Cenk Uygur is the anchor and co-founder of the Internet talk radio and television show, The Young Turks. In our "10 Questions With..." series, we talk to Cenk about his beginnings as a Republican, getting replaced by Al Sharpton, and finally being able to go on record about Keith Olbermann.
The Daily Banter: You’ve created a viable model for what you’re doing in a very unstable media industry. What tactics did you bet on early that paid off and what advice would you give for someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
Cenk Uygur: The ironic key to success is being open to failure, so we tried everything under the sun to make sure we could find an audience. We were willing to fail at nine out of ten things until we found the one thing that worked. You have to put your ego aside and make sure that you’re open to new experiences, avenues, formats and that was really what led to us finding the right path for us.
The Daily Banter: Like Jon Stewart, you frequently interject humor into news stories and opinion pieces. Do you see that as an important part of the formula when trying to best do what you do?
Cenk Uygur: First of all, thank you for saying that. That’s a great compliment. It’s interesting though, when I talk to anybody in the media, they think we’re a very serious show, but when I talk to actual fans or audience members, probably the comment I get most often is, “I love how funny you guys are.” And my aim isn’t to be serious or to be funny, it’s just to deliver the news in a way that I see it and I think is relatable to people. If I’m amused by a story, I’ll tell you how amused I am by it. If I’m pissed about a story, I’l tell you about how I’m pissed about it.
It really turns the mainstream media model on its head because in their world you’re supposed to be dispassionate and not care about any of the stories you care about. You’re supposed to be a robot who couldn’t care less about the news. We’re the exact opposite. We care a lot about the news, so when you watch our show that’s going to come through in all the different stories we do, whether they’re funny or serious.
The Daily Banter: What was a weirder feeling, taking over for Keith Olbermann, or being replaced by Al Sharpton?
Cenk Uygur: Hahah. Well, I guess taking over for Keith Olbermann because that seemed such a lofty…well I wouldn’t even say goal, because it wasn’t a goal…I wouldn’t have imagined that. But it was trippy and fascinating to get a time-slot because Keith Olbermann had left MSNBC. So that was great.
Al Sharpton taking my time-slot? That’s just funny. Nothing wrong with that; to each his own, bless his heart.
The Daily Banter: Speaking of the Olbermann situation, now that a few years have gone by and you don’t have be as diplomatic, how do you feel about how that all went down?
Cenk Uygur: Well being the enterprising journalist that you are, you’re actually the first to ask me since I can legally talk about it…
I couldn’t comment on it before because of legal issues. But I believe those restrictors have been removed, so let me just say that Keith Olbermann was very important to the country and did a great service to the country when he started to do progressive commentary on MSNBC.
On a personal level, he needs help. I feel bad for him because he’s clearly got clinical issues.
The Daily Banter: You've shifted farther left on the political spectrum as you got older, and you’ve been very public about that. What was the major impetus for that?
Cenk Uygur: Me going from liberal Republican to Independent progressive is definitely a sort of a transition, and it was over a long period of time. It was mainly the Republican Party moving opposed to me moving; there were literally a dozen issues on which they simply went nuts.
And half of this was probably them moving moving to the right and half of it was me realizing they didn’t mean anything they said. For example, when they said they cared about deficits, through long experiences, I realized that they don’t at all. All they care about is cutting taxes for the rich. And they run up huge deficits time and time again. On issues where they could reduce the deficit, they choose not to in order to protect the rich. So half of it was the realization the Republican Party was entirely full of crap and half was, as Charles Barkley says, “I used to be a Republican, until they went nuts.”
If there was a seminal moment, it was the invasion of Iraq.
I most definitively was no longer a Republican on March 19, 2003. The invasion made no sense whatsoever. It was done for all the wrong reasons; any sensible Republican party in the past would have opposed it. In fact, George H. W. Bush and all the people that worked for him opposed it, and for me it was a wake-up moment , not just in regards to the Republican Party, but a wake-up moment about the media.
One, because of how subservient they were to the government at the time, and two, it made clear to me that none of them actually know politics or care bout politics at all. How could none of them at all point out that George H. W. Bush’s policy was 100% diametrically opposed to George W. Bush’s policy? How could you call yourself a Republican and agree with both presidents? It made no logical sense whatsoever, and everyone went along as if did make sense. It gave me a clearer understanding that the political news media in Washington is horrible and they don’t know a thing about politics or the news, otherwise they would have pointed that out. But they’re just hacks that play along in these silly Republican/Democrat games.
And look, if that camel’s back was already broken to a hundred pieces, another straw that came on top was when they started torturing people. I thought, “What kind of a decent human being would still be a Republican?” Unfortunately, the answer to that is somewhere between 35-50 percent of the country...
