“Somewhere along the line the US media dropped the string, and we lost it.”
Mainstream media in America has developed a dichotomous view which pigeonholes issues as a Republican versus Democrat debate, according to former MSNBC Live presenter Cenk Uygur.
Uygur, creator and host of The Young Turks political discussion show, has been very vocal about his parting from MSNBC earlier this year following a six-month presenting stint with the network. He says that the organisation’s president directed him to behave more like a ‘senator’ on air and to take a different political approach in his interviews, before offering him a weekend slot instead of his 6pm weekday one. Uygur turned down the offer in protest.
However, he says that the issues he found within MSNBC exist across the wider span of mainstream US news organisations.
Uygur co-created the political commentary show The Young Turks in 2002. The show, which he co-presents, is now one of the Top 50 YouTube Partners and has grown to become the largest online news show in the world, with one million views a day. It has already reached the 500-million-views mark, according to Uygur. The Young Turks has also won Webby, Shorty and Mashable awards for its political coverage.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie this week, Uygur said that he feels management in US media makes it difficult for their employees to be independent.
Freedom within media organisations is not a black and white issue, he says. “The more power you accumulate in an organisation, the more freedom you have.” A presenter’s ratings and longevity can help them build up that leverage. “For example, Rachel Maddow [on MSNBC] does a very independent show and she gets to do that by having the top show on the network, with strong ratings. Chris Matthews has been on MSNBC for over 15 years.”
However, Uygur says that US media generally takes a more constrained and unquestioning approach to political power.
“You can see that European media is clearly more critical of their governments than in the US. For example, in the US if the Pentagon says something, that’s taken at face value. It seems like sacrilege to question that in mainstream media in the US. You’d have to be a child not to recognise that the Pentagon would not twist things – it’s in its interest. I’m not saying that the Pentagon is ‘bad’, but it’s just the way it is.”
“I gauge the difference between the US and European media from our European audience; they’re usually shocked at the level of self-censorship in US media.”
Uygur says that there are independent media groups in the US on which there would be no reason not to present a political show, if offered – “so long as you have as much editorial freedom as possible.” For Uygur and The Young Turks, that freedom was found by broadcasting their own show online:
Over the past five years, online has given us so much more freedom than the major media organisations. And that’s why people have responded to our show: it’s an oasis in the desert. People say they’re so tired of mainstream news organisations.
It’s people who are tired of the Democratic and Republican games and being manipulated in these nonsense games. People are sick of our politicians being bought – and you would never hear that on television. Ninety per cent of these politicians are ‘bought’ through their donations and it’s something that’s wrong with the [political] system. The people who sign checks to the politicians are the large corporate donors. So when you ask people who politicians are acting for, they don’t say it’s the people but that it’s corporations.
Uygur is not optimistic about a seachange within US media companies, saying: ”It’s not like there will be an epiphany one day when they’ll see it clearer or listen longer and go, ‘oh right, why didn’t we see that?’ I think the change will come from the people. I don’t want that to sound hokey, but that’s what I believe. Either people will leave parties in droves, or audiences will leave in droves.”
“So, from my perspective, it’s bad for the country that the media doesn’t get it. But for a business perspective, it’s great for me,” he laughs.
I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. We’ve got one million views a day, which makes us bigger than any show on MSNBC or CNN. We’re gaining viewers every single day and we’re roaring down on [the networks].