My disappointments with Cenk Uygur’s interview with Sam Harris

I’ve watched all 3 hours of Cenk Uygur’s “interview” of Harris. Twice. It’s definitely worth watching at least once if you haven’t yet.

I went into this as a big fan of both men. That, unfortunately, has changed somewhat. Here’s why.

I came out the other side feeling like I wish all of Fox Nation would feel; finally realizing that, on some level, we’re being duped by “the media.” It’s my sad duty to now report that, on some level, this now includes Cenk Uygur for me.

I’ve lost some respect for Cenk because of how he conducted himself in this interview. It just seemed to me that he couldn’t keep his ego in check. All too often and throughout the entire 3-hour interview, Cenk talked (often at length) about what HE thought.

I didn’t watch this to hear Cenk’s opinions. I watched to it to better understand Harris and to hear his points of view from his own lips.

I felt somewhat duped because it seemed like the whole thing was done so that Cenk could offer his opinions while refuting Sam point by point. Cenk seemed to be employing the tried-and-true Fox News tactic: either talk over the guest or, even worse, twist the guest’s words and points of view when you don’t agree or don’t understand them.

This is not to say that Cenk and Sam weren’t ever in agreement. They were, but Cenk didn’t always seem to be truly listening to what Harris was saying. He didn’t always let Sam finish a point, and he didn’t seem to ask the kind of follow-up and clarifying questions I was expecting. Instead, Cenk seemed to mostly be preparing to launch into his own rebuttal using his own opinions and to everything Harris had to offer.

Here’s the interview. Give it a listen and come to your own conclusions.

Besides feeling a little duped, I was actually embarrassed for Cenk (and for myself, being a fan of his); not because he isn’t a neuroscientist and not because he’s somehow less informed or less intelligent than Harris. I don’t know that he is, nor do I claim to even know by what measure one would come to such a conclusion.

No, I was embarrassed for Cenk for how rudely he behaved and for how obtuse he insisted on being as Harris made point after point as clear as possible, starting with the fact that he (Harris) was compelled to be on TYT because Cenk allowed Harris’s detractors like Reza Aslan and C.J. Werleman to appear on similar TYT programs basically uncontested and unmolested by the host on points of fact.

In my opinion, Harris and his views have been dramatically misrepresented by people like Aslan. Cenk compounds this by seemingly eschewing his journalistic responsibilities. Nowhere is this on better display, in my opinion, then in his far friendlier interview with Aslan.

I was hoping for much more from Cenk.

To his credit, Cenk does talk about how he (and TYT) corrected their mistakes and misrepresentations of some of Harris’s statements. I gladly give him credit for that. Such acts are far too rare in journalism these days.

Cenk’s journalistic integrity, however, came into question repeatedly for me because he seemed to demonstrate an incapacity – correction, an unwillingness, I suspect – to see how undeniably the “straight lines” can be justifiably drawn from religious dogma to the actions of some present-day believers, and that some of those straight lines to behaviors are worse AT THIS POINT IN TIME than others.

The issues that I thought were going to be discussed in this interview were the misunderstandings and deliberate misrepresentations of Harris’s philosophical views on the religion of Islam and what some believers – granted, a tiny percentage of the total, but enough to create concern about what is happening in the world today – are choosing to do as a direct result of their faith and their beliefs. Instead, what I felt I got was a disproportionate amount of Cenk’s views instead of Harris explaining his.

(For the record, I am an atheist. Every religion has extremists – and always have had throughout history – who pervert some of the teachings of their faith. Whether it’s ISIS or the Westboro Baptists, it’s still a perverse cherry-picking of the worst parts of some ancient texts. The question, in my humble opinion, that Harris is trying to get us to confront is to what end those perversions turn into actions TODAY, as well as what the consequences are that come from those actions. That, it seems to me, is what Harris is distinguishing for us, and what I wanted to hear the most.)


The above paragraph, on second thought, is a little too generous and even incorrect. Upon further reflection, it needs to be clarified and corrected.

I want to make this correction because I see it as fundamental to Harris’s position, and it’s one with which I completely agree. It’s also the point that I think a lot of people miss or don’t understand, and here it is: it is NOT extremism or a perversion of any religion to follow the doctrine of that religion. It is, in fact, what believers are expected to do, especially when the doctrine is written down and the believers profess to believe the words on the page come from their god.

This is where Aslan and Harris seem to me to have very significant disagreements. Aslan wants us to believe that it’s ok for believers to cherry pick and still call themselves believers. As an atheist, I don’t care one way or the other, but what Harris is doing is forcing us to face reality. The reality is that the fundamental tenants of religion don’t allow believers to cherry pick. The pejorative term for this that I used to hear often in my youth was, “Cafeteria Catholic.”

In other words, you can call yourself a believer and you can even believe that the Koran and the Bible contain the actual and literal words of your god, but if you’re going to be a believer, how can you pick and choose which passages you’re going to follow and which ones you won’t? This is the philosophical argument Harris is making and the one Uygur and Aslan seem to either be missing or willfully ignoring.

Make no mistake, we’re fortunate to live in a world in which the vast majority of believers DO cherry pick and DON’T actually following their teachings to the letter; HOWEVER, it simply is intellectually dishonest for people like Cenk and Aslan to attempt to disconnect the religion and its texts from the actions of evildoers when the evildoers say that that is precisely why they are doing what they are doing; fulfilling the teachings of their god and of the holy men who have brought them the words of their gods.


In addition to his behavior as a host, Cenk’s use of strawman arguments was also somewhat embarrassing. What better example than playing the Hitler card? It was unnecessary and counterproductive to this discussion, just as his drawing on medieval Christianity was. Such tactics strike me as simply an attempt to create false equivalences which ultimately lead to a disingenuous reframing of the connection between certain doctrines of any religion, in this case Islam, and to the actions of believers, in this case, modern-day Muslim terrorists.

To his credit, Cenk admits his atheism and agrees that not all religions are the same, but I didn’t think that this was supposed to be about what Cenk thinks.

All of this is not to say that I’m no longer a fan of Cenk. I’m just really disappointed in how he chose to approach this interview and how he conducted himself through most of it.

My unsolicited (and unqualified) advice to Cenk would be that the next time he brings on a guest to go ahead and ask the questions he wants to ask but to then stay respectfully quiet as they answer them. Ask follow-up and clarifying questions. Ask tough questions and, yes, professionally challenge the responses. That’s more than just fine, that’s the mark of real journalism for me.

If, however, he decides to take up large blocks of time expressing his own opinions; if, instead, he chooses to engage in a debate with a guest, then call it a “debate.” Follow the protocols, and give yourself and your guest equal time. I didn’t put a stopwatch on it, but it did feel to me that on this occasion he gave himself far more time than he bestowed on his guest. Just don’t call the show an “interview.”

All in all, I still believe Cenk to be a bright individual and a better journalist than he demonstrated in this interview.

What I’m also convinced of is that Harris has been misunderstood and intentionally misrepresented. Far too many people, it seems, have latched onto those misrepresentations. While this 3-hour interview should convince the viewer of the same, I strongly encourage the reader to first read Harris’s books and his blogs before taking the words of his detractors as “gospel” for what Harris actually means by his own words.