Cenk Uygur's Bold Move

While who hosts which show on cable news is probably of only marginal import to you, something just happened at MSNBC that is actually interesting. Cenk Uygur, who had been hosting the network's 6 pm slot on a trial basis for the last few months, got shown the door, and Al Sharpton will be taking over. But Uygur did something really unusual in this situation. Instead of issuing a brief statement about how thankful he was to have the opportunity, he went on The Young Turks, his radio/web video show, and gave a long explanation of what happened:

MSNBC says they offered him a weekend show, which is a step down from a nightly show but still not too bad; he doesn't mention that here, but does say that he turned down a lot of money to stay in some capacity. Why? According to Uygur, some time ago the head of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, sat him down and told him, "People in Washington tell me that they're concerned about your tone." Griffin also said, according to Cenk, "Outsiders are cool. But we're not. We're insiders. We are the establishment." So he was instructed to tone it down -- not be so critical of the administration, and generally be more polite. Not being a "tone it down" sort of fellow, he didn't. So despite the fact that he had been doing quite well in the ratings, and apparently improving all the time, he basically got offered a demotion and instead decided to just leave.

Full disclosure: Cenk is a friendly acquaintance of mine, so I'm probably inclined to be sympathetic to his interpretation of events. Nevertheless, this is a pretty ballsy thing to do. By going out this way -- making public the nature of his disagreement with MSNBC management -- he has probably guaranteed that he'll never work for one of the cable news networks again. Which he surely understood.

That might not be important to most of us, but for many of those who make a living talking about politics, getting your own cable show is the brass ring. (Not everyone, mind you -- lots of people wouldn't want to be famous in a people-recognizing-you-at-the-grocery-store way, and there are other jobs some pundits might want -- New York Times op-ed columnist would be tops on many people's list.) But if you're a radio host, that's the club you want to be in, the position that not only allows you to make lots of people listen to what you have to say, but comes with nearly unmatched prestige. You can get politicians to answer your questions. You can get almost anyone to talk to you. You'll be nationally famous, and rich to boot. Only about a dozen people have the gig, and even though there are many radio hosts with bigger audiences than the cable hosts have, television just confers something magical, as far as most people are concerned.

Cenk spent the last decade or so building a national profile, through The Young Turks (which is now on satellite radio), and lots of TV appearances. He got this close to getting that brass ring, the thing a hundred other radio hosts would kill for. And as he said, he could have stayed at MSNBC and tried to work his way back into prime time. But instead, he told them thanks but no thanks.

This isn't really a criticism of MSNBC -- they obviously have the right to hire and fire whoever they want, and maybe Sharpton will do boffo ratings (he comes pre-famous, which doesn't hurt). And maybe Cenk can get a show on Current. But it takes some stones to walk away from the only major cable network in the business of hiring progressive talkers the way he did.