LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday, at a rally in Orange County, Sen. Bernie Sanders finally learned how to pronounce Cenk Uygur’s name. In Irvine, it had been “Chenk.” Once, it was “Senk.” This time, at Anaheim’s air-conditioned convention center, Cenk Uygur introduced Sanders, the senator thanked “Jenk YOO-ger,” and the crowd cheered.
“A lot of you know the Young Turks?” asked Sanders, referring to the online news empire Uygur launched in 2002. The cheers gave him his answer. “We live in a world where the corporate media, people who own our country, give us their definition of reality. What Cenk and a few other people are trying to do is give us a different perspective on reality; the reality facing the middle class, working people.”
Uygur was beaming, but he had to race up the freeway to his Culver City studio. The Young Turks, which has grown in surges since before the dawn of YouTube, has become something akin to the state network of the “political revolution.” Its hosts run from the merely Sanders-philiac, like Uygur, to the Sanders-obsessed, like comedian Jimmy Dore. Sanders was scheduled to give the Young Turks his second interview Friday in just two months.
“In the old days, TV had a lot of power, but that’s shifting now,” Uygur said in an interview at TYT’s Culver City headquarters, a former bar that’s home to two fully outfitted studios, a shelf of awards and an iguana mascot — Mayaguana — who just showed up one day. “So we’d better figure out how to use that power for the issues we care about, because cable TV is worse than propaganda. It’s marketing for the rich and powerful.”
Sanders’s campaign for president has sent progressives in search of friendlier media, especially since he fell prohibitively behind Hillary Clinton in the delegate hunt. Formerly reliable sources of news and analysis, like MSNBC, began to look like Clinton PR; comic anchors from Trevor Noah to Samantha Bee to John Oliver have mocked the Sanders voters who can’t see that he’s losing.
“PolitiFact looked into the charges of rigging in Nevada and found no clear evidence the state party hijacked the process,” said Oliver last week, “and you can disagree with that, as I’m sure Bernie supporters in the comment section will.”
That’s not a message Sanders diehards want to hear. The search for analysis of how the candidate can still win has built a massive Reddit group, turned freelance columnist H.A. Goodman into a viral hitmaker (typical column: “Bernie Sanders Will Become Democratic Nominee Even If Clinton Leads in Delegates”), and boosted the Young Turks.
“MSNBC and CNN are horrible,” said Afton Tarin, 30, a photographer who attended the Anaheim rally. “Cenk is really big on making sure he explains what the media is saying, and explains the reality it’s not covering. I’m seeing these events from the same perspective. Nevada’s a good example. MSNBC said we were throwing chairs. I watched every video — nobody threw a chair. And Cenk was honest about that.”
“The Young Turks,” hosted by Uygur, is the flagship program of the YouTube channel of the same name. Like the rest of the channel’s coverage (sports, comedy, movies), the program looks like any other TV show — two hosts riff on a subject as images and punny titles flash behind them. Uygur’s co-hosts often end up as straight men as the founder, clad in a blazer over an open-collar shirt or branded TYT T-shirt, marvels at the stupidity of the media and the establishment.
Since the start of 2015, and accelerating with the campaign, TYT has more than doubled its YouTube shares (to more than 4 million), tripled its Facebook likes (to more than 1 million), and grown its subscriber base by 75 percent, including many paid subscribers.
Nearly 3 million people subscribe to TYT’s YouTube channel; for comparison, 1.4 million subscribe to CNN, and 100,000 subscribe to the millennial-focused and consciously hip Fusion. At Sanders’s California rallies, TYT personalities risk being mobbed by fans. On Sunday, as he tried to cover a Sanders speech in Irvine, Jimmy Dore was spotted by dozens of fans who turned and shouted his catchphrase — “Don’t freak out!” So many of them rushed him for photos that the event’s security had to shoo them away.
“It’s hard to get any work done,” said Dore, not exactly crestfallen.
Uygur himself sidestepped the crowd by speaking from the stage. “Do you trust the establishment media?” he asked a booing crowd in Anaheim. “Do you think they’ve treated Bernie Sanders fairly?”
When the boos subsided, he offered a theory of why Sanders couldn’t get fair coverage: “corporate media” and its advertisers.
“This cycle alone, they are going to put $4 billion into political ads,” he said. “You think TV wants to change that? They look at Bernie Sanders and say, ‘Whoa, that guy’s gonna rock the boat.’ We look at Bernie Sanders and say: ‘Damn right he is!’ ”
For a while, as documented in a warts-and-all film called “Mad As Hell,” Uygur tried to infiltrate that system. He began his punditry career as a Rush Limbaugh Republican. After the impeachment of Bill Clinton, he switched sides and built a cult reputation as a liberal talker who was as loud and fearless as right-wingers — with a home-brewed talk show network. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, he was guest-hosting on MSNBC, shuttling between Los Angeles and New York for a dream job.
“I made $70,000 in the 1990s, when I was a corporate lawyer,” said Uygur. “I didn’t see that salary again until I was on MSNBC.”
In 2011, Uygur was finally offered a show of his own — a weekend slot for $1 million. He had wanted a weekday slot. TYT fans had even campaigned for it, as if Uygur were a candidate for office. When Uygur turned it down, he told viewers that he’d made a moral stand against the network sidelining him because he criticized the Obama administration from the left.
“If I take the money, and I get a reduced role, and I just do whatever I do with it — maybe I rise up in the ranks again — what’s the point?” he asked.
TYT moved to Al Gore’s Current TV, then (after Current’s acquisition by Al Jazeera) back to total independence. By taking Sanders’s campaign seriously, it has given his voters the shocking, comforting image of confident pundits, talking on a screen, about how Sanders can actually win.
The next question is how it can cover the news when he doesn’t win. The night of New York’s primary, which Clinton won easily, Uygur’s role in TYT live coverage was to look ahead — in the world of a likely Clinton victory. “I got a lot of flack for that,” he said.
Uygur is aware, more than most Sanders supporters, of how wrenching a defeat could be. Some progressives, who will have seen a political insurgency almost overthrow the leadership of the Democratic Party, will wonder why they should stick around. “Jimmy’s almost ‘Bernie or Bust’ already,” he said. Uygur was not.
“I’ve defended the Clintons longer than I’ve been a liberal, but I don’t have any nostalgia for that,” he said. “I know what I’ll be getting — the same thing I’m getting my whole life. Screwed, but in a reliable way. But that saying, stick with the devil you know? This is the one time it’s true. The devil I know is the establishment, and I’m gonna beat that devil. It’s a matter of time. Trump is a maniac.”
In a month, people who discovered the show during the primary might be looking to the Young Turks for debate or analysis of whether they could possibly vote for Clinton. Until then, as Sanders camps out in California and works toward a historic win, Uygur will be besieged by true believers. One of them pounced as he left the Sanders rally in Anaheim.
“Can you come speak at our convention?” asked Patrick Kelly, 69, a Teamster.
“You’ve got to run for office, man!”
Uygur laughed, like he’d heard it before. “No way,” he said. He kept heading toward the door, to make the hour drive back to Culver City, and host the Young Turks.