Radio Shock Jocks Repent

Opinion from Peter Saxon

Something weird is happening in America. Okay, that’s probably not news to anyone. 

Let me rephrase that. There’s a lot of weird stuff happening in America, too numerous for it all to make the news… at least to be news, here in Australia.

One that belongs in the category of wwww. (weird and whacky world of wireless) is the seeming transformation of two high profile shock jocks, Glenn Beck and Charlie Sykes.

For 23 years Sykes was a conservative talk show host on WTMJ, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But in October last year, just before the U.S. election, he decided to quit, citing ‘unspecified personal reasons.’ 

Within months he was publicly questioning the role he had played in causing his audience to question mainstream media reporting, which led in part, he says, to President Trump’s election.

“I have to do a mea culpa and look back on all of that and go, ‘OK, to what extent did we actually soften up the electorate for what we’re experiencing now?” Sykes told National Public Radio (NPR) in February this year.

“I was very excited back in the 1990s to realize that we were part of creating an alternative media. That we were moving from a period where a handful of elite media titans, sitting in perhaps Manhattan, would decide what people would see and what they would talk about. Now suddenly, you had this proliferation of different voices. And so I really did promote this alternative media, not perhaps aware that it was going to also then, at some point, morph into an alternative reality silo. I guess I was always assuming that we would be creating an audience that would be savvy and certainly be factually-based. What happened, of course, was that we created this echo chamber that has been now exploited by politicians.”

Now Sykes does a show for a lot less money on public radio.

Glenn Beck was arguably America’s most successful conspiracy theorist,” writes The Times. “For years the right-wing radio host and fear-mongering rabble rouser could be depended on to raise apocalyptic visions of how liberals were plotting to destroy America and its values.”

Now Beck, who refused to back Donald Trump’s election campaign, rails against intolerance and polarisation of US politics. “I did and said terrible things,” he told The Washington Post. “I didn’t notice how my language could be interpreted by half the country as racist. I lacked humility. I was the height of arrogance.”

He told Variety: “I’m not the man I want to be. I’m not the man I need to be. But, thank God, I’m not the man I used to be.”

Switching allegiances, like apostasy, has consequences.

In 2011 Beck left Fox News to start his own internet venture, The Blaze, which pumps out a TV show, podcasts and a syndicated program heard on 400 radio stations. By November 2014, according to Quantcast, The Blaze could boast 27 million unique users. Last November that was down to 8.8 million. Still a prodigious audience, to be sure. Nonetheless it is a sobering observation that two thirds have deserted him for deserting their man, Trump.

Yet, neither Glenn Beck nor Charlie Sykes have abandoned their core beliefs. They still profess to be card carrying conservatives. It’s just that they sense that Trump is not. They’re not the only ones.

A large chunk of the Republican party, led by Senator John McCain, agree. To them, Trump is a privateer who has used and abused their Grand Old Party (GOP) in order to win the Presidency. Others are happy just to be on the winning team. Never have the Republicans been so divided. Neither has the media.

A recent Pew poll found that in the U.S. and Australia only about 30% of people trusted mainstream media and about the same had faith in their politicians. In Russia and China, where the media is controlled as are “elections”, the same question returned a 60% positive rating.

As Charlie Sykes (left) told the New York Times, “We succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimising the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.”

By declaring U.S. elections “rigged” and any news that doesn’t flatter him as “fake,” the current Leader of the Free World has done more to destabilise the pillars of western democracy in just a few months than Russia, China or ISIL could have hoped to achieve in years.

It used to be, in a court of law, that “the truth” was secondary to what you could prove. Since the O.J. Simpson trial, it was no longer about proof, it was what you could make people believe. Now with the internet and the proliferation of bloggers it’s about what people want to believe as they go shopping for the news that reinforces their own pre-conceived notions. 

What’s fake news? Anything you want it to be. Since everyone can hurl the same insult at everyone else, is not all news then rendered fake?

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Peter Saxon

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