?

Sykes dad was a liberal, and campaigned for 1968 anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. But the anti-war movement turned anti-American. Sykes ran into politically correct intolerance, and noticed that the Civil Rights movement, which had opposed racial discrimination, started to favor it.

Sykes also, as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, noticed that the liberal social programs that were supposed to solve social problems didn’t work.

Sykes and Education

Gousha mentions Sykes’ books on academia: The Hollow Men and Profscam. These were based on an article written by his father, which was a sort of confession about academia, and the nonsense that sometimes passes for research.

Where education is concerned, these things run in cycles, Sykes says. Sputnick, for example, caused people to put stress on math and science.


Sykes mentions “barbelling,” the fact that there are many very bright and capable students, but at the other end are students who are struggling and failing.


Liberal asks: how do we improve the schools if we are not willing to spend on them? Sykes notes that we have pumped millions into the Milwaukee schools, and gotten nothing.

Sykes also notes we have great schools in Milwaukee, both public and private. But he asks, what are the barriers to spreading this success? Giving the teacher’s union more money so they can pad their benefits doesn’t help.

Another question: What about the parents? Sykes says that the problem is “huge.” Talks about how parents pamper their kids. When Sykes was a kid, if the teacher called home, he knew he was in trouble. Now, teachers can’t count on parents to support the school.

Madison student asks taking sugar out of school, including a ban on bringing cakes in to a party or event.

Sykes says it is related the the “bubble wrapping” concept. Points out that some North Carolina schools are raising money to put a canopy over the playground so that kids don’t have to play in the sun. What did people do when Charlie was a kid and they didn’t want to be in the sun? They went and stood in the shade of a tree.

Fairness Doctrine

Sykes is asked about it, and says he has an article coming out in The Wisconsin Interest on the subject. Democrats want to bring it back, but even if they could succeed, it would not really silence diverse voices.

How did it used to work: the FCC were the speech police, and the effect was that broadcasting became “brain dead.”

But the law has evolved over the years. Sykes thinks the courts would not now accept a new Fairness Doctrine.

Sykes fully expects Democrats to continue pushing it, and it would be “one of the most naked plays by people in political office to harass and suppress free expression.”

Gousha asks, why not more liberal talk radio?

Sykes says that, in the market place, this would be like a station alternating country and rap music. It just doesn’t work in the market place.

Sykes says that talk radio succeeded because of the overwhelmingly liberal bias in the media. There was a “huge market that was hungry” to hear conservative idea expressed. Likewise, Air America failed because there really is no shortage of liberal/left ideas.

Different Varieties of Conservative

A questioner asks Sykes where there are not tensions within conservative thought, particularly about the issue of community. Is it all complete individualism for conservatives?

Sykes cheerfully acknowledges that there are different flavors of conservative, from the Ayn Rand “care only about yourself” kind to the much more community-oriented faith community.

Call Screening

Question (and accusation): do conservative talk shows have call screeners who filter out liberal views. To the contrary, says Sykes. Liberals get preference. Disagreeing callers are “gold.”

An audience member says that Sykes TV show is best when it has opposing views. Sykes responds that the TV show is inherently balanced.

Sykes also says that the ratings pressure is much less on Sunday morning.

How Do You Avoid Burnout?

Sympathetic questioner asks how Sykes avoids burnout.

Sykes has said he will be on the air through the 2008 election, but he makes it clear he has not committed to retiring in 2008.

More on Bubble Wrapping

In response to a question, Sykes says it’s the Baby Boomer parents. “We are the first generation to obsess on whether our kids think we are cool or not.” He says his dad would never have cared about that.

A questioner suggests that bubble wrapping is good. Invokes the need to protect children. Sykes: “it would be kind of nice if we could delay the loss of innocence.”

But he goes on: in the U.K. a lot of kids were being killed as pedestrians. The reason: kids had had no experience in actually walking across the street by themselves.

Sykes just carried his kid to college, and noticed parents doing things like negotiating with RAs.

Final Question

How about the “standing up for what’s right” slogan. Goes back to the Ament pension scandal. Belling had the slogan “standing up for Milwaukee.” Sykes viewed Belling as “soft” on the issue, and adopted the slogan to express that he was standing up for the right thing. But of course it also means “standing up for the political right,” which Sykes also happily embraces.


Much of the talk was vintage Sykes, with Charlie saying again things he was said dozens of times before. But we had not heard Sykes admit that he is close to “burnout” where discussing politics is concerned. He deals with it, he says, by taking long weekends.

His account of his conversion from conservatism to liberalism was also interesting. Sykes came across as congenial, self-effacing and not at all defensive on any issue. It was, if not intellectually groundbreaking, a very pleasant way to spend the lunch hour.

Kudos to the Law School and Mike Gousha for scheduling it as part of a genuinely diverse and interesting series.


With amazing rapidity, the Law School has the audio of the entire talk online.

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