Mark Belling's self-inflicted wound from an ethnic slur uttered on the air about Hispanic Milwaukeeans has unmasked the high-profile right-wing talk show host and revealed some instructive things about conservative talk radio, too.
This form of radio programming begins with the know-it-all, never-wrong Voice Of Authority. Rush Limbaugh and Belling, who sometimes fills in when Limbaugh is away from his nationally syndicated show, have big audiences in the southeastern Wisconsin market.
Their shows have a distinct formula: the hosts spout the rap or riff of the day, then boast about the brilliance of their commentary.
The hosts regularly proclaim that it is only on their programs where such truths are found. This is because they claim the "Liberal Media" -- including the major television networks and mainstream publications like Time magazine, The New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- are too incompetent or biased or lazy or too left-wing to get what only these rightist hosts get right.
While Belling and similar hosts beat up on their whipping boys and pat themselves on the back, an off-air screener lines up the callers.
Their role in the daily AM talk radio drama is to play the grateful sycophant.
What the screener is orchestrating is a love fest. The partners are the worshipful callers and the narcissistic hosts. Save for the occasional liberal caller allowed through to be teed up, everyone else talks the same language and shares one point of view -- articulated by the host.
"Love your show, Mark,'' callers say on cue when reaching The Belling Show. Over and over again on 1130 WISN-AM, that's the message on the Greenfield station that has carried Belling here for 15 years. Along with: "You're so right, Mark."
And when he isn't openly bragging about how smart he is, Belling has a trademarked way of reinforcing the superiority in his slogan "Standing Up For Milwaukee."
"Hi, Mark," callers chirp. "How you doing?"
"I'm great," says Belling, delivering the double-entendre.
The entire construct relies on the host holding the argumentative high ground and having facts -- The Real Facts -- not the spin or distortion or lies of what they have demonized as the left.
Which is why Belling has stumbled. He got so many things wrong as the artifice fell away and the illusion of talk radio got revealed.
It was more than having used an ethnic slur, "wetback," to describe whom he thought would vote illegally on Milwaukee's South Side -- illegal voting which no reliable source says actually happened in the presidential election and which has never been cited as a problem in Milwaukee's Latino community.
The actual fact is that voting on the Latino South Side has been slow to materialize, and only in recent years have Latinos won a handful of elections there.
The error is greater than his half-hearted apologies -- compounded by the station's 12-day delay before suspending Belling, and then refusing to call it a suspension, or define its length.
Where Belling punctures the talk radio balloon -- something his critics have been unable to do until he did it for them -- was when he revealed himself to be just plain ignorant.
This is revealed by his insistence that despite the slur, his argument about illegal voting by non-citizens was valid.
"My goal was to try and make a strong point on voting," he said to the Journal Sentinel 10 days after his offending remarks. "And no one has heard that point because of my obnoxious language."
This is where spending so much time inside an isolated studio, and communicating with people of his choosing via radio, and not face-to-face, has left Belling unaware of how a lot of real people in Milwaukee actually live their lives.
Immigrants who are here illegally need to move through their daily routines below the radar to avoid contact with the government because the consequences of disclosure could lead to arrest, deportation, family break-up and ruination.
People living here illegally don't call attention to themselves. They wouldn't dare take a chance on voting.
The daily paper here has reported on this reality, especially during the last census, but somehow Belling didn't grasp it even though he reads the paper carefully enough to target its writers and editorials regularly.
Belling loudly bashed as intrusive some 2000 Census questions and forms. But he apparently didn't absorb that to ensure a full and stress-free census in the spring of 2000, the Census Bureau announced it was enforcing a strict policy against sharing its information with law enforcement agencies.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service announced around the same, too, that it was suspending some of its regular activities in Milwaukee to encourage immigrants to talk to census-takers.
The city, state and federal governments, neighborhood groups and much of the media worked together to reassure immigrants that it was safe to participate in the census.
It was a big story. It was in the paper.
"Immigrants tend to have greater anxiety about their status," a South Side Catholic priest told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an April 2000 story about immigrants' distrust of the census process.
"They don't speak the language, and they don't have the capacity to trust government."
These matters were addressed again in another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story on Sept. 14 of this year -- just six weeks before Belling made his infamous remarks.
"Some Latinos mark culture quietly," said the headline. "Undocumented keep low profile," said the sub-head.
The story related that some illegal Latino immigrants were skipping public celebrations of National Hispanic Heritage Month because the consequences of one false move were overwhelming.
"It's a real fear," said one of the story's immigration experts.
Belling also seems to have missed some of the domestic implications of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
After 9/11, the smallest paperwork problem for an immigrant -- even for some who are living in the country legally -- lead to a host of serious problems. It continues to be one the leading post-9/11 domestic stories.
So it was breathtakingly ignorant on many levels for Belling to go on the air and say, "You're going to see every wetback and every other non-citizen out there voting" on Nov. 2.
And completely brain-dead to continue to argue, days later, as Belling did, that people with everything to risk would have waltzed into a government-run polling place, in the middle of the most contested U.S. election in memory, surrounded by poll-watchers just itching to spot an illegal voter, and perhaps with poor command of the language and documentation problems, to publicly commit a serious crime.
The lesson of this episode is more than how a single derogatory remark can hurt people, motivate them to action -- and derail a celebrity's career.
The bigger lesson is that if there's nothing more certain to get you into trouble than hubris and narrow-mindedness. But because those are the staples on shows like Belling's, it's hard to imagine him changing his ways.
If Belling returns to air -- which his radio bosses say will happen -- he's going to be walking a minefield forever. With lots more people listening -- not as fans but as monitors. He's already sitting at two strikes. One more and he's out.
And while hubris and narrow-mindedness breed trouble, their opposites -- humility and broad-mindedness -- offer hope, for Belling and for a more civil discourse in southeast Wisconsin.
Broad-mindedness is what's missing from Belling's person. But that undermines the current talk radio model because it's at the heart of liberalism.
Broad-mindedness, tolerance, call it what you want: it could ultimately help Belling redeem himself, and move the community past this uproar. But it's probably too much of a change for Belling to handle.
James Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy aide who served in the administration of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
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