"Cenk Uygur on His New Show at Current, Bringing a New Generation to TV News, and His Pop Culture Obsessions"
When Cenk Uygur declined to renew his contract with MSNBC earlier this year, he said it was out of a desire not to toe an establishment line he felt was being laid down for him by the network. In September, Current TV announced that it had hired him to join fellow progressive firebrand Keith Olbermann, starting a new show that will premiere on Monday, December 5 at 7pm. I spoke to him about the creative freedom he says he’s found at Current, what he looks for in a guest and a panel, and the themes that run through his favorite movies and television shows.
When you left MSNBC, you talked about the limitations of the role the network seemed to want you to play. And your online show’s always seemed very liberating. How much freedom do you feel you have at Current to define your role and the tone of the show?
It appears that I have 100 percent freedom. There has been absolutely no restraint here whatsoever, God bless their hearts. No restraint stylistically. No restraint substantively. It’s been a blessing. It’s not a dig on MSNBC, they do what they do. You’ve got a system over there…the good hosts begin to stray from that and put their own stamp on that. Here we get to start fresh and create a whole different kind of show. I think people will look at and it say this isn’t a normal cable news show
What do you think Current’s learned from Keith Olbermann’s tenure? Has his experience made for a smoother transition for you? Taken together, how do you think you and Olbermann define Current’s brand?
They’ve created an outlet here on television that lets strong folks do strong programming. Nobody’s going to check Keith Olbermann. That reassured me that this was a place where I was going to get to create an independent program.
Did the fact that Current signed Olbermann make the network a more attractive destination for you?
Sure, yeah. That meant that they were making a significant investment in progressive programming and strong independent programming, and they were headed in the right direction.
You’ve talked about the importance of developing younger audiences. How do you plan to do that? Especially on a channel that may not be a regular part of younger viewers’ rotation?
I think we have a younger audience because we do things differently. It’s a much more conversational, relaxed, irreeverant show. It’s not stiff. The whole thing reeks of faith…I just read an article the other day where it says it turns out the younger generation is a little more skeptical. They’re looking for something genuine. So many of the other shows use the same, old, tired analysts. We’ve got different strong progressive analysts.
What do you think of moves like NBC’s hiring of Chelsea Clinton to do segments? Do younger viewers want to see themselves on screen? A certain kind of tone? A style of presenting content?
I’m always amused by how they try to fix real issues that they have by putting a facade on it. We hired a young person! We hired Chelsea Clinton! She’s a young person and she has a famous name! The problem is you don’t understand that you’re doing programming from 1955. So much of television is so fake. If you take a young person and insert it into a fake facade, it reinforces the idea that it’s a facade. You haven’t solved the problem at all…Meghan McCain, like her or dislike her, she has strong views, there’s value in her message. But you want to see someone who’s keeping it real. Wes Clark Jr. , we don’t have him as a co-host because he’s the son of the general. He ran in, what, 2004? It’s been a long time. We use him because that guy is passionate and the audience reacts to him. He reaches his audience at their gut level.
Do you think part of what younger audiences are looking for is programming that’s about dismantling the myth of journalistics objectivity?
I think that overall the media is sick and it doesn’t even know it. And the disease is neutrality. And it drives me crazy when they don’t know the difference between neutrality and objectivity. I think objectivity is a good thing to try for even if you don’t reach it. I think that’s a minor problem. A much bigger problem is neutrality: Steelers and Cowboys play, Steelers win 42-0, I’m not going to say the Cowobys won. I’m not going to say that. It’s not what happened. If you tell me they played equally well, you’ve done a horrible job of bringing people the news. And I think that’s the current state of the mainstream media. They keep calling it even when it ain’t even.
What are your plans to make the show new-media friendly? Will there be a blog? Episodes available as podcasts?
First of all, the Current show’s going to be very interactive. The last block of the show is dedicated to interaction with the audience. Sometimes it’ll be videos that will be sent in. We’ll constantly be doing polls and asking for feedback, [using] Facebook, Twitter. We’re going to try to gather the sense of the audience every night and have a real interaction with them in the last block of the show. Sometimes the anchors just read the tweets. If [random Tweeter] Bob is saying something, I’m actually going ot have a reaction to it. Sometimes it’s going to be, that’s a good idea. And sometime I’m going to say that’s crazy. We hope that it’s genuine as opposed to forced, which is what I often sense from the anchors who gets asked by their producers to read some Tweets. Last night I did a Reddit chat, and someone asked, ‘if you had to pick a Republican primary candidate, who would you pick?’ And I said ‘That’s a great question, I’ve never gotten that.’ We’re doing practice shows this week and we’ll be answering that question.
