Watchdog downWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
It is a sad irony that Brian Wilson left the Toledo radio market just as two of his political adversaries, Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner, were muscling their way back into the headlines.
Wilson’s seven-year tenure on 1370 WSPD ended at 5:58 p.m. Nov. 9, although neither he nor his listeners knew it at the time. There was no goodbye, no final show, no mention of the exit on subsequent programming. The erasure of his seven years of work is an example of the brutal disposability that characterizes modern media.
Wilson did not spend one minute of airtime trying to endear himself to Toledo. He arrived in 2006, summed up the market’s political and media shortcomings, and tore his teeth into the sacred cows that have long conspired to keep Toledo mired in mediocrity. Wilson never used the rhetorical spoonful of sugar; he took the spoon and tried to shove it sideways up the clenched bottoms of some of Toledo’s least productive politicians and media personalities. That approach did not make him friends in the existing power structure, and it must have further infuriated the powers that be that Wilson wore his lack of empathy for mediocrity as a badge of honor.
Behind the scenes, Wilson could be a fearsome, explosive presence, a man who would share his radio experience like a kindly mentor one moment and then slash you to ribbons for a real or imagined offense the next.
Wilson’s legacy can be neatly summed up by the enemies who rushed to gloat over his absence in the predictably slanted Nov. 13 Blade article that recorded his exit. Ford. Finkbeiner. Jon Stainbrook. If those champions of mediocrity make up the confederacy of dunces capering over Wilson’s exit, he must have done something right.
The 2006 incident in which Wilson led an effort to literally put his shoulder against a door Finkbeiner was trying to close at a One Government Center news conference stands as the greatest act of First Amendment defense in modern Toledo history. Those who dismissed it as a stunt missed the point and exposed their own ignorance of the frailty of freedom in general and free speech in particular.
Wilson’s criticism of The Blade, which made mine look like pillow talk, hardened to a diamond point after the newspaper’s Jan. 8, 2011, story, “WSPD host compares TPS students, monkeys; Wilson denies racism.”
The article read, “A radio talk show host’s reference to ‘little monkeys’ while talking about students at Toledo Public Schools on Friday generated outrage that the language was insensitive to African-American students, and all students.”
The Blade writer played an edited version of a radio clip for public officials who called for Wilson to be disciplined. I obtained the full version of the clip and wrote that the version played for sources by The Blade “did not include the setup, in which Wilson criticized the concept of teaching through repetition without teaching independent thinking, nor did it include this crucial next sentence: ‘Similarly with children, just because you can teach them the answers to what are the capitals of the 50 states in America, that’s a fun exercise but it doesn’t teach them how to think, doesn’t teach them how to be objective, doesn’t teach them to be entrepreneurs and individuals and things along that order.’”
I had the full clip played for the public officials The Blade had spoken to and most retracted their original stances. In a subsequent editorial, The Blade stated that Wilson had not called TPS students monkeys, and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists honored my coverage of the episode with a 2012 Best in Show award for Best Defense of the First Amendment.
Toledo is a market in which the role of a newspaper is greatly misunderstood and journalism abuses are tolerated as routine. This incident gave Wilson credibility as a survivor of one of the worst examples of that abuse and further motivated his anger at the source of that abuse and the people who complacently support it.
Wilson modeled WSPD as one of the region’s only electronic media watchdogs. His criticism was often wrapped in a contempt that turned off people who could have benefited from his message; that contempt often manifested itself in name-calling that undermined his effectiveness. His move to Virginia also gave critics ammunition against him.
But for Wilson, rankling the powers that be was part of his performance art. He would never apologize for the coarseness, nor should he. A watchdog can’t lie down with the thieves it is supposed to guard against. For seven years, Wilson helped expose the political criminals for who they are. In his absence, those forces will feel emboldened and freer to perpetrate their evils.
There are many who will cheer Wilson’s exit. I understand that. But I also know that the perimeter is now weaker, that there is one fewer watchdog guarding the fence. That is not to be celebrated. It is to be observed as one marks the passing of a fellow soldier, the one who wasn’t popular in the safety of the barracks but who was the one you wanted beside you in the trenches when the bullets started flying.
Wilson was old-school, employing indignation and fearlessness as tools to chip away at ignorance.
The forces of mediocrity may believe they won this round, and they will never accept that our city benefited from Wilson’s work. As they rush to fill the vacuum his absence leaves, know that the loss of even one watchdog leaves the entire property more vulnerable.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at email@example.com.