After giving a nearly six-month tryout for the internet talk show host Cenk Uygur, the cable news channel MSNBC is preparing to instead award its 6:00 p.m. prime-time slot to the Reverend Al Sharpton. MSNBC President Phil Griffin offered Uygur a well-paid but lower-profile on-air slot, but Uygur rejected the offer, saying the decision to demote him was politically motivated. Uygur is known for aggressively interrogating leading Washington figures and challenging the political establishment, which he alleges made some MSNBC executives uneasy. He said Griffin had called him into his office in April and told him he had been talking to people in Washington and that they did not like Uygur’s tone. We speak with Uygur, who also blogs at several liberal websites and hosts a popular internet and radio show, "The Young Turks." "It is corporate media... It’s not just MSNBC. You think that the CNN hosts can aggressively challenge government officials? I don’t think so,” says Uygur. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to media news. After giving a nearly six-month tryout for the internet talk show host Cenk Uygur, the cable news channel MSNBC is preparing to instead award its 6:00 p.m. prime-time slot to the Reverend Al Sharpton. MSNBC president Phil Griffin offered Uygur a well-paid but lower-profile on-air slot, but Uygur rejected the offer, saying the decision to demote him was politically motivated.
Uygur is known for aggressively interrogating leading Washington figures and challenging the political establishment, which he alleges made some MSNBC executives uneasy. On his internet talk show, The Young Turks, Uygur described what happened last April when Griffin called him into his office.
CENK UYGUR: I got pulled in, and they told me, "Hey, listen. We were just"—or, it was actually one specific person, the head of MSNBC. He said, "I was just in Washington, and people in Washington tell me that they’re concerned about your tone." I was like, "Whoa!"
JUAN GONZALEZ: Uygur said Griffin also reminded him that the channel was part of the "establishment," so he must conduct himself accordingly.
This is not the first time a journalist has accused MSNBC of applying subtle, yet clear pressure to shape its political programming. Jessica Yellin covered the White House for MSNBC and ABC News in 2002 and 2003 at the onset of the Iraq War. In 2008, she told Anderson Cooper that news executives meddled with how she covered the war.
JESSICA YELLIN: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings. And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives—and I was not at this network at the time—but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president. I think, over time, as President Bush’s—
ANDERSON COOPER: Really? You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?
JESSICA YELLIN: Not in that exact—they wouldn’t say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces, they would push me in different directions, they would turn down stories that were more critical, and try to put on pieces that were more positive. Yes, that was my experience.
AMY GOODMAN: And in that case, she was talking about the Bush administration. That was Jessica Yellin, former White House correspondent for MSNBC.
We invited MSNBC to join us today, but they declined. However, MSNBC spokesperson Jeremy Gaines did provide us with the following statement. Quote: "Cenk’s claims are completely baseless. In fact, we were working on a new contract, to develop him into an even bigger television talent. We did have numerous conversations with Cenk about his style, not substance. It’s unfortunate that he’s decided to depart in such a negative fashion," he wrote.
Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said Wednesday in an email to the New York Times that his staff did not raise any concerns about Cenk Uygur’s show "with Phil Griffin or anyone else" at MSNBC.
So, well, Cenk Uygur is joining us himself from Los Angeles to speak for himself. In addition to his recent prime-time talk show on MSNBC, Cenk Uygur blogs at several liberal websites and hosts a popular internet and radio show called The Young Turks.
Cenk, welcome to Democracy Now! What happened?
CENK UYGUR: Well, it’s exactly as I explained on The Young Turks. You know, I was going along doing a program. You know, they did have, early on, some stylistic comments. I was trying to listen to them, you know, in terms of body language—don’t wave your arms, act like a senator. I don’t know why you would want a talk show host to act like a senator, but fine, it’s the medium that you’re working in. If I’m working on the internet, you know, it’s different than working on television. And, you know, taking those points is no problem at all.
But in April, when they pulled me in, Phil Griffin gave me this big speech about how we’re the establishment, and it would be cool to be like outsiders, but we’re not, we’re insiders, and we have to act like it. And I remember thinking at the time, well, there’s no way I’m going to do that. So I’m going to give them what I got. And then, if they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.
And honestly, I didn’t know which way they were going to go with it, because I know how much they care about ratings. So I figured if I delivered good ratings, that that would probably do the job. Well, it didn’t, because I delivered really good ratings, beating CNN significantly, handily, and also improving upon the numbers from last year. So there’s no question about the ratings. And then they pulled me in and said, "Well, you know, we’re going to go in a different direction at 6:00 anyway." And when I asked them about it, they didn’t really have a good answer as to why, leading me to believe that that giant conversation we had three months ago might have been part of the reason.
