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, and—like Tabitha Soren before him—Yago 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 central—a 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 coverage—reporting 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. Mencken—all 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?”
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 audience—OK, 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 here—you 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 temp—part 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 countercultural—that 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 factors—a 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 Lose and 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 Bush—but 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.”
As for the Baffler-reading Columbia grad’s own beliefs, they peek through now and again. Hopped up on iced tea and youthful fervor, Yago talks heatedly about his realization that “all my friends are doing freelance labor that is not collectivized and they’re being denied certain benefits because there’s this cult of executives . . . ” He stops himself short. “But I guess you have to learn to walk before you can run. I like to think I’m helping people make that first step.”