The Young Turks–MSNBC dispute is a cautionary tale

It’s never easy to shift from working as an independent creator to entering the employ of a multinational corporation — and it’s even tougher if you’ve made your name as an independent political pundit, one whose reputation was based on an ability to speak freely and fiercely. This week’s drama between The Young Turks creator and host Cenk Uygur and MSNBC, therefore, has a sad tinge of inevitability to it, with the major twist being just how loudly Uygur is raging against his former employer.

Since the creation of the Young Turks radio show in 2002, Uygur has been a vocal left-wing voice in political commentary, especially after coming to the online video world and becoming one of YouTube’s most prominent political commentary channels. That success lead him to appear as a commentator on numerous mainstream news programs, with Uygur eventually taking over the hosting of MSNBC Live.

However, this week it was announced that Uygur would not be returning to the show — for reasons Uygur and MSNBC can’t agree on, and been publicly disputing. That dispute has raged on from the New York Times to Keith Olbermann’s new Current-based Countdown show to the Young Turks YouTube channel.

Uygur’s primary point of contention is that after six months of hosting MSNBC Live, and significantly improving the ratings (including beating CNN’s The Situation Room in the 18-34 year old demographic), he was brought in for a meeting with MSNBC president Phil Griffin. There he was told that he would no longer be hosting Live, and instead would be given a new contract that involved hosting a weekend show. That would have be considered a demotion, even though Uygur was reportedly offered double the paycheck, according to his report on YouTube. Instead of taking the money, Uygur walked away from the deal.

According to the Times, Uygur believed that the reason for this change came from political pressure from the Obama administration, which Uygur has been very vocal in criticizing. This is something Griffin denied in the same article, claiming that “the people in Washington” he had mentioned being unhappy with Uygur’s hosting were not White House officials but MSNBC producers.

Uygur’s most recent meeting with Griffin was a follow-up to an earlier conversation in April, in which Griffin told the host he was not booking enough Republican guests — an assessment Uygur disagreed with — and that he “used his arms too much when he talked.” However, the most notable statement reported coming out of that conversation, in both the Times and Uygur’s comments on YouTube and Countdown, was Griffin’s statement that the channel was part of the “establishment,” and that Uygur needed to “act like it.”

This appears to be the real crux of Uygur’s complaint: the idea of being forced to fit into the mainstream, when so much of his past commentary work had been based on criticizing the way mainstream media covers politics. As he told Olbermann during Countdown, his prior perceptions about how mainstream news works were confirmed as a result of his experience working with MSNBC.

“Are we [the mainstream media] going to be honest with our audience? Or are we going to trade information and truth we’re supposed to be gathering for access?,” was how Uygur summed up the debate for Olbermann. “Now that I’ve been inside that machine, it turns out that we were totally right about our outside perception of it. They are obsessed with access.”

There’s a cautionary tale here, because for many people working on the web, getting the kind of opportunities Uygur has gotten are the ultimate goal. But leaving behind the web’s independence for a larger platform can require compromises. And depending on the personalities involved, those compromises might be impossible.

Uygur, let’s be clear, will probably be just fine. Even if a potential deal with Current doesn’t work out, The Young Turks is still a notable independent web presence with a devoted audience. As Uygur concluded on YouTube:

I was able to take that tough stance [about MSNBC], and why? For the same reason I was able to get onto MSNBC in the first place — you guys. I’ve got the TYT army behind me. I’ve got a show that’s sitting here at half a billion views — up to a million views a day. So I can come back here and do exactly the kind of show I want to do, and kick ass and give you the actual truth and take it to power… Power is very very strong, and has so much influence in our media. But here at the Young Turks we’re going to fight against that.

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