AMY GOODMAN: In December of last year, Phil Donahue joined Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker on their show to discuss his ouster from MSNBC during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Donahue was the lone journalist daring to publicly oppose the war at its onset.
PHIL DONAHUE: I opposed the war.
ELIOT SPITZER: And was that one of the reasons they pushed you off?
PHIL DONAHUE: Oh, read the memo—
ELIOT SPITZER: Right, right.
PHIL DONAHUE: —published by the New York Times.
ELIOT SPITZER: So, your—
PHIL DONAHUE: "Donahue’s antiwar voice is not going to work against the flag waving on the other station." Donahue and any antiwar voice in 2002—
ELIOT SPITZER: Right, right.
PHIL DONAHUE: Remember, they’re all doing what I did then now.
ELIOT SPITZER: Right.
PHIL DONAHUE: I mean, the whole channel is now.
KATHLEEN PARKER: But listen—
PHIL DONAHUE: You could not criticize this war four months before the invasion.
ELIOT SPITZER: Right.
PHIL DONAHUE: It was not good for business. You had—General Electric had no interest in featuring an old talk show host who was against the president’s war. It was—it was unpopular. You weren’t American. This is what you get with corporate media. It’s going to happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: Cenk Uygur, does your situation compare to that of Phil Donahue’s? Do you think Al Sharpton would take a very different political line than you would?
CENK UYGUR: So, there’s a couple of different things here. First of all, it’s not just Phil Donahue. I had Jesse Ventura on The Young Turks a little while ago, maybe over a year ago. And what people don’t remember is that he also had a big contract from MSNBC at the time to do a show, and they told him, "You know what? It’s OK. Take the money. You don’t even have to do the show." Why? He said they found out that he was against the Iraq War and said, "That’s OK. We don’t want you on air then." OK?
And Ashleigh Banfield, when she gave a great speech in Kansas about how the war didn’t make any sense, she went from their star reporter to literally being moved into a closet. And they wouldn’t even let her out of her contract so she can go on another network and talk. It was unbelievable.
Now, the distinction there is Donahue, Ventura, Banfield were all under different management at MSNBC. So you have to be clear on that, and you can’t put that on them. But the similarity is that it is corporate media, right? And whether it’s the pressure to go right, the pressure to go left, pressure to appease the Bush administration, or pressure to appease the Obama administration, it exists. And it’s not just MSNBC. You think that the CNN hosts can aggressively challenge government officials? I don’t think so. It doesn’t look that way at all. And of course, when you get to Fox News, they’re a whole different animal: they’re purely propaganda. So, to me, this is not an issue of just MSNBC management now, no.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But Cenk, also there are several liberal hosts still on MSNBC, but they also manage to be basically very supportive of the Obama administration. You were perhaps one of the most critical hosts, in terms of raising questions about the Obama administration’s policies.
CENK UYGUR: Well, there’s no question that I was by far the least supportive of the Obama administration. I saw your last segment, and I couldn’t agree more with your guest. I think President Obama is clearly, you know, a Republican. I know, because in the 1990s I was a Republican, and he’s way to the right of me, and I’ve hardly changed any positions. The political spectrum has shifted massively to the right in this country, and nobody wants to talk about it.
And the Obama, you know, supporters, I don’t know what they want the hosts to do. So, we fought so hard to make sure that Bush didn’t cut Social Security. So are we supposed to cheer when Obama cuts Social Security? We fought so hard to make sure that Bush didn’t give more tax cuts to the rich. Are we supposed to cheer when Obama gives more tax cuts to the rich? And the list goes on and on.
Now, it’s very important for me to make this distinction, because I really believe it. The hosts are totally different than the management. And it is an interesting way that you acquire power within these corporate organizations, right? I think Rachel Maddow has done a brilliant job in becoming more and more independent. And I think she does a fantastic progressive show, and she did it by accruing power, by getting better and better ratings. And so, my beef is not with anybody on air at MSNBC at all. I think Ed Schultz does a strong show. And, you know, if they have slight differences of opinion on—
AMY GOODMAN: Cenk, we only have 20 seconds. I want to ask you—MSNBC said they were offering you a better position. Can you respond to that?
CENK UYGUR: Well, better as in a lot more money, but it was for weekend hosting and for a contributor role.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank—
CENK UYGUR: So, I—
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Five seconds.
CENK UYGUR: So, it’s not like there was a disgruntled employee or not. I just didn’t want to do the kind of programming they wanted me to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Cenk Uygur, I want to thank you for being with us, the "Young Turk."