A longtime political commentator, Charlie Sykes has become a leading conservative voice, locally and nationally. Best known as the host of the “Midday with Charlie Sykes” talk show, broadcast on WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from 1993 to 2016, Sykes began his journalism career at The Milwaukee Journal and, in the mid-1980s, served at the helm of Milwaukee Magazine before he began working in radio. During the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency, Sykes co-hosted the “Indivisible” public radio show produced by WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio, and The Economist. He is currently a regular contributor to MSNBC. His latest book, “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” will be released in October 2017. Sykes recently spoke with fellows at the Nieman Foundation. Edited excerpts:
On Trump and the conservative movement today
This last year was just this really soul‑crushing, disillusioning slog for me, because I really did think I understood what the conservative movement was about. In Wisconsin, we had a very robust conservative movement, a lot of success, and I really thought that this was a movement based on concepts of freedom and individual liberty, small government, constitutionalism. When Trump came along, I kept expecting that the conservative movement would stand up and say, “This is exactly what we aren’t.”
For 20 years, I’d been on the air—and maybe it was, part of it, being a recovering liberal, I don’t know—basically saying, “Okay, you folks say that we are all of these things. You say we’re racist, we’re sexist, we’re xenophobes. You say that we have these attitudes. It’s not true.” Then, suddenly, this guy comes up who is the living embodiment, this cartoon version, of every stereotype that the left has ever had of conservatism, and he’s surging in the polls.
I kept expecting that the conservative movement and conservative voters would draw the line and say, “No,” whether it’s an evaluation of his character, his erratic personality, or whether it’s the fact that he wasn’t a small‑government conservative. He wasn’t in any way reflective of the values of the mainstream conservative movement. As I watched the dominoes falling … watching one conservative leader or politician or writer after another go, “Well, maybe he’s OK”—watching that really made me realize that the conservative movement is broken, and maybe it was not what I thought it was.
On his listeners and fake news
As 2015‑2016 was unfolding, because we had such engaged listeners, they would send me emails, they would forward stories, where they would say, “Why aren’t you talking about this?” Over the years, I tried to push back on that. “This is not true. Barack Obama was not born in Kenya.” I started noticing that it was becoming harder and harder to convince people the stories were not true. It got to the point where I would even spend time going, “Well, here’s the fact check on The Washington Post.” Or, “Here is the story from The New York Times.” Or, “Here’s what NBC is reporting showing that this thing that you just sent me, is completely not true.”
The response that I was getting increasingly was not to deal with the facts there. It was, “Oh, I don’t pay any attention to those liberal rags.” Just the fact it was in the Times or the Post, or any of these other sites, that was discrediting. That’s when I begin to realize, “OK, what we’ve done here is we have these alternative reality silos; these echo chambers that don’t just disseminate information, but which become this chrysalis that would protect you from counter information if it does not come from the bubble.”
There were a couple of emailers that I almost made experiments of—“Can I convince you to stop forwarding this stuff?”—and failed miserably. Even to the point where I would engage and then said, “Look, I know you. I know that you are a good person. Why do you keep forwarding this bigoted bilge? Why are you obsessed?” Basically, the answer was, “Well, I just think that we have to save America and it’s important to win this election. I’m willing to say and believe and do anything.” Even when you pointed out to them that it was not true, they didn’t care.
One of the interviews that I’ve done on my public radio show that was, for me, the most interesting was Garry Kasparov, who is the former World Chess Champion and a Russian dissident who understands, I think, the role of propaganda and lies in a way that a lot of Americans don’t. His main point is that the point of lies is not to convince you of a certain policy. It wouldn’t necessarily make you believe a lie. What it is is an assault on your critical sensibilities. It is an assault on your ability or your interest in sharing what is true.
On great investigative reporting on Trump—and why it didn’t reach Trump supporters
There was great reporting all through the campaign about Donald Trump. I was one of the early advocates for David Fahrenthold to win the Pulitzer Prize. I was obsessed with that story because I thought it was interesting, the way he went out as a model of investigative reporting, and determined that Trump had not actually made any of those charitable contributions, and the fundamental importance of that story.
I go home. I read this stuff. Then I go on the air, and I will mention something about Trump. I get this just horrendous blowback from the Trumpkins that it’s all BS. I realized, “You know what? They’re not hearing this.” My audience, which is pretty smart, never read any of Fahrenthold’s stuff.
You’ve got 40 percent of Americans who never heard any of those stories. I had Fahrenthold on my radio show. I don’t know how many conservative shows ever had him on. He went through everything. He was on for half an hour. My audience was blown away by it, and was like, “Oh, wow. Why have we never heard this before?” Really? How deep in the bubble are you that you didn’t hear that?
When people heard it, they were affected by it. Then they would move on. This is the thing—how hermetically sealed these echo chambers are and really self‑perpetuating they are—that happened in 2016. There’s really been some good reporting on this, the amount of money that went into some of the sites like Breitbart. This is not irrelevant.
