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Truthdiggers of the Week: Cenk Uygur and His Team at The Young Turks

Posted on Apr 16, 2016

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions at a given time are worth celebrating.

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Cenk Uygur (pronounced “Jenk YOU-Grrr”), CEO of the media network The Young Turks and energetic host of the increasingly popular progressive Internet news show of the same name, was one of hundreds arrested Monday during the Democracy Spring protests on Capitol Hill.

“I’m risking arrest today at our nation’s capital because our representatives don’t represent us anymore,” Uygur had said in a written statement. “We have asked them to take action countless times to get money out of politics. We want something very simple: Restore free and fair elections. Because of their inaction, we take action today. It is obvious that Congress is awash in corruption. Today we begin civil disobedience against that corruption.”

With his arrest, Uygur, whom The Guardian recently called “one of the sharpest and most thoughtful political commentators in the United States,” breaks a cardinal rule of modern journalism: pretend to be neutral about whatever one is reporting. I say “pretend” because only someone who has undergone indoctrination by birth into the ruling class, higher education or the mind-blunting combination of ambition and time in the professions can achieve the spiritual numbness needed to report the slaughter of children, the impoverishment of a continent or the destruction of the future without feeling compelled to do something about it.

Such people indeed exist, and some of them are employed to tell you what is and isn’t so about the world. But the rest of us in the media suffer under the pose of disinterest, which we take because we too must make a living.

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It’s not that we wish to distort facts or omit those that can appear to be inconvenient to our purpose. It’s that we know that so-called neutrality is not neutrality at all. Power has a direction, and what is regarded as neutral or objective is almost always a perspective and a manner of presentation crafted not upset stockholders of both media conglomerates and say, firearm companies. “Neutrality” is a strategy for the maintenance of power and property.

And here’s the thing: Millions of non-journalists also know this, and it infuriates them. What a glorious moment, then, was the advent of the Internet, when people began to acquire the greatest power for unmediated communication and the sharing of information across the globe that humanity had yet seen. The Web is no panacea for ignorance and misunderstanding; the careful curation of information and argument is the solemn charge of editors and reporters, and the vastness of data and their myriad possible interpretations means that getting it right is an art, not a science. So a few things only can be asked of the journalist: Be honest, skeptical and inclusive, ready to admit mistakes and issue corrections, and do the best you can.

Uygur and his team may succeed by these standards, but in this age of effervescing disaffection, their large and growing success, especially among the young (the average age of their audience is 35, while CNN’s is 64), is likely to be a result of something else.

For a profile of him and his network, Uygur recently told The Guardian: “As Bernie Sanders is the political revolution, we are the media revolution. … We didn’t get to be this popular [2.8 million viewers subscribe to the network’s flagship show on YouTube] because I’m such a great host. That’s not how something this big arises. We got this big because we believe the same thing that the majority of the American people believe, and we’re almost alone in the media believing it.” (“Almost alone” is right.)

“There’s a movement and we’re lucky that we agree with it,” Uygur continued, before offering an example from the other side of the political spectrum. “Just look at [Republican Congressman] David Brat. He beat Eric Cantor [in 2014 in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District], the first time a House majority leader has ever lost an election, and he did it by running against the big banks, from the Republican side. That was a harbinger of things to come.

“People in the establishment said it was just an aberration, but they’re in denial. They love the system. But a guy like Cantor doesn’t lose to a guy like Brat unless there is a tsunami of populism sweeping over the nation. Now with Trump and Sanders that is clearly confirmed. People will continue to ignore it, but they’ll ignore it at their peril, because this tsunami is going to crash over everyone’s heads.”

Why does this mean success—professionally as well as, apparently, financially—for Uygur and the journalists who surround him?

“In the old days you were taught that you should be dispassionate, but I think the opposite. I hire a lot of hosts, reporters, producers, and I hire people who care about the news. The old model, of being dispassionate, neutral—it doesn’t work online. That means I’ve got an opinion and I’m sometimes loud. But you can’t do a revolution quietly.”

Uygur, The Guardian confirmed, “has a way of explaining the political landscape with immense clarity and subtlety; two skills many would argue, Uygur chief among them, that are largely absent from most cable news broadcasters.” And his activism against the influence of money on politics is not limited to getting arrested. In 2011 he founded WolfPac, an organization committed to getting a constitutional amendment mandating the public funding of elections and overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows the rich to spend billions to make sure democracy is a choice between candidates of their selection.

Except that at the moment, the establishment is not quite succeeding. Sanders’ presidential campaign is a convincing threat to the Democratic Party’s Clintonian center. And whether Sanders is nominated and elected or falls short of those goals, the dignity and collective strength that his supporters have come to know during this primary season suggest that a large number of progressives have been aroused to a state of lasting political engagement. And as long as that’s the case, Uygur has an audience.

For letting his audience’s concerns shape his journalism and for embodying their passions in his work, we honor Cenk Uygur and The Young Turks as our Truthdiggers of the Week.


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