Current TV host Cenk Uygur recently sat down with TPM to talk progressive politics, whether he considers himself a journalist and what inspired him to become a broadcaster.What are your media consumption habits?
I run the gamut. I do everything from AP to Huffington Post to Think Progress to TPM to Mediaite. And we have producers who, in our morning production meeting, have read just about everything under the sun. And they have different categories that they read for. Lucas reads all of the substantive progressive articles, Roland reads all the political happenings, Michael is on top of the polls. Everybody’s got their categories, and then we all go through it and see what’s the top news of the day.
I get up at five in the morning, and I get in front of a computer and I read, read, read until our 8:30 meeting.
What’s the most under-covered story right?
Let me give you a micro and a macro issue. On a specific piece of legislation, probably the most under-covered right now is CISPA. I know, because when we Google it, we’re one of the few things that comes up. I get a sense people don’t have a good enough urgency about how bad that bill is. On a macro scale, what doesn’t get covered enough is civil liberty abuses. I guess since President Obama has signed off on it for the mainstream media, they’ve gotten their bipartisan consensus, so they’ve moved on. If Democrats and Republicans agree, it must be okay. If the Republicans and Democrats agree that we no longer need a Fourth and Fifth Amendment, apparently we don’t need a Fourth and Fifth Amendment. I find the indifference of the mainstream media to it saddening.
What are the specific civil liberty issues you’re talking about?
Quietly, President Obama has done warrantless wire tapping. And it was hardly covered. I don’t know if any of the mainstream press bothered to cover it. We still do indefinite detentions. And now, in some ways, President Obama’s administration is worse than President Bush’s in civil liberties. We understand they don’t do torture anymore, that’s great. Although there’s good reporting on torture by proxy, which we still do. So, joy. And then the drone strikes, where we’re executing U.S. citizens without trial … in my opinion is beyond outrageous. The only thing that was more outrageous was their explanation for it.
Is it true you were once a moderate Republican?
How did you go from that place to now?
I think it’s entirely logical, what happened. We were basically liberal Republicans, meaning socially liberal Republicans in the Northeast. That species became extinct. So people forget that such a thing existed, but it did. They drove us from the party with their extremism. Anyone who stayed a Republican is insane … or a bad person.
What’s the last book you read?
Game of Thrones. I watched the first season on HBO, loved it and wanted to know more of the details.
What’s on your desk?
A mess. I have so many old articles saved up, the printouts, that it’s almost the size of a human being now. I’m making different enormous piles of papers on my desk and across the office of all those stories I’m theoretically going back to read. Outside of that, unpaid bills, really old pictures of my nephews and a giant computer.
What’s the biggest difference between working for MSNBC and working for Current?
There is a clear independence at Current. There is no interfering with what we do on the show. There’s no subtle hints. At MSNBC, you felt the machine in the room everyday. As you know, I did my damnedest to avoid the machine, for which I was treated appropriately, let’s put it that way. I don’t want anybody to get me wrong, the people who worked there, the producers, the hosts, they’re not bad people, they’re great people. But the machine is in the room. They do their best at fighting past it, getting beyond it, sneaking around it, but the machine wants you to be mainstream, meaning don’t stray from the beaten path of Democrats and Republicans and the partisan games that we play. Whereas at Current, there is no beaten path, there is no machine, you just blaze your own trail.
Have you talked to Keith Olbermann since he left the network?
Did I talk to Keith Olbermann before he left the network? The answer to your question is no.
What was your interaction with him like at Current?
Now we’ve waded into territory where the lawyers will tell me I’ve already said too much.
What does the future of Current TV look like?
I think it looks great. I think we have to do strong, progressive programming that takes on the establishment. If we do that, we’re going to be in great shape. I’m excited by it. Our numbers are really healthy. We’ve grown and grown them. And most importantly, we do a strong, independent show. And whenever you do that, it’s only a matter of time before you get success. That’s been our experience.
So, if I was Erin Burnett, I’d be worried.
What’s your problem with her?
