Thursday, July 21, 2011
Well, as somebody who's never met a bridge he couldn't plant 600 pounds of explosives under, I'll say this for Cenk Uygur: The boy's got some industrial-sized balls on him.
Rather than even wait for a planned teleconference to explain his sudden departure from MSNBC, Uygur -- who always seems to be on a Red Bull IV drip anyway -- took to the comfortable environs of his Young Turks YouTube channel last night to basically fire a couple of impressive parting shots at his former employer. He claims that despite respectably sturdy ratings for the 6PM show during his six months or so at the reins, MSNBC president Phil Griffin made the decision to "go in a different direction" with it, basically relieving him of the show with the promise of a lower-profile on-air gig in a slot as yet to be determined. I've said before, numerous times in fact, that I don't think Uygur's a very polished broadcaster, so from that perspective I can understand why Griffin might want to relegate him to MS's basement for a little while. But of course, Uygur says that his technical skills as an on-air host weren't the primary reason the network decided to cut him loose at six.
He says it's all about his politics and his often combative defense of them.
According to Uygur, Griffin told him that "people in Washington" weren't happy with the tone of his show. Cenk of course takes that to mean that he was upsetting the merchants' carts in the temples of political power; Griffin says that by "people in Washington" he meant NBC producers who were having trouble booking guests because, presumably, nobody wanted to be shouted at for four minutes by a crazy guy who couldn't stop flailing his arms in their direction. Uygur goes on to say that at one point Griffin warned him that while he was content to rail against the establishment, MSNBC in fact is the establishment, and that that had to be kept in mind at all times. Whether this conversation really took place doesn't matter one bit because what Griffin supposedly said is a revelation about on par with finding out that the sky is blue. MSNBC, which is now part of the largest media conglomerate in the world, vertically integrated like no other, is the establishment -- well, no shit.
Whether Cenk's wounded pride was a factor in his decision to turn down MSNBC's consolation prize we'll never know for sure; obviously he's got a bit of an ego to think that he has the ability to scare the Beltway types to the point where they'd lock themselves inside their homes. But he's not lying when he says that whatever money he was being offered to stick around was almost certainly a hell of a lot more than he gets being an internet superstar. (I also couldn't help but nod knowingly at his mention of the various high-end "perks" that come with working for a corporate media behemoth; suddenly feeling like you're James Bond is nothing short of intoxicating.) So yeah, he definitely walked away from a nice paycheck and that alone could speak volumes about the purity of his motives. To hear Uygur address his online audience about the whole thing, you get the impression that at least on some level he really did feel like he had a responsibility to the people who put him in the position to be moved up to the big leagues in the first place, and he didn't want to sell them out or let them down.
Since making a conscious decision to lean to the left, MSNBC has been precariously walking a fine line between giving its progressive voices the freedom they need to be effective as hosts and understanding that that freedom will often have them saying and doing things that will make the network's corporate overlords want to drop a hundred-thousand-pound anvil on the whole place. Again, MS is the establishment -- which means that while guys like Phil Griffin want their anchors, reporters and contributors to work outside the box, they need to make sure they work inside a slightly larger box. Uygur was a bit of a loose cannon on-air, but not so much that it should have cost him his job; Ed Schultz is infinitely more bellicose as a host and astonishingly he's still firmly in place in prime-time, despite a couple of recent, entirely predictable hiccups. The difference, I think, is one of inelegance. Even Schultz's occasionally obnoxious outrage has been carefully honed to the point where it's not quite the blunt instrument wielded by Uygur. While I'm not a big fan of Schultz's, he's a better broadcaster than Uygur. The same goes for the dearly departed Keith Olbermann, who was kept on for as long as he was only because of his immense and undeniable talents as a television host. Olbermann pissed a lot of people off, from his peers to his managers to the overlords in the adminisphere; MSNBC's decision to finally cut him loose wasn't a case of Olbermann saying things management didn't want him to say as much as him infuriating everyone in his path. Griffin just decided he wasn't worth the hassle because his ratings were great but not that great.
And that's really what it comes down to. Cenk's numbers were decent, but they weren't through the roof, in MSNBC's mind not good enough warrant giving him time to develop in a hugely important spot in its line-up. That plus his deficiencies as a network broadcaster -- and that includes his tendency to appear as if he's always one step away from challenging his political adversaries to a roshambo in the parking lot -- probably sealed his fate at six. What does all of this mean for his apparent replacement, Al Sharpton, a guy whose jarring on-air pauses and inability to complete a coherent thought make Uygur look like Murrow? Name recognition and novelty factor aside, he'd better hope his ratings are damn good -- and that they stay that way.
Still, in the end did Cenk apparently stand up for what he believes in -- and what his online audience expects of him -- in the aftermath of his demotion? Sure looks that way.
And for that he gets to walk out with his head held very high.