The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur on “fake neutrality” in TV news

Though the official general election season is still months away, your television is likely overrun with incendiary ads and partisan discourse that drive you nuts. But before you turn on that “news” program that makes you feel so much better, Cenk Uygur [say it Jenk YOU-gur], host of Current TV’s gleefully unvarnished nightly news staple The Young Turks, wants you to consider whether it’s really giving you challenging, fact-based analysis — or just snuggling your conviction that the other guy’s a dolt.

“I don’t like the partisanship where people on different cable news outlets play on Team Republican or Team Democrat,” says Uygur, whose televised Turks is an offshoot of his YouTube-based online news show that draws 30 million viewers a month. “I think perspective is OK in that it leads to a more thorough analysis in certain instances. But you have to have truth in advertising. And you have to at least try to get to the facts.”

Think the carefully tempered network newscasts and channels that tout their neutrality are a better option? Not so much, says Uygur.

“I call it ‘fake neutrality’ — where they don’t take sides between facts and lies,” he explains. “They say, ‘The Republicans said this and the Democrats said that’ and that’s their shortcut for being objective. That’s not objective — that’s just neutral. And I think neutrality belongs nowhere. I think it is absolutely useless. Imagine if sports journalists operated the same way as the network news and they said, ‘The 49ers and the Giants played a game and the 49ers say they won and the Giants say they won.’ And that’s it. You’d say, ‘What!? So who won?’”

With that in mind, Uygur dares viewers of all political stripes to check out Turks — and question their own long-held assumptions.

“Of course, 80-90 percent of the time, if they’re on the opposite side of the spectrum, they write in and say, ‘You’re the worst! We hate you!’” he chuckles. “But 10-20 percent of the time, they say, ‘You know what — I hadn’t really thought of it that way. That fact you presented was a fact and it was interesting to see and I learned something from it.’ That’s what I live for.”

Channel Guide Magazine: In your opinion, what’s the ultimate litmus test of truth and objectivity and fairness in news and political coverage, especially when there are so many players on the field now — and so many versions of what viewers find objective?

Cenk Uygur: For example, we talked about Mitt Romney’s tax plan. Trillions of dollars in tax cuts that benefit the richest people in America. I don’t think that CNN would run that story, because the facts are largely against Mitt Romney — because it shows that Mitt Romney just wants to help millionaires. But that is the reality, so why can’t people know it? Right?

On the other hand, I don’t think MSNBC criticizes Obama nearly enough. I think they view themselves as Democrats more than Progressives — at least in prime time. And by the way, that’s not true of every host — I don’t want to be unclear on that.

For example, the administration’s foreclosure settlement that let the banks off the hook. Again, this is objective — because they literally have done no criminal investigation of what is the largest fraud in American history. That’s a fact. At least they should present that fact. And I don’t think you’re going to get that fact a lot on MSNBC.

When it comes to Fox News, where do you start with the problems?

Perspective is OK. But I think that is Fox News’ No. 1 problem is that they pretend to be “fair and balanced.” If they just came right out and said, “Look, we’re a conservative news channel,” I would have a lot less of a problem with Fox News.

CGM: So do you believe that political neutrality is almost more offensive than people or shows or networks who are outright in their political leanings, whether they cop to it or otherwise?

CU: Absolutely. No question about it. When I turn to Fox News, I know I am going to get a healthy dose of lies, a good smattering of propaganda — but at least I am roughly getting the conservative perspective. So there is something to be said for that. When I turn on CNN, I don’t get anything. I get news stories that I read online three hours ago with a lot of blaaaaaaaaaaah attached to it. What’s their value-added?

Now if they actually did their job and they broke down all the different problems to the politicians or their motivations, where they get their money, etc., then I would say, “Well, OK! They’re doing a service there.” But they don’t.

CGM: Is that a by-product of having Fox News and MSNBC come on the scene and CNN attempting to court viewers and ad revenue dollars from corporations who are trying to avoid that distinct left or right lean?

CU: It’s a combination of so many different factors that have led to CNN being the “Constantly Neutral Nonsense” channel [laughs]. One is that, when you have a large corporation like Time Warner running it, I think that they view their international brand of “news gathering” as more important than actually appealing to the audience.

What I mean by that is they make a lot of money internationally with the CNN brand. And their brand doesn’t want to get painted as being on the side of anyone or against anyone — because that might hurt their access to different countries. It might hurt their access to different politicians here in the United States. It’s a byproduct of that corporate control, access to politicians and to countries — and a general corporate aversion to taking a stand. It’s much easier to not take a stand. They’re so scared to take that risk.

Because, to use the example we used before, if you tell people that Mitt Romney’s tax plan predominantly helps the rich, specifically millionaires, it appears that you’re taking a stand. You’re not. You’re just stating that that’s whom it helps. And if you like that, vote for him — and if you don’t, you don’t.

I’m sure millionaires love it! So they would vote for Mitt Romney armed with those facts.

CGM: Does some form of neutrality still belong on the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts — or has all need for that sort of reporting come and gone for good?

CU: I want the prime-time news to be objective — to actually show you the facts. I think it’s a totally different standard, and still a good standard and one you’re never going to quite achieve — but it’s certainly worth trying to achieve.

