Borrowing its title from one fed-up newscaster’s furious
declaration in “Network,” Andrew Napier’s “Mad as Hell” does indeed play like a
real-life update of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayevsky’s skewering of TV news.
Except that here the main personality is notably calmer, if no less passionate,
and his personal story also touches on a larger and very significant one: the
battle between old and new media and how it relates to journalists’ ability to
“speak truth to power” in an age of all-pervasive corporate control.
Nowhere in the film is its subject, Cenk Uygur, the founder
and main mouthpiece of a YouTube show titled The Young Turks (TYT), called a
journalist, but he does function as such, even if his game is commenting on the
news rather than doing reportorial spadework. Being innocent of much television
and online content, this reviewer had never heard of Uygur or TYT but found the
film’s account of them engaging enough to leave him intrigued and impressed
Director Napier comes at his subject from an insider’s
angle. After moving to Los Angeles a few years back, the aspiring filmmaker got
a job at TYT and later proposed making a documentary about his boss to the man
himself. Uygur agreed and promised Napier complete editorial control of the
sort that guarantees his own, liberally employed freedom of expression. Thus
began a five-year filmmaking odyssey that reached a dramatic climax of sorts
when Uygur had encounters with the mainstream media that tested his principles
Raised in a Turkish immigrant family, Uygur was aggressively
opinionated from an early age, according to friends who, sometimes with
quasi-pained expressions, recall his domineering ways in any and all
discussions. From the first time he made it onto TV, he knew he wanted a career
braying his thoughts at the public. So, after graduating from law school and
quickly quitting the first cushy law job that came his way, he launched himself
onto the airwaves via a public access channel in northern Virginia. The pay was
zilch but the satisfactions, it seems, were formidable.
From there he moved to Florida, where he proved to be a
terrible on-air reporter, sweaty and obnoxious. Undeterred, he moved to L.A.
and landed a Sirius radio show, where his opinion-mongering proved to be a good
fit. To this point, Uygur’s beliefs made him another angry
conservative/Republican shouter, a baby Beck or Limbaugh. However, after the
U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting reports of American torturers, he
jumped the ideological fence and became a liberal/progressive – without turning
down the volume, of course.
“Mad as Hell” does not spend much time on Uygur’s political
views, either before or after his conversion, and that’s just as well: only a
few soundbites will suffice to let most viewers know where he stands. His more
important views concern the media. Offered lots of money just to appear on
radio and avoid TV, he turned down the cash – one of numerous instances of
“burning bridges,” which he claims as a specialty – and landed in what for him
became the ideal video perch: TYT, an Internet show that allowed him to say exactly what he wanted on any topic that
That freedom proved a heady brew not just for him but for
YouTube viewers who, struck by the show’s honesty and lack of constraint, kept
coming back in larger and larger numbers. Since its launch a decade ago, TYT
has had over two billion hits.
But with success came a fork in the path. Uygur’s renown
meant that he was offered gigs on MSNBC and Al Gore’s Current TV. The latter
seems to have been a happy alliance, but it ended when Gore sold the network to
Al-Jazeera English. The former is a more interesting story. Uygur seems to have
done a good job substituting for various MSNBC hosts, but after he finally
landed the coveted 6pm slot for himself, the network pulled him. The reason, he
believes, is that he was too hard on President Obama. Fox News belongs to the
Republican Party and MSNBC to the Democrats, he says, which is why you so
seldom hear genuinely progressive critiques of the latter: corporate media
simply do not allow truly independent voices.
Uygur, who is seen taking part in the Occupy Wall Street
demonstrations of a couple of years back, makes a good case that Internet news
and opinion outlets are filling a need that old media, unfortunately, simply
can’t. Whether that means the truths they speak to power will eventually make a
difference – Uygur says government officials “don’t give a crap” – remains to
be seen. But his pioneering efforts certainly remind us how controlled most
“news” in this country is, and how much alternatives to them are needed.