Monday, November 17, 2008

Wallace, Sykes and a Whole Bunch of Stuff about the Talk Radio Meta-Narrative in Wisconsin

Rob Mentzer is chiming in on the lastest "most egregious assault on talk radio's First Amendment rights this side of the Fairness Doctrine" (or whatever the talking points are ... talk radio's never been accused of choosing the measured and considerate reportage scalpel when the hyperbole cudgel was also lying next to the operating table) by doing the only sensible thing one can do in these circumstances: outsource his response to David Foster Wallace.

Dan Shelley's article in Milwaukee Magazine is serviceable, but wowless. The big picture revelation in the piece -- that Charlie Sykes is a talented prick -- should be derived by any listener who sacrifices a half hour of his life listening to the radio show. Mentzer is entirely correct about about the article suffering from a lack of reporting, but personally, my biggest critique with Shelley's expose is that it's largely about Dan Shelley.

(Anyone interested in seeing how the insider tell-all is really done, get thee once more to the pages of the Atlantic, this time to Matthew Scully's -- the GOP's best speech-writer and former guest on Tony Palmeri's radio show-- amazing "Present at the Creation," which is a clinic on dirt-dishing).

Not that Shelley isn't providing readers with an interesting insight into one of the three faces if Charlie Sykes.

Sykes operates on three platforms. On the radio he's a populist enemy of the media and liberal "elites" -- your classic right-wing blowhard. On television, however, Sykes plays the more moderate role of a mediator facilitating animated, yet civil, discourse on local issues. Then there are his print pieces at places like the WPRI or or the American Thinker, which tend to reek of an author who very desperately wants a place in the pantheon of the Conservative Commentariat -- or, to put it another way, it's the "intellectual elite" side of Sykes he so loves to rail against on air.

This last point is somewhat discernible on his blog at WTMJ -- but let's face it, Sykes Writes isn't so much of a blog as it is an invitation to read over Charlie's shoulder as he eats breakfast. It's short on original content and long on quoting other authors. The generous way of looking at Sykes' blog is that it serves as little more than a supplement to and promotional tool for the radio show. I prefer to think of it as a daily BFF collage to to Sykes' ego confidence in his own ideology.

There's nothing wrong with Sykes wearing a different hat according to what audience he is speaking to. Personally, I genuinely don't find anything wrong with someone who bashes the "elites" on the radio while simultaneously holding the title of "Fellow" at the WPRI -- one may even praise his versatility ... I just think it's piss poor brand management and counterproductive in terms of vertical integration. If you're going to be a fire-breathing, red meat-eating conservative populist blowhard, be one on every platform you operate on and not just the one that allows you the liberty generating canned applause at the push of a sound board's button.

The most interesting thing about Shelley's piece in Milwaukee Magazine was could be considered his loose prediction of how Sykes would respond to the article:

This brings us to perhaps the most ironic thing about most talk show hosts. Though they may savage politicians and others they oppose, they fear criticism or critiques of any kind. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

Sykes blog post on the article is a frenzied and clearly rushed piece that would have been far more succinct if he would have just wrote "Naa-ah! It didn't happy like that! You're a poopy pants!" Instead Sykes degrades himself by writing such luminous sentences as
What a load of crappy crap crap.
I'll give Sykes the benefit of the doubt and assume he's deploying some ironic rhetoric in this case. The sad thing is, however, that the argument can be made that this line was written with all the sincerity of a toddler who believes he has been wronged in a manner that he simply doesn't know is negligible.

Instead of such gross displays of infantilism Skykes should have done as Mentzer did and take a lesson in responding to public criticism from ... David Foster Wallace.

Two months after "Host" was initially published in the Atlantic, John Ziegler, the subject of DFW's piece, published a letter that offered faint praise and a critique of both "Host" and DFW's refusal to do an interview for air (not to mention some shameless self-promotion of his own radio show). The editor's reply was simple, brief and to the point:
Wallace has turned down a dozen requests to do radio interviews. He works in print.
It's not exactly an excuse Sykes can use given that he works in many media, but there is a larger wisdom to this reply: let it go. Wallace was no doubt pilloried on the air by any number of radio talkers who found offense at the piece, but there's nothing further on the matter to be found from DFW. He simply let it go.

"Host" is an amazing essay -- as is pretty much everything Wallace wrote -- but "Host" both captures the essence of its protagonist subject while using using John Ziegler as a stand-in for regional talk radio hosts across the country. It's not a terrible stretch to see Ziegler and Sykes essentially occupying the same astral plane. They may have very different backgrounds, but they're both on-air hotheads who seem doomed to haunt the smaller market limbos on the AM dial like the ghost of Hamlet's father (who in this analogy can't seem to reach the Elysian Fields of national syndication).

I got to listen to DFW do a book reading when "Consider the Lobster," the collection of essays which includes "Host," was published. During the Q & A session, someone in the audience asked a great question and one that I had been dying to know the answer to after reading "Host" when it originally appeared in the Atlantic: what did he, David Foster Wallace, personally think about Ziegler? It's not quite evident in DFW's article -- largely because the author does an enchanting job being as objective as humanly possible and even praising Ziegler at times for his various skills as a broadcaster.

Wallace grinned at the question and started weighing aloud Ziegler's virtues and frailties, going back and forth between pros and cons for a minute or two before finally abandoning his response to render a final judgment: if I recall correctly, I believe the phrase "a pretty detestable human being" were the final words he used before moving on to the next question from the audience.

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