Mark Belling is a smart guy, one of the smartest in Milwaukee radio. He's the big money-maker at WISN-AM (1130), the biggest talk radio host in town, and Belling has been a force on radio here since arriving in 1989.
That's why the latest blunder by the market's top talker is so hard to understand.
It began a week ago, in a segment looking at the opposition to the Downtown Marriott Hotel project. He listed some of the powerful opponents, including the leaders of the Marcus Corp., and then, clearly aware of where he was going, he said, "I'm going to choose my words carefully here."
He opened up an unnecessary can of worms, first talking about the "cabal" of opponents and then noting "the majority of them are Jewish."
Frankly, using the words "Jewish" and "cabal" is an example of not choosing words carefully. These are anti-semitic buzzwords, and Belling says he knows about anti-semitism.
In fact, you can find this quote from him on Rush Limbaugh's own Web site:
"Jewish people have been the world's scapegoats since the beginning. It comes down to anti-Semitism."
Then, inexplicably, Belling said in his monologue last Thursday that the whole Jewish issue he raised "may be neither here nor there."
So why raise it?
Well, of course, you raise the issue to raise the issue, to plant an idea in people's heads. That "neither here nor there" line is a common tool of talk radio designed to absolve the host from any responsibility for his words.
And Belling used another talk radio tool in the second unnecessary blunder in this current one, his attempt to explain away what he said.
"I don't care what it sounds like I'm saying," he said Tuesday. "I don't give three rips what it might lead people to think."
But as a communicator, Belling should care about how his words are received. And he does care. He just doesn't seem interested in being held responsible for his words when he says the wrong thing.
Any of us who make our living through words, written or spoken, bear full responsibility for the impact of our words.
Belling inexplicably waded back into this during Wednesday's show, saying "the religion of the Marcus Corp. should neither be a reason anyone ever would hold anything against them, the owners of the Marcus Corp ... But it cannot be a shield also for some of their defenders for me to not be able to talk about and criticize them."
Of course the person who brought up the issue without any context was Belling. And he's keeping this thing alive.
Back in 2004, when Belling's biggest verbal blunder led to a suspension and a formal public apology, he let an anti-Hispanic slur slip. He dealt with that a bit on Tuesday's show, suggesting that Bill O'Reilly had used the same term and gotten away with it.
But Belling neglected to note that he, himself, had made the situation worse. Although he apologized early on, he followed up by using his airtime to ridicule those who were critical of him and kept the story alive. The protests grew to critical mass at a time when Clear Channel, the owner of WISN-AM (1130) was targeting the growing Hispanic market through Spanish-language radio stations around the country.
Belling made that mess worse through his subsequent words, not the initial slur. And while his Jewish mess may not reach the level of his Hispanic mess, he again is making this worse through his own words.
He has the power to end this quickly, by apologizing for a poor choice of words. It's far easier to apologize early on, and then everybody moves on.
Mark Belling knows that. He is, after all, one of the smartest guys in Milwaukee radio.
While we're talking about talk radio: I normally write only about radio you can actually hear in Milwaukee. But Belling-backers trying to take heat off their guy are complaining about sexual comments from John "Sly" Sylvester on Madison's WTDY-AM about Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Removing it from the tit-for-tat, see-the-other-guys-are-worse style of talk radio, Sylvester's comments were definitely over the line.
Even the guy who made them now agrees.
Sylvester admitted Wednesday that he went too far with his sleazy imitation of Kleefisch on Monday, suggesting that she traded sexual favors for the support of conservative talk show hosts in Milwaukee.
"I didn't need to take it to the sexual reference part," he said Wednesday.
"Here's how I kinda measured this last night. I said 'Would I be happy if a right-wing host was using sexual references like that in conjunction with Barbara Lawton, who held the office before Rebecca Kleefisch?'
"And I thought to myself, 'No, I would think that that host was being over the line, because women still have barriers to get to public office.'
"In that regard, I didn't need to get as personally vindictive against her," he said. "So, in hindsight, I shouldn't have said that about her, and I'm going to write her a letter telling her that."
Tim Cuprisin is the media columnist for OnMilwaukee.com. He's been a journalist for 30 years, starting in 1979 as a police reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary wire service that's the reputed source of the journalistic maxim "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." He spent a couple years in the mean streets of his native Chicago, and then moved on to the Green Bay Press-Gazette and USA Today, before coming to the Milwaukee Journal in 1986.
A general assignment reporter, Cuprisin traveled Eastern Europe on several projects, starting with a look at Poland after five years of martial law, and a tour of six countries in the region after the Berlin Wall opened and Communism fell. He spent six weeks traversing the lands of the former Yugoslavia in 1994, linking Milwaukee Serbs, Croats and Bosnians with their war-torn homeland.
In the fall of 1994, a lifetime of serious television viewing earned him a daily column in the Milwaukee Journal (and, later the Journal Sentinel) focusing on TV and radio. For 15 years, he has chronicled the changes rocking broadcasting, both nationally and in Milwaukee, an effort he continues at OnMilwaukee.com.
When he's not watching TV, Cuprisin enjoys tending to his vegetable garden in the backyard of his home in Whitefish Bay, cooking and traveling.