The Sunday Conversation: Cenk Uygur

Cenk Uygur, 41, brings his round-table talk show, “The Young Turks,” to Current TV this month after last summer’s parting of the ways with MSNBC, where he spent just six months.

I wanted to talk to you about why you started out as a Republican and then switched to — what would you call yourself, a liberal?

I didn’t really switch, aside from the fact that I’m no longer a Republican. When I was growing up I was a liberal Republican in New Jersey. Now of course that is an extinct species. There are no liberal Republicans left. There aren’t even any moderate Republicans. I was liberal on social issues, which I still am, and I was conservative on fiscal issues. Then I realized the Republican Party is not conservative on fiscal issues. The last Republican president to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower.

How would you describe yourself?

I am definitely progressive. Now it gets muddled when you get into labels on specific issues. If you’re for a balanced budget, does that make you conservative or does that make you liberal? But in terms of social issues and my outlook on life, there’s no question that I’m progressive. But if you look issue by issue on my stands, with the exception of immigration, I’m exactly where the center of the country is. But then the center of the country is far to the left of where Washington is and far to the left of conventional wisdom.


How did “The Young Turks” come about?

We first started as a show on Sirius L.A. Radio [in 2002]. We were doing a fun show that was half politics, half pop culture. And it got more political during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq because, one, we couldn’t believe we were invading Iraq when it made no sense whatsoever. Number two, we couldn’t believe almost no one else was saying that in the media, so we felt almost an obligation to take the show in a more political direction. And then we started an online show in December of 2005.

The peg for this interview is, of course, your new show on Current TV, but you dated MSNBC for a while. Why didn’t you marry them?

I got a speech about how Washington didn’t like my tone, and MSNBC was establishment and I had to act like it.

The head of MSNBC [Phil Griffin] started by saying, “The guys who are outsiders are cool. I’d love to be the outsider, but we’re not. We’re insiders. We’re part of the establishment, and you have to recognize that. And Washington is not happy with your tone.”

That was several months before they made the decision on who was getting 6 o’clock, and when I heard that, I thought I won’t act on it, because usually in television, the only thing that matters is ratings. And they told me, “Your ratings are great, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction at 6 o’clock.” Even though they made me a great offer on the weekends with a lot of money, I turned it down because I didn’t want to do that kind of show.

You’re a critic of mainstream news, but you do rely on it for source material. Where else do you get information?

During the Iraq war and the lead up to the Iraq war, it’s not like the New York Times and the Washington Post don’t have the right stories. They do. The problem is they’re on Page A17. That’s a political decision. I once wrote a blog for the Huffington post, I believe it was titled “Fire the Editors.” And so yes, there’s still great reporting in these individual papers, and you have to make a distinction between print and television. Vanity Fair does great stories, Rolling Stone does great stories, television is a wasteland.

What do you think of coverage of the Occupy movement?

In the beginning it was horrible. If they covered it at all, it was dismissive and snide. But it got better, it got more coverage. It’s still maddening when every time they do a story, they go, “I don’t know what these guys want.” They’re seeing that people in the 1% have too much power and they use that power to influence politicians at the cost of the other 99%. It’s not that complicated.

Why do you think it was snide?

A lot of people on television make a tremendous amount of money, and they live in a bubble where they don’t have the problems the 99% have. So they just don’t get it.

Why do you cover the Oscars and did you really go up to celebrities on the red carpet and ask them who they were?

You want to talk about inflated egos, the only place that might be worse than Washington is Hollywood. I’m always amused when celebrities are offended if you don’t know who they are or what their latest project was.