He might be the host and founder of the most-watched online news show in the world but Cenk Uygur certainly enjoys making enemies.
Uygur, 44, is presenter of The Young Turks, a two-hour nightly online bulletin that has clocked up a staggering 2 billion views on YouTube and claims to be challenging CNN as a destination for news.
The original Young Turk – he was born in Istanbul and moved to the United States when he was eight – admits to getting up people’s noses. He describes himself as a “progressive” and berates Barack Obama for having done “a mediocre to bad job”.
Many professional journalists don’t like him, he notes without an ounce of regret. “If you mention The Young Turks to traditional media in Washington it rankles them – they get visibly agitated [and say] ‘Oh, purr-lease! We are legitimate!’,” he says, on a stopover in London. “Is that because they do Pentagon press releases better than anyone else?”
Uygur is typical of the challenger brand – he is the “Outsider”, a disruptor of old ways and a voice for the young. He gets visibly excited when discussing demographics, with 78 per cent of the TYT audience under 35. By contrast, the average age of viewers of Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly is 72. “He might as well be doing a show at a senior citizens’ centre,” says Uygur.
He is scornful of the influence of television news. “They boast ‘We are in 100 million homes’. Congratulations! We are on YouTube, we are in every home.”
More than that, he says the American news networks have become corrupted.
“Fox News say they are fair and balanced and it’s so preposterous that it’s over-the-top Orwellian. It’s almost an effort to get you to stop believing everyone.” Fox has so “poisoned the well” that viewers are cynical of all TV news. “It’s a brilliant move by [Fox News president] Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, who have no intention of being fair and balanced ever.”
He is even more eager to attack CNN, with which TYT is competing for viewers on the left of the political spectrum.
“US media has interpreted [objectivity] to mean you should be neutral. That’s an enormous distinction,” he says. “If CNN covered sports, every game would be a tie.”
It’s an interesting observation and the BBC is experiencing similar problems around impartiality, notably in coverage of the recent violence in Gaza. TYT – which began as a radio show on Sirius in 2002 – is not afraid to be partial. “We definitely have a point of view,” says Uygur. “We will give you the news story in an interesting way and then give you our analysis of it.”
He claims the audience – TYT gets 75 million views a month – is desperate to get the show’s take on a big breaking story.
It’s all very well but TYT doesn’t do original reporting. Uygur admits he would love to have a news-gathering operation but says: “We can’t afford it.” He remarks cryptically (and with loud laughter) on recent headline-grabbing foreign reportage by video news site Vice News. “Bless their hearts they have found the magic answers to revenue-raising!”
He has expanded the flagship show to a network of 35 online channels, covering entertainment (Pop Trigger), film (What the Flick), sports (TYT Sports) and college life (TYT University). With its expertise in online video, TYT is working on production deals with “massive traditional media companies”, he says.
The company has had alliances before, not always successfully. The show was hosted by Current TV until Al Gore’s network was bought by Al-Jazeera, which axed Uygur’s slot. He also had a deal with MSNBC, which collapsed in 2011.
According to Uygur he was too nonconformist for a network which he derides as a mouthpiece for the Democrat Party. “I literally got a speech from the head of MSNBC in his office saying outsiders are cool they wear leather jackets and ride motor cycles but we are insiders, we are the establishment and you have to act like it. It was like out of a movie, I couldn’t quite believe he was saying it and I thought ‘no way am I doing that’.”
This story “got me credibility”, he says. “I turned down over $1m.”
He was once a Republican (“I was a Liberal republican… which doesn’t exist any more”) but now describes himself as an “independent progressive”. He asserts that the “conventional wisdom that America is a centre-right country” is “utterly false” and that progressive views hold sway on all major issues.
Television, where “almost everything is conservative”, is ignoring the 60 per cent of Americans who hold these views, he argues. Worse, cliquey TV news shows cater only to the 2 per cent of Washington “insiders”. TYT is speaking to the 98 per cent “not in power”.
The appeal seems very much like that of TV political satirists such as Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. Uygur admits “our perspective is probably incredibly similar” but TYT is “more serious”.
The obstreperous young Turk says he may step back a little as CEO and the on-screen face of TYT. “I would rather not do two full-time jobs the rest of my life.”
But recruiting new presenters from old-fashioned TV news requires them to be deprogrammed to make them sound more natural. “It’s hard for them to break out of their plastic mould,” says Uygur. “We are the non-robot channel. What do people want, fake or real?”
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