Cenk Uygur’s hiring at MSNBC in October 2010 felt like a populist event. When he took over the network’s six p.m. MSNBC Live time slot three months later — for a six-month trial run — underpaid media aspirants everywhere were paying attention. To the rabid followers of Uygur’s online talk show The Young Turks, he was a true independent voice infiltrating the mainstream, an indie-media icon made good. College kids have been following him since Obama was running third in Iowa, and his “young-demo” tag is clearly what got him into the six o’clock chair. “If you can grow an audience in independent media, then you don’t need the mainstream media,” he says. It’s that kind of self-reliance that gives him leverage.
So his quasi-firing this month from MSNBC (he’s quick to point out that he technically quit) certainly stifled his little Rocky Balboa story. MSNBC bumped him from six o’clock in favor of Al Sharpton and tried to demote him to “Contributor,” so he severed ties with the network (reminding us that the first Rocky also had a compromised ending). “The general perception I got?” Uygur says of his stint at MSNBC: “They get a little concerned over there if you go after President Obama.”
Born in Turkey and raised in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of a fiercely-conservative small business owner, Uygur practiced law in D.C. and New York before gravitating toward independent media — where he could hang his own shingle, and make enough money on his own terms to avoid too much corporate compromise. He set up shop at the pre-Stern Sirius Satellite Radio outfit in 2002. With ingenuity and creative stunts (including occasional all-night filibusters), his brash left-wing talk show The Young Turks built up a solid young audience.
Loud and uncompromisingly liberal, Uygur condemns the mainstream media for its “business model based around access to politicians” and rails against Obama either for shifting right or for offering Republican lawmakers “unnecessary preemptive concessions” on important issues. His Sirius show/webcast often pops up, with all its cable-access production values, on Google News when you don’t particularly want it to.
It makes sense, then, that MSNBC would bump him after a trial run. After all, Sharpton is an old cable-news standby, and Uygur was just some youth-baiting stunt hire doing his thesis on “Big Media Gate-Crashing.” So MSNBC sucked up some of his online audience and then sent him away on his Segway. Right?
“Not at all. By the time they gave me six o’clock, I felt like I was coming from in-house” Uygur responds. MSNBC president Phil Griffin hired him directly, and after he polled well as Dylan Ratigan’s guest host Uygur became MSNBC’s number-one fill-in talent. Griffin gave him a six-month trial run at Live in January with acknowledgment that the permanent job was his to lose, and that ratings would be his primary indicator of success. And he delivered the ratings — improving numbers in his time slot across-the-board and beating CNN by as many as 50,000 viewers in the all-important 18-to-49 demo.
So what did him in?
“Phil Griffin called me into a meeting in April,” Uygur says, “and told me, point blank, ‘People in Washington are not happy with your tone.'”
“The message I was getting was very clear,” Uygur says. “They wanted me to ease up on certain Washington politicians.”
Uygur knew to keep his conversation with Griffin private. So his Live staff went on working, blissfully unaware of the new scrutiny. And Uygur still didn’t ease up on Washington, instead criticizing Obama’s war efforts and failed Democratic troop-withdrawal promises. “I just don’t have that sense of allegiance that Democrats have,” Uygur says. “That party mentality. ‘You have to support the party!’ Well, I don’t think that way.” He would see Griffin around the studio, but they would never mention their private talk.
Meanwhile, Sharpton gave Griffin his “Keepers of the Dream” award at a National Action Network event with Harold Ford Jr. and started appearing on the MSNBC premises more and more, often to sub in for busy anchors. One day in late June, Uygur, on a pre-planned vacation and nearing the end of his six-month trial run, found out that Sharpton would be filling in for him that night on Live. Uygur felt safe. Sharpton wasn’t in the fresh-faced, hyper-competitive cable pundit pool that Uygur was vying with, and the always-busy Reverend Al hardly seemed like a serious contender for a nightly anchor gig. So it came as a surprise when Phil Griffin called Uygur into his office a few days later.
“We’re going in a different direction at six o’clock,” Griffin explained. That was all. When Griffin offered him some kind of “weekend contributor” gig instead (remember Albert Brooks in Broadcast News bristling at his role as “the cost-effective reporter”?) Uygur turned it down and went back to The Young Turks full-time. Only later, in the newspaper, did he learn about Sharpton replacing him at six o’clock.
“Al Sharpton came out on Sixty Minutes and announced that he was not going to criticize Obama anymore, on anything,” Uygur says. “And that’s the person that they’re bringing in to replace me? That’s very interesting to me.”
MSNBC representatives did not return calls for comment.
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