When talkshow host Cenk Uygur announced that his short tenure at MSNBC had come to an end due to his criticism of “those in power” (Young Turks, 7/20/11), it highlighted an unsettling pattern at the channel.
Uygur’s ouster represented the third time in recent years that a show hosted by someone with progressive ideals and a willingness to challenge the status quo was canceled, despite good ratings. In January of this year Keith Olbermann, well known for his public disputes with right-wing figures, was terminated by MSNBC, just after control of the channel was sold by General Electric to Comcast (Extra!, 3/11). In 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, Phil Donahue (one of the few elite media members to openly oppose the invasion) was taken off the air due, a leaked memo would reveal, to his antiwar views (FAIR Action Alert, 3/7/03).
Uygur, who began hosting MSNBC Live in the 6 p.m. weeknight slot in January, said he was warned before his show was cancelled by MSNBC president Phil Griffin that his aggressive style did not reflect MSNBC’s role as a reputable establishment outlet, and that he needed to “tone it down.”
“Outsiders are cool—but we’re insiders, we’re the establishment,” Uygur says Griffin told him (Salon, 7/21/11). “There are two audiences. There is the audience you are trying to appeal to, the viewers. And there is management. And management is basically the club. And they want to make sure that you are cool—can play ball with the club.”
His bosses also told him that “people in Washington were concerned about [his] tone,” Uygur said, and even sent him notes asking him to “act more like a senator.”
Ignoring this advice, Uygur saw his ratings consistently increase; his show, he said, consistently beat its 6 p.m. competition on CNN. But ratings clearly aren’t everything at MSNBC: In June his show was axed.
MSNBC took a drastic ratings hit following the removal of Olbermann, whose replacement, Lawrence O’Donnell, lost about 35 percent of the viewers in the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54 age group. The weak lead-in ratings have also hurt Rachel Maddow’s ratings at 9 p.m., which are down 15 percent, and have put the channel “on the verge of falling back into third place among the cable news networks,” the New York Times (9/27/11) reported.
Uygur was offered a reduced role as a weekend and fill-in host that would have paid him twice as much money, but he declined the offer (Democracy Now!, 7/22/11).
Griffin took issue with Uygur’s account, telling the New York Times that (7/20/11) “we never told Cenk what to say or what not to say.” (Uygur acknowledges that he was never directly censored, just pressured to conform.) But in the same article, Griffin acknowledged he did, as Uygur alleged, reference “people in Washington” having negative views of the show.
“The ‘people in Washington,’ [Griffin] said, were MSNBC producers who were responsible for booking guests for the 6 p.m. hour, and some of them had said that Mr. Uygur’s aggressive body language and overall demeanor were making it harder to book guests.”
But given MSNBC’s past record in similar instances, Uygur’s accusations seem quite plausible. After Donahue’s show was canceled in 2003, a network memo leaked out (FAIR Action Alert, 3/7/03) saying the host’s antiwar views presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show, the memo said, could become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
Olbermann’s firing came just after NBC was purchased by Comcast (Extra!, 3/11). The host had come to represent the channel’s reputation as the most liberal option on cable news. He had long drawn the ire of the corporate executives he answers to at NBC, and a few months before his firing, he was briefly suspended for making political donations to guests (Guardian, 11/5/10). Olbermann had also raised hackles at the network for his constant spars with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, which prompted Fox News and NBC officials to attempt to muzzle their stars from further back-and-forth attacks (FAIR Action Alert, 8/7/09).
Fears that Comcast—whose executives have prominently donated large amounts to conservative campaigns and causes—would make the network even more inhospitable to progressive voices have hardly been allayed by Uygur’s cancellation. As Lee Fang of Think Progress (11/5/10) reports, Comcast also has a motive for avoiding antagonizing the incumbent administration:
Unlike Donahue, Uygur could not be accused of promoting a “liberal antiwar agenda”; he supported the Afghan War until very recently (Huffington Post, 12/1/09) and supported Obama’s decision to bomb Libya as part of a NATO campaign (Truthout, 6/3/11).
Uygur was, however, frequently quite critical of Obama, especially in his dealings with Republicans on economic and environmental issues. Before being given his own show, he suggested that Obama was either “the world’s worst negotiator” or might actually “not be a progressive” (Dylan Ratigan Show,12/8/10). When the White House lashed out at progressives who were critical of the administration in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, saying they were “irresponsible,” Uygur responded angrily, saying Obama lives “in a bubble in D.C. where you try to please all your Washington buddies, the right-wingers and the media” (Early Morning Swim, 9/29/10), and accused him of trying to “scapegoat his own base” for a poor showing in 2010.
As a full-time host, he continued his attacks on Obama. Uygur said Obama passed a weak financial regulation bill in June because he didn’t want “to offend the Wall Street guys,” in part because he “takes their money” (MSNBC Live, 6/2/11). He also criticized the president for legitimizing Bush administration surveillance tactics, such as the warrantless wiretapping program (MSNBC Live, 6/2/11): “As a former constitutional law professor, he should be embarrassed of that decision. That program basically destroys the Fourth Amendment.”
Could Comcast have been unsettled by such critiques from the left? Former presidential candidate Al Sharpton, who replaced Uygur, recently vowed “not to criticize the president about anything” in an interview with 60 Minutes (5/19/11). The segment also noted that Sharpton was now “a trusted White House adviser” and that “given his loyalty and his change from confrontational to accommodating, the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments.”
Interestingly, Current TV, which hired Olbermann earlier this year to host a nightly news program, has recently hired Uygur to bring his popular Internet show, the Young Turks, to cable TV (Current TV, 9/20/11). While the young channel has only a tiny fraction of the audience that MSNBC gets, its willingness to collect talent MSNBC deems too anti-establishment could steal away some of the very viewers the psuedo-left channel is trying to target.
Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blog spot.com), a freelance journalist based in Boston, writes frequently for Extra!, as well as for such outlets as the Nation and the Boston Globe.