Cenk Uygur: ‘Bernie Sanders is the political revolution — we are the media revolution’
Cenk Uygur, host of the self-proclaimed “biggest online news show in the world”, The Young Turks , is in typically bombastic form as he speaks on the phone from Los Angeles.
Fresh from interviewing the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he spends the 30 minutes of our conversation relentlessly promoting his company and his show, with his progressive politics acting as a thread to tie it all together.
“As Bernie Sanders is the political revolution, we are the media revolution,” he begins, talking in an easy, compelling style honed by years of broadcasting without the aid of a teleprompter.
“We didn’t get to be this popular because I’m such a great host. That’s not how something this big arises. We got this big because we believe the same thing that the majority of the American people believe, and we’re almost alone in the media believing it.”
Today, The Young Turks (TYT) is an online news network of 32 YouTube channels, 12 of which they own and operate. The main channel, which deals chiefly with politics, entertainment and hard news stories, has 2.7 million subscribers.
The full length Bernie Sanders interview , clocking in at 33 minutes, has so far received more than one million views on YouTube alone. The network is able to exist through a mix of advertising and membership fees. Uygur, the founder of TYT, as it is popularly known, appears to have tapped into something.
“There’s a movement and we’re lucky that we agree with it.”
“Just look at David Brat [the Republican congressman]. He beat Eric Cantor [in 2014], the first time a house majority leader has ever lost an election, and he did it by running against the big banks, from the Republican side. That was a harbinger of things to come.
“People in the establishment said it was just an aberration, but they’re in denial. They love the system. But a guy like Cantor doesn’t lose to a guy like Brat unless there is a tsunami of populism sweeping over the nation. Now with Trump and Sanders that is clearly confirmed. People will continue to ignore it, but they’ll ignore it at their peril, because this tsunami is going to crash over everyone’s heads.”
TYT, Uygur argues, is in prime position to take advantage. “We are the tsunami”, he declares.
“There’s no end to this thing. I think we’re going to topple all the old media. Poor CNN doing all their shows based on insiders, appealing to, at most, 2% of the audience: what a horrible, losing strategy. The average age of their audience is 64 years-old. Our average is under-35. Of course, they have a couple of billion dollars, which helps, but I don’t see how they’ll compete with us in the long-run.”
With his New Jersey accent, Teflon-coated self belief and habit of disparaging his rivals, both in old media and new, with phrases like “horrible” and “losing”, you’d be forgiven for seeing a touch of Donald Trump in Uygur. His company has “conquered the world” he tells me, which is amazing given its “lack of resources”.
“A lot of our competitors are start-ups that people get fascinated by,” he says. “They think: ‘Oh my god, they don’t have any audience and haven’t made any money, but I’ll give them $20m because I know the founder’s dad’.”
He’s arrogant undoubtedly, but there’s something profoundly appealing about his personality. And in American politics, personality goes a long way.
“We’re stretching it, if we’re saying: I’m Turkish, progressive, backed up by facts. So, not very similar,” he laughs, a little taken aback by my Trump comparison. “I’ll grant you this though, I am often bombastic.”
Of course, this is a strength of his.
“In the old days you were taught that you should be dispassionate, but I think the opposite. I hire a lot of hosts, reporters, producers and I hire people who care about the news. The old model, of being dispassionate, neutral: it doesn’t work online. That means I’ve got an opinion and I’m sometimes loud. But you can’t do a revolution quietly.”
I wonder who Uygur is talking about when he uses the phrase “establishment”. Who or what makes up this cabal that is about to be brought crashing down?
“In the media, the best example is CNN. You’ve also got the Washington Post, New York Times, MSNBC, etc. In politics, basically all the Democrat and Republican politicians. The rich and the powerful who have a stranglehold on power and manipulate the system to their benefit.
The Republicans are sick of the corruption. Not that Trump will do anything about it. But at least he’s not bought.
“People say it’s ironic that we criticise the mainstream media and then get most of our stories from it, but that’s not fair. First you have the distinction between TV and print. TV is a wasteland. It’s a bunch of news actors that read off a prompter. We almost never rely on TV news, because they almost never break a story.
“In terms of print, it’s a complicated game. There are a great number of outlets that we rely on and are an essential part of our democracy. The AP , Intercept , McClatchy News , the Guardian , there’s a wonderful list of people who do great news gathering. The right-wing wants to destroy all the media and replace it with their propaganda. We don’t want to destroy it, we want to make it better.
Behind all the bravado, Uygur is one of the sharpest and most thoughtful political commentators in the United States.
On TYT, he has a way of explaining the political landscape with immense clarity and subtlety; two skills many would argue, Uygur chief among them, that are largely absent from most cable news broadcasters.
He also has a habit of making accurate predictions, from Sanders’ rise, which he tells me he saw-coming way back in 2013, to the surge in support for Trump.
“The Republicans love alpha-males, and they’re sick of the corruption too. Not that Trump will do anything about it,” he says. “But at least he’s not bought. And he throws in just the right amount of racism to appeal to the Republican base.”
Uygur’s true passion is money in politics. He founded WolfPac in 2011 , a campaigning organisation which aims to get a constitutional amendment to have publicly funded elections and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision , which allowed billions to flow into the political system through Superpacs.
A former Republican, Uygur is fed up with what he sees as the corruption in Washington and beyond. He’s an activist now, as well as a broadcaster and businessman.
Six years ago, it all looked quite different. At that time, Uygur was combining his work at TYT with a hosting gig at MSNBC, before he resigned dramatically claiming that bosses had told him his confrontational style was not going down well with “people in Washington”. Since then, MSNBC have gradually fired or demoted many of the liberal hosts that worked on the channel alongside Uygur.
Does he regret the decision? Guess.
“I have no regrets, whatsoever. If anything, time has proven me right,” he says. “Although, I appear to think that about a lot of things!” he laughs.
Looking ahead, he sees TYT expanding, hiring new reporters to break stories and then heading to new countries: to China, Russia, the Middle East and the UK, to become “the digital campfire for the world”. For now though, he’s happy with his lot, basking in the glory of his successful Sanders interview.
“We tried to do it from a different perspective to everyone else,” he says of the piece. “Certainly, the numbers were great.”
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