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Nobody notices Gideon Yago as he walks out of the MTV building and through Times Square. With his close-cropped hair, khaki sweater, and manicured stubble, the 26-year-old could easily be mistaken for an intern. And yet MTV News' star reporter is increasingly influential: An informal Newsday poll rated Yago as having more "juice" in current campaign coverage than legends like Dan Rather.
Network news is heading for a crisis, with fewer and fewer young people using it as their primary information source. Why rush home for the six o'clock news when there are online papers, blogs, and cable available 'round the clock? A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that only 23 percent of young people 18-29 get their campaign news from network anchors. "Mainstream news is simply not formatted in a way that younger people want to digest it," says Farai Chideya, a former MTV News writer who is now a political analyst and radio host. "That old white guy sitting in front of the camera pretending it's not there doesn't work anymore." Instead, it's white guys like Jon Stewart (the Pew survey shows that an incredible 21 percent of young viewers look to humor shows like The Daily Show for news) and Yago.
Many credited MTV's 1992 Choose or Lose voter registration drive with getting young people to the polls in record numbers for the battle of Clinton vs. Bush. Now a different Bush is seeking re-election, andlike Tabitha Soren before himYago is MTV's secret weapon, a sweet-faced twentysomething coaxing politicians to heed the youth vote. A cult figure among the under-35 set, Yago's nerdy-cute looks and braniac manner remind me of The O.C.'s Adam Brody. Sitting in a restaurant near his office, Yago hides face in hands at the notion that he's a heartthrob. But just as Stewart (an MTV alum) smuggles pointed political analysis inside snarky jokes, Yago's geek chic could make civic duty look cool.
You might be forgiven for thinking of MTV as trivia centrala steady drip of exploitative pop-cultural ephemera like The Real World and videos and I Want a Famous Face. But for years now MTV's news division has sought engaging ways to deal with pressing subjects, as in a recent documentary contrasting the lives of Palestinian and Israeli college students. Yago has anchored most of MTV's recent political coveragereporting on hate crimes, drug addiction, and the Iraq war. Now he's hosting its election coverage. His interview with John Kerry a few weeks ago turned out to be the highest-rated Choose or Lose special ever, beating out Queer Eye to win its cable time slot. Although some media pundits ribbed the show for softball questions about rap music, Yago believes it resonated with viewers. "I don't think any politician is ever 100 percent pander-free, but Kerry did the best thing you can do with the MTV audience: treat them seriously and answer honestly. The last thing young people want to feel is that they don't count."
Yago wields the same seamless mix of political and pop-cultural savvy as Jon Stewart and CNN's Anderson Cooper. Growing up in Queens, he used to go flyering with his socially conscious parents. "Some people had sports in their household, I had politics," he quips. An alt-rock kid who wore eyeliner and listened to punk rock, Yago created a zine called Corpuscle in high school and credits Joey Ramone's brother Mickey Leigh (who went to the same shul as Yago's family) with introducing him to the work of rock critic Lester Bangs. "Suddenly I was reading Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Jack Kerouac, H.L. Menckenall these writers who saw America as half monster, half angel."
When asked if he's able to put any of those influences into his current job, Yago shrugs. "I try to. But I work for MTV; I know what our role is. We're doing Civics 101." He says his own taste runs more toward cultural critics like Baffler editor Thomas Frank, and claims that The Baffler's 1997 book Commodify Your Dissent"was a big reason I went to work at MTV in the first place." A slightly bizarre admission, since that book's essays mostly lament the co-optation of rebellion by corporate culture. Yago says, "I was like, might as well jump the fucking pony on that one!" He figures he can do more from within the system than by sniping from outside it.
MTV makes current affairs enticing to its viewership by filtering world events through a personalized framework. Yago serves as the perfect viewer's proxy out in the war zones, an endearing mix of intrepid gonzo reporter and nervous nerd. Before and during the Iraq war, he starred in two specials. Diary: Gideon in Kuwait followed Yago as he visited American soldiers preparing to attack Iraq and mingled with Kuwaiti kids in their bedrooms and malls. In Diary: Gideon in Iraq, he hooked up with Waleed, a 20-year-old Iraqi version of himself who led Yago through Baghdad's bombed-out streets and introduced him to Iraqi kids horrified by the chaotic state of their country post-invasion. Yago also confronted U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer with questions like "Is there an acceptable body count?"