I don’t want people to get the wrong idea that it’s because we’re at the same time slot. It just happens to be that way. It’s because, unfortunately, she happens to be the best representative of the 1 percent in the media. She just comes from that perspective. I think she worked at Goldman Sachs before, at CNBC, all they do is cater to the top 1 percent. She grew up in that environment, professionally. She lives and breathes it. It doesn’t make her a bad person. I’m sure I would like her in person. It’s just that that’s the mindset we’re trying to challenge.
Unfortunately, she does everything she can to defend the richest, most powerful people in the country. CNN claims they’re the most trusted place in news. I have nothing against her personally.
What does the future of the Occupy movement look like?
I don’t have insight into what exactly they’re planning, but I hope it’s big and I hope they come back roaring in the spring. I hope that they get more aggressive, meaning focused, disciplined, have certain topics that they emphasize and then pound away at it. I’m not a big fan of the direct democracy process that they do. So I hope they get beyond that, because I think the message is much more important than the process.
What they represent is more important than who happens to be there. They represent the frustrations of the 99 percent.
What is the best advice you ever got?
It’s impossible to escape cliches here. Know thyself, by Socrates. The idea being, pursue what drives you. If you love what you do, you’re going to work hard enough at it in order to succeed. If you don’t love what you do, you’re never going to be able to work hard enough to make it work. Success is about persistence. You can only afford to be persistent in something you deeply enjoy.
What inspired you to be a broadcaster?
I got out of law school, didn’t know what I wanted to do. A friend of mine, here in New York, said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take a learning annex course on how to sell your own TV show,’ which I thought was the most absurd thing I ever heard. I took it, they said they are legally obligated to give you your own show on public access, which I thought was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard. So on my first day at a law firm, I left early to go to public access orientation in Arlington, Virginia. Two months later, after I had gotten the training, I was on air. I did my first show, and I was done. I walked off that set thinking, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life. I loved it so much. I’m sure it was a terrible show and deadly boring, but I loved it. Once you hit it, you know.
Do you consider yourself a journalist?
I’ve been struggling with that for a while now. Because in the beginning, I would say absolutely not, I’m a talk show host, I give opinion, I have a clear perspective. But now, seeing the really sorry state of journalism in America, I’m beginning to think maybe I am a journalist. I’m a perspective journalist, like writers for The Nation, Mother Jones, whatever it might be. And we actually bother trying to give people the news. After I realized how little news the mainstream media does, at this point, I guess, yeah, I’m better than that.
What is the worst habit of the news industry at large?
The fact that they have confused neutrality for objectivity drives me crazy. I don’t want everybody to be a perspective journalist. But I do need you to tell me what the reality is.
How do you avoid not crossing the line into activism for one side or the other?
That’s why I hesitate calling myself a journalist. I don’t mind activism at all. I do activism. I’m very very clear with my audience. If Fox News just stopped calling themselves fair and balanced, there would be no problems with it. There’s nothing wrong with a conservative perspective on TV or online or in the magazines. They get to do that. I don’t mind if they’re activists in that way. The only way I think you shouldn’t be … maybe this is where I draw the line is partisan. Then you’re not being honest with your audience. How could the Democratic Party or Republican Party be right 100 percent of the time? That’s ridiculous.
Is there hope for anything getting done in Washington?
There’s always hope. The biggest hope is honestly the internet. Because it has allowed for more independent voices, more open discussion, it’s gotten rid of the gate keepers.
Are you supportive of a second term for Obama?
Am I for President Obama in the second term? Yes, because he’s running against Mitt Romney. I wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney if you put a gun to my head. Having said that, am I hopeful for a second term? Absolutely not. I think President Obama is not progressive. And I know a lot of people hate to hear that, it breaks their heart. But that’s the reality. It’s not in his nature. His nature is pro-establishment. If he had a wrestling nickname, it would be The Establishment.
I believe President Obama can do the right thing. There’s a much better chance that he will do the right thing, more than Mitt Romney.