By Zachary D. Roberts
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Yago says that going to Iraq shook him up. "The night I came back home to the Lower East Side, I was all wired. It was a Friday night and all my senses were attuned to (a) you don't go out at night and (b) you're avoiding large crowds and sounds. And I was watching all these people partying on the street here, as if nothing was happening. It was just a culture clash compared to what I'd just been through."
MTV slyly slotted Yago's first-person docs into the long-standing Diary series, which usually focuses on celebrities. As Yago explains, "You take this format that's familiar to the audienceOK, maybe it's not about J.Lo's issues this time, it's the issues of a young person in Iraq. But the viewers recognize the tone and format, so they're more inclined to watch. I have no misgivings about how we hold an audience's attention. The bottom line is, if no one watches the stuff you feel is important, then what's the use? That's why I work hereyou have the biggest microphone."
A few days after our interview, he is scheduled to leave for Hyderabad, India, for a special on globalization and outsourcing. He says it will look objectively at the issues, but he also can't help seeing things in a personal light. "My older brother's 28 years old, he's been working as a temppart of this freelance labor phenomenon that seems to be the biggest employer of young people in this country. So how is he going to get by without long-term job security or benefits?"
Yago's sure to become an even more prominent media figure as host of 2004's Choose or Lose. This year's slogan is "20 Million Loud"the number of young people ages 18 to 30 that MTV hopes will vote this time around. MTV commercials hint that these voters could decide the presidency. In a February special called Louder Now!, Yago teamed up with a young American soldier just back from Iraq who had joined the army to pay for college. The soldier connected the dots for viewers, telling Yago, "I was put in a life-threatening situation based on who our political leaders are." He later added, "It just seems so apparent to me why people should be out there voting."
Dave Sirulnick, MTV's executive VP of news and production, has been working on Choose or Lose since its start in 1992 and claims that it's always been a nonpartisan attempt to lure young people into the political process. "We looked at how in every election since 18-year-olds got the right to vote, the numbers kept going downhill. We felt we had a decent connection with this audience, and nobody was talking to them in their voice to help them make heads or tails of it all." That ability to talk in the language of youth (and influence the language) is extremely powerful, especially considering the high proportion of swing and first-time voters in the demographic. So it's hardly surprising that MTV's been a focus of right-wing anxiety, accused by conservatives of being a "mouthpiece for liberalism." Which might explain why all the MTV News people I spoke to got incredibly cagey on the topic of bias.
"An assumption that MTV and MTV viewers are left-leaning is just wrong," insists Sirulnick. "It's not the way we set it up and it's certainly not the way the viewers feel. I think a lot of that comes from the idea that in the '60s and '70s, young people were thought of as counterculturalthat if you're young or in a band or into rap you're going to lean to the Democrat side. But it's not true in our audience." An MTV survey showed 27 percent of voters 18 to 30 consider themselves Democrats, 31 percent Republican, and 38 percent independent or undecided. So MTV's concern with balance probably stems from a whole tangle of factorsa genuine desire for journalistic objectivity, a fear of alienating any of its market by taking too strong a political stand, and the need to protect itself from political flak.
The latest executive brought in to oversee Choose or Loseand the rest of the network's "pro-social" programming is Ian V. Rowe, who comes to MTV after working in the Bush White House. Even if he wasn't hired to deflect accusations of liberal bias, his appointment should do the trick. Rowe says, "Our audience is telling us they don't want to hear a skewed perspective." Not only that, but they're pissed off because MTV hasn't yet interviewed President Bushbut only because he has thus far declined. His father originally refused to go on what he dubbed the "teenybopper network" but eventually caved in and spoke to Tabitha Soren just before the 1992 election. Frantic to ward off any whiff of unfairness, Rowe says, "We think it's critical our audience hears from President Bush," and has sent out an e-mail suggesting that "our viewers contact the White House and ask them to sit down with us."
Yago likewise insists that MTV's job is to present a spectrum of opinions. "Young people are inundated with conventional media telling them it's this way or that way. Nobody is saying, 'The world is full of gray areas and simple moral dichotomies don't help you understand things.' If MTV could be the one voice that does that for young people, then we'll be doing our job."