MSNBC's Cenk Uygur: 'I Plan to Beat Fox News in the Ratings and Make Them Fear Me'
"I think our politicians are bought by the highest bidder and that until we clean up our election system we cannot make progress on any of the issues. That's what drives me as a TV host -- we must restore our democracy." -- Cenk Uygur
There has been plenty of shock and hand-wringing over Keith Olbermann's departure from Countdown on MSNBC (and now comes word of his reported deal with Current TV). Many fear the loss of what has been, along with Rachel Maddow, one of the most powerful progressive voices on television. Others see the unseen hand of Comcast operating in the background; Comcast is the new corporate majority owner of NBC Universal, and Olbermann's ouster shortly following FCC approval of the deal smacked of a payoff to the buttoned-down conservatives there.
But slightly below the radar, Cenk Uygur, the founder of the pioneering web TV show "The Young Turks," is giving Olbermann fans hope. Uygur has slid into the 6pm slot in a reconfigured MSNBC lineup, a strong progressive voice on the nightly team and a promising sign that the departure of Olbermann won't be a net loss.
Uygur presumably comes without the challenges the brass had in dealing with the brilliant but complicated and volatile Olbermann. Robert Greenwald, the online video advocacy whiz and creator of Brave New Films, says, "Cenk is the real deal. He's smart, thoughtful, aggressive, with a large and loyal following. He is perfect person to have the regular slot on MSNBC, and when they make it permanent, MSNBC will be letting the world know that it is doing the right thing, in the face of great concern over the Olbermann departure."
Until now, Uygur has been MSNBC's version of the designated hitter. He's filled in for Dylan Ratigan in his afternoon slot, he's subbed for Ed Schultz and has appeared on Countdown. Now he is in the 6pm slot every night, proving his mettle. AlterNet tracked Uygur down while traveling and discussed the following through email:
Don Hazen: How long has 'The Young Turks' been on the web? How hard is it to get progressive voices into mainstream media? How do you see yourself-- as a progressive journalist, an independent interviewer, a sometimes contrarian interviewer?
Cenk Uygur: "The Young Turks" have been on for almost nine years now. When we first started it was nearly impossible to get progressive voices on the air, in radio or television. As you can see, we have made some progress on that front. But there is still a long way to go.
What helps tremendously now is the Internet, where you can put yourself online. That's what we did in the form of online video in 2005 and we have amassed nearly 400 million views now on YouTube alone. We get 23 million views a month, so we don't need to have someone else make the decision to put a progressive voice on the air. We do it on our own and people have to deal with it.
As an interviewer, my whole point is to get to the core of the issue and understand what it is that makes the difference on that topic. I really hope I'm not asking the standard questions and I think you can tell by the reaction of some of my guests that they are a little surprised form time to time by what I ask them. And often times I will disagree with my guests, even if they are generally on my side. That appears to be unusual on television, which I'm happy about.
DH: You've been filling in for a while now -- what is it like to jump from 'The Young Turks' to MSNBC?
CU: Of course, television is more formatted and scripted than "The Young Turks." TYT is looser and more irreverent. But television gives you an opportunity to really put together a great product and visually make your case to the audience better.
DH: Who have you had for guests? And who has been especially interesting, compelling, surprising, etc.? Do you bring on contrary opinions?
CU: We have had great guests in each of the shows I have hosted. I talked to David Axelrod on "Countdown." I talked to Julian Assange on "The Dylan Ratigan Show." My favorite guests are usually Republicans. Their position is almost never consistent or fact-based. It's fairly easy to catch a Republican legislator making an indefensible argument.
Of all of the guests, I was probably most proud of the Assange interview because we introduced an element that was not part of the national conversation before -- we were the first, on television at least, to focus on protecting him as a journalist and brought up the idea that perhaps the rest of the press should rally to his cause.
DH: How did you make the Assange interview happen? Was there a lot of rigmarole? What is your impression of him, and the whole situation with Manning etc.?
CU: I would love to take credit for setting up the Assange interview, but I can't. It was all Jesse Rodriguez, the excellent booker for "The Dylan Ratigan Show." He worked for over a year on that relationship and landed him at just the right time after he was first released from prison in Great Britain.
My impression of Assange is that he is a modern-day hero. He is bringing the transparency to our government that some politicians promised and didn't come close to delivering on. This is exactly what the press is supposed to do. The Wikileaks revelations about Tunisia at least partly led to a wave of democratic movements throughout the Middle East. You cannot overstate his importance to journalism today.
During our interview, he highlighted the deplorable conditions that the U.S. government is keeping Private Manning in. They have him in isolation for 23 hours a day and treat him as harshly as our worst, most hardened criminals -- and he hasn't been convicted of anything yet.
DH: What is your overarching philosophy of your show, and your sense of 'progressive' TV overall? How are you different than the other on-air people on MSNBC?
CU: My aim is to do an informative and entertaining show. We want to affect the national conversation. First, you have to get people to watch and then you if you're lucky and good enough you might be able to inform them about things that are important.
There are so many things that the mainstream media gets wrong that it's an awesome opportunity to be able to correct them from the inside. I hope I can be a progressive voice that presents our perspective without a filter -- and does it with strength.
Every show on MSNBC has its own advantages. My perspective that is a little different than the others is that I think our system is fundamentally broken. I think our politician are bought by the highest bidder and that until we clean up our election system then we cannot make progress on any of the issues. That's what drives me -- we must restore our democracy.
DH: Do you think much about Fox? Olbermann and O'Reilly had this ongoing clash. Has that preoccupation with Fox faded from the air?
CU: To be honest, I think Fox News is very relevant. For so long, they have controlled the national conversation by incessantly talking about the stories they want to drive home. They do it until the other cable news outlets and eventually the whole press picks up on it. I want to drain them of that power. I want to put them back in the cave they came from.
So, yes, I think defeating Fox -- and more importantly, getting the rest of the media to understand they do not do legitimate news -- is very important. I hope to do that through pointing out their hypocrisy, propaganda and general foolishness. But I also plan to beat them in the ratings and make them fear me.
DH: What are your goals, your short-term vision? Are there one or two things you aim to achieve in the short term to make your mark?
CU: If I stay at 6pm on MSNBC, I plan to beat Fox and be number one in the ratings. On the internet, "The Young Turks" is already the largest online news show in the world and I plan to continue that domination.
DH: What do you expect with Obama, and the right-wing House of Representatives, and the Tea Party making noise? Will the gridlock take away Obama's momentum from the lame duck session?
CU: Of course, it will. I would be significantly surprised if Obama had any momentum on any progressive issue for the next two years. How is he going to get anything past a Republican House? Especially with his attitude, he is very likely to give up early and often.
Here is what can get passed -- Republican priorities. Because the minute the president agrees with them, they will have momentum to get right-wing policies on those specific issues passed into law. This will be Obama's so-called centrism.
The only hope we have is that Obama is a much more progressive person when he is running for office than when he is actually in office. So, perhaps as he is pretending to be a strong progressive on the campaign trail he will accidentally beat the Republicans on some issues he didn't even expect to win on.
DH: What is the question or two I should be asking you, and haven't?
CU: A good question would be: What is my long-term vision? It's for "The Young Turks" to be the largest force in media (yes, it's doable), to make a meaningful and helpful contribution to the national conversation, and to help save our democracy by greatly reducing the role of money in our elections (yes, it's doable). We have to believe. We have made so much happen together so far; we can do this, too. I actually believe in change.