Cenk Uygur’s MSNBC Triumph
I haven’t written about Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks in awhile, but last night he told a story on his show that blew me away. Hearing Cenk’s account of how MSNBC dumped him as a host in spite of his excellent ratings, then how he turned down their offer to make almost twice as much money as a contributor so long as he toned it down and kept his mouth shut about the inner workings of the network made me prouder than ever to be a TYT soldier. I think it calls for some over-the-top gushing, which I shall engage in presently in the hopes that it might get a few more people to watch the online show.
It took me far too long to discover the online news-and-commentary show The Young Turks, but once I did I couldn’t remember how I’d ever managed to digest the news without it. There are so many ways to get informed about politics these days, and while many people still believe there’s such a thing as “objective” newsmedia and that this alone is the proper way to obtain information, I’ve long since been of the opinion that there is no such thing as true objectivity, and if you’re going to listen to a news anchor or cable host every night, you might as well know exactly where they’re coming from and through what kind of lens your information is being filtered.
What made The Young Turks so perfect is that the lens through which its host Cenk Uygur views politics is almost identical to mine, and to all freethinking progressives. While most of the media still insists on framing the issues in terms of conservative Republicans vs. liberal Democrats, Cenk understands that the real power-struggle going on is between the Washington establishment (which includes Wall Street banks, oil companies, defense contractors, and every other giant corporation that buys influence in D.C.) and the masses of average American people. He’s not afraid to point out that the Democrats are not nearly as liberal as they’d have us believe, and in many cases (military spending, drug policy, and so on) the Republicans aren’t actually ‘conservative’ in the true sense of the word.
But it wasn’t until President Obama started revealing his true colors as more of a Washington-insider than the People’s Champion he ran as that I started tuning into TYT every day and became a paying member. While almost every other figure in the liberal media insisted on not only giving the president the benefit of the doubt on his compromises with Republicans but singing the praises of his hollow victories like health-care reform (massive gift to insurance companies) and so-called ‘historic’ financial reform (massive gift to investment bankers), Cenk Uygur was not the least bit shy about delving into the details of these policies and loudly trumpeting his opinion—one which I and apparently hundreds of thousands of others share—that this is not the kind of ‘change’ we were promised, that Obama’s ‘accomplishments’ are little more than window-dressing, tinkering around with a few cogs in a machine that’s on the verge of a complete breakdown.
Cenk is the only one who consistently and loudly calls attention to the core problem at the heart of the American political system: the politicians do not work for the people they represent—they work for the people who pay them. As long as politicians take money from private health insurance corporations and pharmaceutical companies, we’ll never get real health care reform. As long as politicians take money from defense contractors, we’ll never stop wasting money on unnecessary wars. As long as politicians take money from Wall Street, our financial system will never be secure enough to prevent future collapses from happening.
This is a truth so obvious that you’d think Americans from all political backgrounds would be able to understand it, but most people are still trapped in the Left vs. Right narrative fed to them by the mainstream media, and that’s why it was such a treat to see Cenk bring this message right into the heart of the beast when he began guest-hosting some of the cable news shows on MSNBC and eventually took over as the regular host at 6 p.m.
Cenk understood that the problem with the mainstream media is essentially the same as the problem with government: the journalists work for the people who pay them, and the people who pay them work for giant corporations which themselves collect their revenue from other giant corporations. Cable-news hosts understand that certain narratives are perfectly acceptable to present, while others shouldn’t be touched with a ten-foot pole. They may not be explicitly ordered by the higher-ups to stay away from these themes, but it’s somewhat of an unspoken etiquette that you can be as fierce as you want towards a particular politician or political party, but the Establishment itself should always be respected.
And so it was both fascinating and delightful to watch Cenk enter the lion’s den and trample all over this etiquette, take on the talking-heads and make those heads explode. When a Republican would make a disingenuous argument, Cenk would rip them to shreds and smile while doing so, but he’d even go after so-called progressive Democrats who talked about the need for compromises such as raising the Social Security Retirement age, his incredulous reaction to their unnecessary capitulations a sweet cathartic release of my own frustration at being so casually tossed under the bus by my so-called ‘representatives’ in government.
Cenk spoke truth to power within a machine that essentially runs on deference to that power. The most iconic moment was probably the time Cenk asserted in front of an entire panel of conventional-wisdom peddlers like Jonathan Alter that over 90% of the politicians in both parties in Washington were bought-and-paid-for, and the pundits acted as though he’d just accused Mother Teresa of being a child-molester. Cenk asked them to name a few politicians that weren’t bought, and the best Alter could come up with was “Chuck Schumer”, one of Wall Street’s biggest helpers on the hill.
