Blog Post

The Young Turks–MSNBC dispute is a cautionary tale

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

It’s never easy to shift from working as an independent creator to entering the employ of a multinational corporation — and it’s even tougher if you’ve made your name as an independent political pundit, one whose reputation was based on an ability to speak freely and fiercely. This week’s drama between The Young Turks creator and host Cenk Uygur and MSNBC, therefore, has a sad tinge of inevitability to it, with the major twist being just how loudly Uygur is raging against his former employer.

Since the creation of the Young Turks radio show in 2002, Uygur has been a vocal left-wing voice in political commentary, especially after coming to the online video world and becoming one of YouTube’s (s GOOG) most prominent political commentary channels. That success lead him to appear as a commentator on numerous mainstream news programs, with Uygur eventually taking over the hosting of MSNBC Live.

However, this week it was announced that Uygur would not be returning to the show — for reasons Uygur and MSNBC can’t agree on, and been publicly disputing. That dispute has raged on from the New York Times (s NYT) to Keith Olbermann’s new Current-based Countdown show to the Young Turks YouTube channel.

Uygur’s primary point of contention is that after six months of hosting MSNBC Live, and significantly improving the ratings (including beating CNN’s The Situation Room in the 18-34 year old demographic), he was brought in for a meeting with MSNBC president Phil Griffin. There he was told that he would no longer be hosting Live, and instead would be given a new contract that involved hosting a weekend show. That would have be considered a demotion, even though Uygur was reportedly offered double the paycheck, according to his report on YouTube. Instead of taking the money, Uygur walked away from the deal.

According to the Times, Uygur believed that the reason for this change came from political pressure from the Obama administration, which Uygur has been very vocal in criticizing. This is something Griffin denied in the same article, claiming that “the people in Washington” he had mentioned being unhappy with Uygur’s hosting were not White House officials but MSNBC producers.

Uygur’s most recent meeting with Griffin was a follow-up to an earlier conversation in April, in which Griffin told the host he was not booking enough Republican guests — an assessment Uygur disagreed with — and that he “used his arms too much when he talked.” However, the most notable statement reported coming out of that conversation, in both the Times and Uygur’s comments on YouTube and Countdown, was Griffin’s statement that the channel was part of the “establishment,” and that Uygur needed to “act like it.”

This appears to be the real crux of Uygur’s complaint: the idea of being forced to fit into the mainstream, when so much of his past commentary work had been based on criticizing the way mainstream media covers politics. As he told Olbermann during Countdown, his prior perceptions about how mainstream news works were confirmed as a result of his experience working with MSNBC.

“Are we [the mainstream media] going to be honest with our audience? Or are we going to trade information and truth we’re supposed to be gathering for access?,” was how Uygur summed up the debate for Olbermann. “Now that I’ve been inside that machine, it turns out that we were totally right about our outside perception of it. They are obsessed with access.”

There’s a cautionary tale here, because for many people working on the web, getting the kind of opportunities Uygur has gotten are the ultimate goal. But leaving behind the web’s independence for a larger platform can require compromises. And depending on the personalities involved, those compromises might be impossible.

Uygur, let’s be clear, will probably be just fine. Even if a potential deal with Current doesn’t work out, The Young Turks is still a notable independent web presence with a devoted audience. As Uygur concluded on YouTube:

I was able to take that tough stance [about MSNBC], and why? For the same reason I was able to get onto MSNBC in the first place — you guys. I’ve got the TYT army behind me. I’ve got a show that’s sitting here at half a billion views — up to a million views a day. So I can come back here and do exactly the kind of show I want to do, and kick ass and give you the actual truth and take it to power… Power is very very strong, and has so much influence in our media. But here at the Young Turks we’re going to fight against that.

13 Responses to “The Young Turks–MSNBC dispute is a cautionary tale”

  1. It’s amazing that the people on Fox lie and fabricate phony videos on a daily basis and nothing happens to them. I guess this is the right-winging of America.

  2. maurao

    To let this bright young guy go is stupid. People want the unvarnished news- both sides of the story. It is also helpful to see a man from the Middle East who is rational and involved with his adopted country(USA)
    Olberman was on forever- tone???
    The Rev. is more “toned” than Cenk- puleeze- what is really going on here
    I thought the Fox lived across the street.

  3. lapaix

    I thought Cenk DID tone it down a little for MSNBC, and I’m glad he refused to take the money and go along with The Club. I’ll watch Cenk on The Young Turks and appreciate his truth telling without any corporate influence. I think his internet show is more informative and entertaining anyway. The mainstream media are not the only game in town. I’ll pay money (and I do) to support people who have integrity and tell the truth. Fortunately for my pocketbook, there are not too many I fork over $ to. Cenk owed his loyal TYT listeners an explanation of why he wasn’t on MSNBC anymore after he returned from vacation, and that’s what he gave us. A number of us weren’t thrilled when he took the position at MSNBC, and he explained at that time his rationale for doing it. When he quit, he did the same thing. He was leveling with US, his loyal following. That was what his long explanation was about, not to raise a big controversy with MSNBC. The head of MSNBC can pretend anything he wants, but the truth will come out. Anyone who has half a brain knows our mainstream media are not doing a good job. The emperor has no clothes, and Cenk isn’t going to pretend he does.

  4. I’d come down on the side of Cenk every time. Believability, consistency, forthrightness.

    MSNBC continue to copout. I look forward to Cenk moving to CURRENT – I just wish Al Gore would come up with the bucks for HiDef. :-]

  5. Its a great lost that Cenk not on MSNBC like I said they make critical thinking progressive leave Bill Maher,Keith Olbermann both forced off who is going to challenge the week Democrats or crazy Bible thumping war lusting Republicans.

  6. 1ProudVet

    Cenk Uygur is what happens when leftwingers try to “out rightwing” right-wingers. Go listen to Sirius Left…Alex Bennett, Lynn Samuels, Dave Marsh, and Mike Feder rail against President Obama like righwingers. They refuse to hold democrats, who’ve been on their backs since the Clinton tax deal in 1993, accountable. That tells me there’s something else going on. For instance, Cenk would get mildly exercised by the news that Harry Reid, the direction of David Vitter, held “proforma” sessions during the Memorial Day break in order to ensure President Obama could not make any recess appointments, namely Elizabeth Warren. Now, if President Obama did something that blatant, liberals would be screaming bloody murder. Nancy Pelosi refused to leave the Public Option “reconciled” bill, yet gets zero criticism. Yet, liberals are still “bitching” about what President Obama did during that whole debate. Remember, Nancy Pelosi gave the blue dogs HUGE cover. Hey, didn’t George Bush’s “surge” take place in 2007 when Pelosi and Reid ran both houses of Congress?

  7. Am I the only one that see’s the main point?
    If the media does not bring the truth to us and actually control’s the “access” to the news, they are but mere propaganda.

    We need a media that understands the balance that I discuss at because they are the final “circuit breaker” in our democracy.

  8. To big to fail is what we are dealing with. Our media needs major overhaul where a good news journalist can speak the truth without worrying of being asked to tone it down. I’m done with MSNBC and all the other cable news .. They forced Rattigan to tone it down . The bad stuff in Washington isn’t going to change by toning it down.

  9. Liz, I’m wondering just how many of today’s “professional journalists” are prepared to take a principled stand, like Mr. Uygur?

    The sad truth is that while Murdoch’s competitors are eager to point out the apparent flaws in the News Corp culture, they offer that perspective from within the status-quo of their own dysfunctional legacy that has contributed to the shadow cast over all mainstream media.