Former conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes (@SykesCharlie) has been questioning the role he says he played in causing his audience to question mainstream media reporting, which led in part, he says, to President Trump's election.
"We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience," Sykes wrote in the New York Times. "Instead, we opened the door for President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled."
Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Sykes about Trump, his new role with MSNBC and 2016 election coverage.
Sykes is also one of the rotating hosts of "Indivisible," a new call-in show from WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio and The Economist.
On criticism of the mainstream media
"...I should start off by saying much of the criticism of the mainstream media was valid. I was surprised to realize that over time, that criticism had been so effective so that it had the effect of delegitimizing, completely discrediting the mainstream media and any sort of independent fact checking. 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?'"
On what he thinks when he looks back on his career
"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."
"You always knew that there was the crazy uncle, or the drunk at the end of the bar, the birthers and everything. Then you'd roll your eyes, and then you'd just sort of assume that rational voices would prevail. And unfortunately in the end they did not."Charlie Sykes
On his radio show's practices and "dog whistling" compared to other shows
"Well I'm not going to claim innocence, but I do think we had a different sort of talk radio, and I think that's what Donald Trump came up against here in Wisconsin. He lost very badly in the primary. As I've learned a little last year though, all of the incentives the conservative media have to become more extreme, to become more reckless. I perhaps was assuming that everybody was 'Wisconsin nice' like we were, not realizing all of the years of pounding and pounding and indulgence of crackpot conspiracy theories — how that had really become part and parcel of the conservative movement. I mean, you always knew that there was the crazy uncle, or the drunk at the end of the bar, the birthers and everything. Then you'd roll your eyes, and then you'd just sort of assume that rational voices would prevail. And unfortunately in the end they did not."
On reevaluating his previous work, ideology and positions
"This is one of the things that I'm trying to do this year is to go back and ask that question and engage in kind of that introspection, as much as we didn't like the criticism, was any of it valid? We lived in an environment where people were crying wolf all the time. To be a conservative in America was to spend the last 20 years — on a routine basis — being called, you know, that you're racist, you're bigoted, you're stupid. If you're for lower taxes, it's because you're racist. Or you're for school choice, it's because you're racist. Here's the problem: When the real thing then finally comes along, the critics have fired all of their ammunition. They are out of rhetoric to describe the real thing."
"Oh I completely understand. There's a phrase that conservatives used for years called the 'strange new respect,' that if a conservative when he became more liberal, he gets a strange new respect. And I certainly understand. But I will tell you this. I actually find it quite liberating to not have to be inside one ideological bubble. There's this tremendous pressure to conform. Being able to step back and have an independent point of view and say, 'OK well I agree with this, but I don't agree with this,' as opposed to feeling that I have to take one for the team. I have to defend the indefensible."
On his reaction to rhetoric from some of his listeners, and others in conservative media
"It was somewhat shocking. And I think that some people will think that I was naive that I was shocked. One time a woman called up and she was endorsing a complete... not a ban on Muslims, but a deportation of Muslims. And she was comparing them to rabid dogs. And I will admit that I was kind of speechless. You know, do we really know who our people are? Do we really understand what our movement was about? That was depressing and it was disillusioning."
"Did I know that there were the voices out there? Yes. But I thought they were on the fringes. And I do regret, you know, the birthers, the conspiracy theorists."
"In fact, I spent years trying to push back on the fake stuff. This is dumb, this is crap. That became harder and harder and harder. They would not accept any source outside of the conservative media ecosystem."
On the future of the conservative media
"Well, my short answer is I think that everything is going to get worse. I had expected Donald Trump would not be elected, and that as a result, there would be this reckoning where we would actually have to confront what had happened to the conservative media, the irresponsible media — the sites like Infowars and Breitbart and Drudge and what Rush Limbaugh had done to conservatism — and that there would be some sort of a sorting out. Instead, as a result of the election, all of those elements have been empowered."
"I certainly sympathize with that moment where you step back and you go, 'OK, um, the baby alligator that we were growing in the bathtub grew up.' There are some people for whom there are no mea culpa that I can say. But I think that you have to start, because I think one of the things that's the hardest thing in American politics is to step back and go, 'You know what? I was wrong about that.'"
This article was originally published on February 10, 2017.
This segment aired on February 10, 2017.