During Cenk’s run at MSNBC, he lent the network a certain degree of credibility that it had never had before, as it seemed that if they were going to let someone go after the establishment as forcefully as Cenk went after them, they must not be completely in the pockets of the corporate plutocracy.
But alas, it turns out that it was only a fluke. Like Howard Beale in the iconic film Network, Cenk Uygur could only “meddle with the primal forces of nature” for a short while before being taken into a back-room and told how the world really works.
According to Cenk, he was told by one of the producers there that there are ‘two audiences’: the average people to whom he appealed, and the management. And while he was having incredible success with the average people—his ratings were even higher than Ed Schultz’s had been in the same time-slot, he was crushing Wolf Blitzer on a consistent basis, and even beating Fox News among the younger demographic—the management, however, wasn’t happy. They didn’t like his ‘tone’ and felt that he wasn’t ‘playing ball’. Some ‘people in Washington’ weren’t happy with him, and as such he was under warning to tone it down a bit and show some more deference to the politicians who came on his show.
A normal person would have probably nodded his head and accepted this direction, grateful just to be given a second chance, but that’s not Cenk’s style. He promised his TYT viewers when he took the job that he would never become a tool of the establishment, and instead of backing off he doubled-down, and from April through June came down even harder on the crooked politicians, on the disingenuous Republicans, and most of all on the increasingly right-leaning Obama administration. Cenk went unscripted and spoke out forcefully, calling on progressives to stand up and fight, to stop waiting for our leaders in Washington to change things for us and to step up and demand change for ourselves.
Lo and behold, after a few months of this Cenk was called into the office again and told that he would no longer be the host at 6 p.m. They wanted him in a ‘different role’—that of a paid contributor, making the occasional appearance on some of MSNBC’s other shows, just another drop in the ocean of talking-heads at the network’s disposal. Of course, they’d be willing to pay him even more than he was making as a host. Less work, more money? Okay…what’s the catch?
The only catch, it seems, was that Cenk couldn’t talk about what had gone on behind the scenes at MSNBC. He’d basically just discovered from personal experience why the picture of Washington we get from the media is so skewed, but he couldn’t share that insight with his TYT audience if he took the deal. They told him, “Outsiders are cool, everybody would love to be an outsider…but we’re not outsiders. We’re insiders. We’re the establishment.”
Such an incredibly revealing piece of insight would be invaluable to share with The Young Turks audience, to give us a better understanding of the way the media world operates. All he had to do to remain at MSNBC as a contributor was to keep this story to himself.
And so came the Moment of Truth. Cenk had to decide which was his higher priority—his television career or his online audience. He chose us.
On behalf of all TYT members and fans, I want to express our sincerest “Thank You” to Cenk for doing the right thing. We won’t get to see him on TV anymore letting loose on the pundits and bringing the frustration of progressives out into the spotlight for the entire Washington establishment to see, but now we’ll have him all to ourselves again as he can turn all his focus and attention back to the show he created and within which he’s not bound by any strings.
I hope this is the dawn of a new era for TYT. Cenk has now been inside the beast—it swallowed him up, he didn’t sit right in its stomach, and it spit him back out—and now he knows a bit more about its inner workings. And now that he’s got nothing left to lose in terms of the establishment media, he can feel even freer to speak his mind even more forcefully than before.
Thanks to Cenk, we now have a better understanding of how the media machine works and why it’s so pathetically ill-suited to make democracy function properly: it’s not that there’s a secret cabal of powerful men in a back-room somewhere calling all the shots—it’s simply that the people in charge of the media world are closely connected to the people in charge in the political world, and as such they won’t allow their friends in the political world to be challenged too strongly. If you only watch Old Media, you will never get an untainted view of politics.
The New Media is the future of journalism, and with the unprecedented success of The Young Turks, Cenk is leading the way. His stint at MSNBC will probably be spun as a failure in the rest of the media, but to us it should be seen as a triumph. Those of us who’ve chosen to get most of our political commentary from Cenk Uygur can now be sure we picked the right guy. The story of how Cenk refused to be gobbled up by the establishment should be told far and wide, and it should help to get more people watching the show. Let’s keep spreading the word, keep recruiting new soldiers, and keep building the movement. One day it might be big enough to accomplish something, even without the help of the mainstream media.
Long live TYT!!!