The way in which conservative talk shows provided them cover, created this world where I honestly think that if we had this media ecosystem during the Watergate scandal that Nixon would have survived. I’m actually very convinced of that because you can have the best investigative reporting in the world, and if 40 percent of the country is absolutely completely immunized against it, protected against it, what will happen? I don’t know.
On people having their own media safe spaces
Across the spectrum, people have increasingly been doing this—everybody has their own media. Really conservative talk radio’s become a safe space for conservatives, and they don’t want to hear other points of view. I’ll tell you, having an NPR show, I think that on the left there are also safe spaces. People have basically asked themselves, “What’s in it for me? Why would I want to listen if I’m not hearing this?” The cross‑pollination has really broken down. We really want things that reinforce what we already believe. The confirmation bias is really intense. They’ve actually done studies that would show that, when you hear opinions that reaffirm your life view, you get a little shot of dopamine. In other words, hyper‑partisanship is literally addictive.
If you want to believe something about Donald Trump or about anybody—you fill in the blank—you only need one piece of data that will confirm it. I’m like, “Okay, I can believe this. I want to believe it. I’m hearing this negative stuff, but I turn on Sean Hannity. He’s got the explanation for this. I’m looking for that one point.”
The flip side is the “Must I believe it? Is there something that I don’t want to believe? I just heard, for example, that there are Russian ties with the Trump campaign. I don’t want to believe it.” Again, you only need one piece of information. What people do is they’re increasingly going to the places that will tell them what they want to believe and enforce that.
I actually think that everything that’s happening that is bad is about to get worse. All the trends in the division, in the polarization, are about to get worse. All of the worst actors and the worst elements have been empowered, have been enabled. They’re getting stronger.
On the rise of conservative media
I would hope that people will recognize what happened here. There’s a push and a pull. You go back. Why did the conservative media arise? I confess that my beating up on the media like every other conservative talk show did contribute to this de‑legitimatization, there’s no question about that. That’s not the whole story though.
Part of it is you have to say, okay, where did this come from? I mean why did you have a conservative media? Was there a market that was not being served? Was there years and years and years of the legacy media either disdaining parts of their audience, not taking the charges of bias seriously enough? Where did that come from?
Yes, conservative media arose, and I was part of it. I celebrated it. It really was back in the late 1980s. It was like pouring water on sand where people go, “Wow. Conservatives. You’re talking to us with respect. You’re telling us things that we did not have before.” My sense was that, when there were complaints about bias, they were not taken seriously.
Many people in the media circled the wagons. I think there are a lot of people in the media who are perhaps not as aware of how entrenched the liberal pack mentality is. It’s like, how do fish not know they’re wet? Because it’s all around them. Everyone we know feels the same way. Everyone is in the norm.
If half of your audience was telling you for 50 years, “Hey. We’re not trusting you. We think you’re biased,” and for 50 years the media was saying, “No, no, no,” maybe there is a point where you go back and do introspection.
On bursting filter bubbles
What do you do about all of this? First of all, understand what an existential challenge this is. Not just to the media—this is not a media problem, this is a democracy problem. It really is. This is something that we Americans, I don’t think, have gotten our heads around. I actually think that the media needs to go back, engage in introspection—how do we win these people back? What is the way that we reestablish our connections with them? Figure out why did people stop listening to us and paying attention, and try to fix that.
I know some of these things are almost clichés, but I also think that [when] looking at different models of collaboration between different media. I’m not sure this is as true as it used to be, where people would divide the world into print versus electronic and all of that. That is so obsolete. If you’re going to re‑communicate, you have to do it on every single level.
Good storytelling is always powerful. Part of it is, understand the narratives. What are the narratives that are playing in people’s heads? Also, understand where people are coming from. I don’t have a good answer for this. I know that, but I would not give up on it. Understand the level of the problem.
On how to avoid being seen as partisan media
There’s a real possibility this is going to be a Golden Age for journalism in a sense that journalists are becoming self‑aware of like, “Hey, you know, we actually are the pillars of democracy. This is not just a cliché. It is fun being adversarial. Let’s see what we can do. It’s going to be hard.”
I would say, do the best stuff. Really be sure you get it right. Pick things that people actually care about.
I had an interesting conversation with a guy from public radio, and we were talking about the problems of one of our hometown newspapers because he was there. He said, “You know? The problem is that somebody there has to say, ‘Hey. Maybe we should write, write more stuff that people will actually read.’” What a radical concept.
To the extent that you are in an ivory tower of any place, go out there, go meet the people, talk about them, figure out what is going to connect with them. What are the stories that are going move them, and affect them?
The power of facts I think is still there, but I may be really naive about that. If we actually become the tribes, then we’re just talking to ourselves. Then I can’t talk to you about an issue. We can’t even have a political debate if everything becomes, “Well, you got that from so‑and‑so, you got that from so‑and‑so.” This is going to be a huge challenge. Maybe in the Trump era, maybe something will blow up in such a way that people will go, “Hey. You know what? Maybe I really had to listen to those, you know, other points of view.”