And what about getting the show up and online for viewers who don’t get Current as part of their cable package?
We’ve partly solved that through the synergy with the youngturks.com. We’re still doing an online show two hours a day. There’ll still be some crossover on the topics…we might get questions on the online show that we’ll answer on the Current show. [Current's representatives also say that clips of the show will go up within an hour of its air time for viewers who can't get the channel.]
How will your show use content generated by popular online news blogs? Will you be giving a voice to the blogosphere?
No one scours the internet for news and video more than the Young Turks. So we have all the progressive websites that we look at every single day, and we integrate that into the show more thoroughly than anyone else. It’s in our DNA. You get much direct and accurate information. I mean CNN, are you really getting news from them? They never give any context. Often times, it’s a waste of time. That’s why I think the blogs are so much better. ThinkProgress always has what a politician said, here are their previous quotes, here’s their record, and that’s great. That’s why we go to your guys.
And how about the roster of people you bring onto your show? Chris Hayes has done a really nice job putting together diverse panels for his MSNBC weekend show. Will you be doing the same? And what makes for a good guest?
I care so much more about diveristy of ideas and how smart and engaging a guest is. And I am positive, just becuase I’m a progressive in my core that you get the kind of diversity you’re looking for anyway [by doing that]. On the online show you’ve got a Turkish host, an Armenian co-host, our executive producer is African-American. Back in the day, we were kind of Muslim and kind of Jewish. All this happened becuase we were open-minded to who was the best candidates for those jobs.
More important than anything else is honesty. We don’t want talking points. I hate talking points. I want a genuine, interesting conversation. If I get a sense of someone saying something they’re supposed to say and they’re fake in any way, not interesting, there is some chance we’ll secretly ban them from the show.
Are you going to have a ban list?
[In a joking tone] We’re looking forward to creating one. It’ll be the oppositie of mainstream media bans. People don’t know this, but it happens. You get banned if you say something interesting. Here if you don’t say something interesting and dangerous, you get banned. I’d feel bad for the people we ditched.
You’ve pushed the Obama administration very hard from the left. Going into an election years, what are your political goals for the show? How much will you focus on activating your viewers, and in which directions?
I’m very clear on this. My one and only political goal now is campaign finance reform. I think money is the Rosetta Stone of politics. Find out what side the money is on and guaranteed that’s the side who will win. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. We had giant Democratic majorities in the House, we had a filibuster-proof Senate, we had a Democratic president, and they were scared of their own shadows. I think we are saying what a lot of people are thinking. It’s exprssed best by a woman I ran into at an airport. She’s not that deep into politics. She was really excited to vote for Obama, but she’s not going to vote in 2012, because after Obama, what’s left to hope? We gave them everything they ever needed, and they gave us 5 percent. If they were real progressives, they should have had a real conversation about single payer. I’m not sure where I would have come out on single payer. But we didn’t have a real conversation about the public option. And then they called it historic health care reform, and that’s one of the bills they did the best on.
As a culture writer, I have to ask: on your Young Turks bio page, you list your favorite movies as Braveheart and Dead Poet’s Society, and your favorite television shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lost, Sopranos, Rescue Me, The Wire, and Deadwood. Do you see common threads running through these works?
I would like to retract Lost. The two themes are honesty. Look at The Wire. is there a more honest show on television? That’s life in Baltimore, and people love it becuase they’re like damn, that’s so true. Name a show that does that, I’m a big fan of. The second theme is live life to it’s fullest and be passionate. I’m very corny about that stuff. I don’t know if it’s my Mediterranean roots. But I’m a passionate guy. I want to do everything I do 100 percent.
What role do you think culture plays in shaping progressive narratives?
Absolutely. Ana Kasparian, she and I do a whole hour of pop culture, basically, and social news. So we’re going to bring that to some degree to Current. As we’ve been doing these practice shows, it’s no holds barred. There are interesting, wacky news stories—what I want to do is deliver some core message through those stories. In a story we did about Lindsay Lohan a year ago, she shows up late to an interview, everyoen’s super-upset with her, and she walks in, and everyone lights up and tells her how awesome she is. That’s an interesting core story about access, whether it’s celebrities or politicians. People need to kiss their ass to get that access, and it warps everything around them. It warps what you see on TV, and it warps the politicians and the celebrities.