For example, Sen. Max Baucus, who is a Democrat — his primary donors are healthcare companies. So when he goes to do healthcare reform, it is relevant that he gets $4 million from healthcare companies.

Now my analysis of that would be that it’s SUPER relevant. But I want the prime-time news to at least tell me about that so that the audience is educated about the different factors that go into Max Baucus’ calculation of what kind of healthcare bill he presents. Whereas I think right now, instead of being objective like that, they’re neutral and say, “Well, Max Baucus has said he’s interested in historic healthcare reform and the Republicans say he’s a socialist” and we move on.

And neither one of them is true, by the way. He’s certainly not a socialist — and I don’t think he was all that interested in reforming the healthcare system in any significant way.

Media has the job of sorting out what the reality is. If all they are doing is sorting out the Republican and Democratic talking points, they’re just stenographers. We don’t want them to just be court stenographers — to some degree we want them to be the judge. We want them to say, “OK, here are the relevant facts that you should consider in this case and we want you to be the jury. But if all they are doing is taking down notes of what both lawyers said, that doesn’t necessarily get you to the truth — it just gives you the perspective of two different advocates.

Luckily the viewer doesn’t have to get that complicated. They don’t have to dive into that particular analysis that much. They have a much better way of determining if they are getting the right news product, specifically through their — and let me be crass here — their bulls–t meters. People are sick of that.

And I shouldn’t be telling them any of this, because this is our competitive advantage on The Young Turks. This is how we took their audience away.

We have 650 million views on YouTube because people look at our show and go, “That’s real analysis. They’re not hiding their perspective; they’re not hiding behind the talking points of either side. They’re not partisan; they’re not blindly in favor of the Democrats or the Republicans.”

They tell us all the time on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube comments. And sometimes they set us straight.

To the other cable news outlets, it seems like audience interaction is a gimmick: “And now I’m going to read one of your Tweets!” Well, Wow! Thank you! Whereas the whole point of our show is being one with the audience and serving them so that they actually get something out of their news and analysis.

CGM: Given that element, what was the process like to bring The Young Turks from radio and online availability to television?

CU: It was a very difficult process. And the only way we got on television originally at MSNBC is because, again, the audience is part of the show and they sent so many e-mails and comments to MSNBC that finally the president of MSNBC said, “OK, OK! You win. I’ll talk to the guy!” That’s how we got our foot in the door.

And then given what we did on MSNBC and given what we did online and the reaction of the audience — and given the direction that Current was going — it was an obvious and natural fit. So they were absolutely integral in getting us on television.

What we’re trying to do here at Current is stay true to that audience and keep the show as close as we can to the online version, but with better production qualities and more resources that can make the show even better.

Unfortunately, for a lot of the media, their job is to obscure the facts. And part of the reason the rightwing talk show hosts talk so poorly of science and the universities and some of the media is that, what is the common theme? Facts. They want to replace those facts with their propaganda.

Unfortunately they’re successful with a certain amount to the population, and their meter gets totally skewed. They look at a certainly politician and see their propaganda enforced and say, “YEAH, that’s my guy!” Unfortunately, they’ve sold us a bill of goods.

And that’s why I think that doing objective journalism and real analysis is all the more important.

CGM: Do you think media analysis should be taught in school so that people grow up with an intrinsic sense that what they see even on “the news” may not be what is so? 

CU: In the long run, I think that people eventually reach that conclusion. The problem is getting to that long run. But by pushing not just our show and our network, but by pushing other networks, too, I’m trying to get them to that long run.

CGM: What about televised political ads? So much misinformation is peddled that way — and thanks to the proliferation of Super Pacs and other third party organizations, the candidates don’t have to take responsibility.

CU: Listen, I care so much about public financing that I started a Super Pac (Wolf Pac) to push for public financing of elections and ending corporate personhood.

I wish we would have a sane electoral process. Unfortunately money has corrupted the process so much that it is in the interest of the politicians who get that money to not have a sane and rational electoral process. They want it corrupted by money, and they’re perfectly happy to have it corrupted by money, because the ones at the top now are the ones who won the game of who can be more corrupt and gather more money for their campaigns so that they can win.

If we had a decent electoral process, it would have a crossover effect on the media and in every other realm. Unfortunately we don’t, so we have all these crazy games that we play.

I’ll give you a devastating fact that gives you an excellent sense of how much money controls politics: 93 percent of people who had more money in Congressional races won in House races, and 94 percent of people who had more money in Senate races won their race.

So that gives you a relevant sense of what is the most important factor in the race. It’s the moneeeeeey!

I think it’s so dire that I honestly believe that we’ve lost our representative democracy. That these politicians are making a rational choice to represent the people who got them elected. Which is donors. Not the voters. So we basically have taxation without representation. And that’s exactly why I talk about the two main issues that I talk about: political reform and media reform.

Political reform can even the playing field so that money isn’t the sole controlling factor of these elections — through public financing and cutting off the spigot of money from corporate donations.

Then media reform can then bring us back to objective journalism and analysis from both sides, from their perspectives, so that people have a decent basis for making decisions in our democracy. Right now there is so much unabated propaganda with no response from the other side.

The Young Turks airs weeknights at 7/6pm CT on Current TV.

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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