When we last looked in on Jessica McBride, she was a rising star in the blogosphere. Now the blogger has become a talk radio host at WTMJ-AM 620, home of her mentor in conservative punditry, Charlie Sykes. In the process, McBride, who once covered crime and courts for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with some distinction, has become Exhibit A in blurring distinctions between journalism, entertainment and political advocacy.
It was McBride in late June who catapulted 9/11 conspiracy theorist Kevin Barrett to notoriety. A conservative blogger known as “Dad29” had first posted about Barrett and his membership in a 9/11 conspiracy group. But it took Barrett’s interview on McBride’s show to turn the lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from an unknown, part-time aca-demic to the object of scorn and derision across the political spectrum.
Barrett wasn’t the only one who got on the map. “It’s good for the show. I got national attention,” says McBride, who handles the TMJ time slot once occupied by Mark Reardon, who was fired earlier this year to cut costs. “She’s not making half what I was making,” Reardon says, without giving specifics. “She’s paid hourly. I was salaried. They were saving a bunch of money.”
In typical talk radio fashion, McBride repeatedly expressed outrage about Barrett on her show and in her TMJ-sponsored blog. Then she linked Barrett’s virulent views – that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration to create a pretext for invading Iraq – to those who are simply critics of the Iraq war – from The New York Times to the Democratic Party to anti-war activists.
“The rhetoric is characterized by an obsessive hatred of George Bush and any governmental authority… a tendency to give every benefit of the doubt to our enemy and none to our administration, a moral relativism that holds that we are just as evil as the other side… or worse, that we are more evil.”
The only evidence McBride offered for this wildly sweeping charge was a reference to a political cartoon for which she gave no link, no description and no explanation.
McBride’s conservative Republican activism is all the more in question since she’s married to Waukesha County District Attor-ney Paul Bucher, who lost the September GOP primary election for Wisconsin attorney general. TMJ General Manager Jon Schweitzer says McBride readily agreed when she was hired that the race was off limits on her show and her blog.
McBride was a frequent commenter on other blogs, though, fiercely promoting her husband and trashing his rival and eventual nominee, Madison-based former U.S. Attorney J.B. Van Hollen. In August, when blogger Owen Robinson criticized a Bucher ad, McBride fired back: “One wonders increasingly in the long run if you are just trying to help the Democrats.… It’s getting harder and harder to take your commentary seriously.”
McBride is no stranger to vendettas; she’s also feuded with Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane and sniped at former Waukesha Freeman editorial writer Dennis Shook, who was fired after criticism from bloggers and other conservative activists.
McBride says when she responds to other blogs, “I do that as a private citizen, not as a radio host.” Yet the walls between commentator McBride and politician Bucher are often quite thin, sometimes literally: McBride broadcasts her radio show not from the TMJ studio but from a room in the couple’s house. McBride’s e-mail address uses her married name of Bucher rather than her professional, maiden name.
Shortly after McBride researched illegal immigration for a proposed story for the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research In-stitute, her husband began citing numbers in his campaign on how many illegal immigrants had been paroled in Wisconsin. After blogger Cory Liebmann criticized McBride for doing reporting that conveniently helped her husband’s campaign, -McBride de-cided not to write the WPRI article.
In striking contrast to the world of journalism where she still works (McBride is paid $53,550 as a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism lecturer and also writes commentary for the Waukesha Freeman), her blog and radio show suffer from the most tiresome aspects of those genres: incessant preaching to the choir and refusal to offer balance. When the Journal Sentinel headlined an op-ed commentary on Iraq, “We’re Not Winning,” McBride’s rant in her blog overlooked what a beginning journalism student knows: This was an accurately headlined opinion piece.
As for being one-sided, McBride says, “I don’t feel any obligation to water down what I believe just to allow the expression of the other side. Conservative media often puts a counter frame on the news. I think that’s healthy. Everybody filters the news through a philosophical prism.”
Rejecting the style of reporting she did back at the Journal Sentinel, McBride now says: “I guess I don’t believe in true objectivity.”
For some, McBride’s blatant partisanship may represent a refreshing media candor. Others may feel it simply reinforces a post-modernist media world in which objective reporting or instructive commentary is passé and it’s just all spin all the time.