The Daily Banter: Along those same lines, you’re in this interesting age range where your past is easily found but you’ve been around long enough to have matured and changed opinions. Do you feel that the fact that “the internet is written in pen” is a hinderance to people who may change opinions as they age or is it just something you have to accept and ignore when it’s brought up?
Cenk Uygur: See, I have a gigantic ego because I’m a talk show host so I tell the whole world what I think and somehow I think that’s important, but I have a tiny ego because I don’t think it’s a big deal to change.
In fact, I think you’re kind of stupid if you never change. The world changes around you, and if you’re this stone in this world that changes, you’re not paying attention. I’m always bemused and amused that poeple think changing is a bad thing. My God, if we never changed as a company, we’d be out of business 10 years ago, so no, I’m proud of the changes we’ve had.
This encapsulates my large and small ego perfectly when I say, “I’m always right, because If I’m not right, I’ll just change my opinion and I’ll be right again.”
The Daily Banter: You’ve butted heads with people, even our own Managing Editor Bob Cesca, that you think are too apologetic with Obama. While I know Bob has some thoughts on his defense, I’d rather go big picture. As an independent progressive, do you find it difficult to walk the fine line between trying to rally against GOP rhetoric while also critiquing Democratic politicians?
Cenk Uygur: No, not at all. I find it really easy.
I criticize and critique both Republicans and Democrats endlessly, and I have no qualms doing that. And that’s supposed to be my job; I’m supposed to be a watchdog of the government, not a lapdog for either party.
I think Republicans are a party of and by the rich, and unless you’re incredibly wealthy or a religious zealot you’ve been duped into voting for them, so I obviously have no problem criticizing them. When it comes to Democrats, they’re largely pathetic. They’re paid to lose. Their donors pay them a lot of money to have their ass kicked by Republicans, not on politics, but on policy.
The Daily Banter: One of my favorite stories involving you is the Elian Gonzalez protest story, and I love the episode of Young Turks from a month or so ago where you brought that up, but what are your thoughts, 20 years later, on that whole ordeal and how we as a country reacted to it?
Cenk Uygur: There are so many macro issues involved in the Elian Gonzalez story, but the bottom line is that it was actually really simple: If you’re dad wants you, he gets you; he’s your dad.
Now 20 years later, I’m a dad, and if anything I would double down on my original stance and say, “Are you kidding me?” If I wanted my son back and you say, “No, no, the politics in South Florida dictates X, Y, or Z,” I don’t give a damn about your politics. He’s my son; you don’t get to make that decision.
Look I don’t like the Communist government of Cuba, and I think they’ve held back that country 50 years; it’s frozen in time. But that’s irrelevant. A son grows up with his dad, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. In the end, it was much ado about nothing when it was a very easy case to begin with.
The Daily Banter: Last spring during your Reddit AMA, you listed Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and even Ron Paul as politicians who aren’t full of shit. Want to make any updates to that list?
Cenk Uygur: Alan Grayson?
I mean, some Republicans are such lunatics that they actually mean it, does that count? That’s a dubious list though, and I don’t want to mix those two lists. Like I think Louie Gohmert actually thinks Barack Obama is trying to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire.
The Daily Banter: In 2010, you won the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Is that the best-named award you have ever won, and where is the award itself currently residing?
Cenk Uygur: Yes. I mean, can you win an award with a better name? I challenge you to find one.
And by the way, that describes probably the whole 12 years of The Young Turks, where we’ve been shouting, “The Emperor has no clothes!” and the mainstream media has been insisting that he’s been perfectly clothed.
Where is it? We had a little stand where we put up all our awards, but we just moved. It’s probably in a moving box somewhere, but we’ll put it back up somewhere in the office.
The Daily Banter: What’s your big prediction for the political landscape in advance of the 2016 elections?
Cenk Uygur: Someone will go to the left of Hillary Clinton. They will find great success there. That will force everyone else to go the left of Hillary Clinton, and she’ll find herself outflanked again. Everyone in the pundit class is absolutely convinced she’s going to the candidate, but I think there is going to be another great fight in the Democratic primary.
The Daily Banter: If the world is completely screwed past the point of no return, what do you think was or will be the nail in the coffin?
Cenk Uygur: That’s an easy question for me because I think the only issue that matters is money in politics, and when they unravel the history of what happened in this time period, they will see that every issue that went awry, income inequality, the wars, you name it, will go back to the fact that we allowed incredibly wealthy donors to legally buy and bribe our politicians. Once you allow for that, of course greed is going to run amok. Of course, you’re going to make decisions based on the interest of the rich and the powerful and you’re going to ignore your own citizens.
In essence, that’s the bullet that killed democracy.
Until you undo that, we’re in a world of trouble. And if the world does unravel, it will definitely be because of that.