IFC Media Project’s Gideon Yago: ‘When Newspapers Take It On The Chin, You Lose Support For Reporting’


Through segments analyzing how thorny topics get covered (such as “The Elusive Missing White Girl,” a.k.a. when middle class child-kidnapping cases dominate the news cycle), interviews with journalists, and cheeky insights into common media parlance (i.e. journos’ tendency to use “allegedly” to cover their collective ass), The IFC Media Project (premiering tonight at 8pm EST) spends its six episodes pulling back the curtain on how news gets made. We spoke with host and former MTV Newsman Gideon Yago (left, giving his best “What the f*ck, journalism?” which pretty much sums up the premise of the show), who filled us in on why, after burning out on “the various people who push on the news media” and “that dance of actually breaking the story,” IFC’s series exposing media’s inner workings brought him out of early TV retirement.

How’d the idea for The IFC Media Project come together and how did you come to host it?
The idea for the show came from Megan [O’Hara] and Nick [McKinney, co-creators and producers]. I got involved with it because I had done some stuff like it for CBS, MTV. We got to talking and then they said, how do you feel about eventually hosting this thing? I had been avoiding doing anything that’s broadcast, but this just seemed like the right thing to me.

Avoiding doing broadcast? Why?
I think some of it was just burnout on television and burnout on how television gets made. I started working for MTV when I was 21 and, the further it went on, the further I ran into the obstacle of working for news organizations at CBS and working for MTV and trying to get the kind of material that I wanted on there. It started to get me kind of bummed out. So I jumped out of the medium.

What’s the most important thing the IFC show strives to convey?
Mostly we just try and show the process. When I began working in journalism, which was in 2000, the recount in 2000 was the beginning of a sort of egg on the face of the media. Subsequently, I think the handling of run-up to the Iraq war and the low-level tabloidization, continuously, of cable news and the increasing emphasis on analysts, pundits and stars at the expense of beat reportage — it just seems like there is ample opportunity to criticize where the [journalistic] process was going wrong in the hopes of getting it back on track. Things are really running off of the rails [in journalism], and there’s no real regulation to correct it.

What do you think can be done to correct this “spectacular failure,” as you call it on the show?

I was always under the impression that local news and broadcast news was a sort of tort against major companies using bandwidth through broadcast. That’s the reason that we have news at all: It’s a public service and for the common wealth. But, even as far back as the ’70s, when they made Network, it was about the increasing the effort to make broadcast news entertaining. Then, cable news influenced that — it influenced the caliber of the broadcast news we were getting. It seems like no one is really willing to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, maybe you shouldn’t just be chasing the lowest common denominator here.” I wonder if it has to come down to the federal government coming in and re-regulating what it is that’s [on during] prime time, or the way [news] budgets can be allocated, or even creating some sort of government-trusted or government-bonded or government-subsidized media outlet that doesn’t have to compete in the marketplace. It’s not that far out of an idea when you consider that we entrust pension funds for a lot of municipal workers or government workers to private management. Why wouldn’t we do the same thing with our information?

Starting at MTV News around the time of the recount — was that the story that first got you questioning how news sausage gets made?
I started working at MTV when I was 21, covering the 2000 election, and I think you’re always vaguely aware of how large and well-organized [the news-making machine is]. It’s the news media and the various people who sort of push on the news media, whether they’re PR people or public affairs representatives for institutions. You find out how much money and time and effort goes into that dance of actually breaking the story. That was an eye-opener for me. Then, pretty shortly thereafter, I found myself covering September 11 for a high school and college audience, and trying to make programming that was essentially a springboard into the actual 24-hour news cycle, because we just knew that our audience did not traditionally watch news the same way that their parents and grandparents did.
I was just amazed as we continued to do that — just watching how sophisticated message control, media control was, and the way that the media responded to stuff. I learned that all by being a part of it — being on the road and covering candidates, or going through the Pentagon embed programs just to see what that whole training was, or going over to Iraq and seeing the way the military was attempting to craft stories. All of that was really my education.

Do you think that the Internet is a positive vehicle for news delivery?
It depends on what kind of news you’re talking about. I think it absolutely is for things like wire services and things like news aggregator sites. I mean, I’m an absolute news junkie, so I consume G-d knows how many sites, G-d knows how many news stories by RSS feeds, or through sites like Drudge Report every day. But, it’s been absolutely correlative that as these sites were taking off, we’ve seen newspapers take it on the chin. When that happens, what you lose is literal support for reporters and reporting. There’s a lot of hay that’s made about how bloggers are coming and stepping in and filling that void, but I still do think that the craft of journalism and the craft of reportage is an art form, and without institutions to really support it on a day-to-day — to actually feed those headlines into the news aggregator sites or onto the Internet — we’re going to lose out.
If you work in broadcast news at all, you watch how quickly and how without real thought or real backbone news directors, especially for cable news, just rip the headlines straight off Drudge or straight off Huffington Post, curating what is news. I think that that’s irresponsible. It just seems like sensations and scandals and little tempests in the teapot come out of that.

What you’re describing sounds like a need for a more refined sense of the stories that wash, the stories that are credible.
I was always of the mind that journalism is a craft, not a science. So what I always loved is increased craft-based reportage. I don’t understand why other countries are able to do that and we’re not! Why is so much of the foreign press often far more sophisticated and far more nuanced, subtle and just elegant in its execution as compared to American broadcast—especially American cable news?
In the segment of the IFC show about U.S. media coverage of the Middle East, your intro consists of you struggling to introduce that piece — it was this candid moment of you, the journalist, struggling with how to articulate the story. Did you have any idea that that would be what wound up getting used as the intro?
No, and I’m glad that it came out that way because it also represents how difficult that story is as an issue. I obviously have my own personal connection, being an American Jew, and yet at the same time, I’m also somebody who’s been largely involved — certainly throughout my time at MTV — in going out to places like Iraq, or Pakistan, or throughout the Middle East to tell stories about post-9/11 relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world, trying to engender understanding, mutual respect and peace. The issue about Israel-Palestine is obviously one that is just fraught with emotion, fraught with history. Showing the intro the way they did was to broach it in a way that shows how it affects people on a personal level. Journalists are people: These are problems that they have been struggling with, or confronting their own biases about, or figuring out how to craft a story about it — even if it’s as simple as a standup. Maybe it’s okay to show that, rather than just sort of appear in front of everyone and say, “Look, we’re the voice of G-d, we’re all-knowing, this is how it is.” The point for us was to get people thinking and to get people talking, and hopefully the fact that I was confounded about how to do the intro contributes to that somehow.

Any word on whether there will be another round of episodes of the show?
IFC will tell us after the last one airs. I should hope so. I think there’s a need for more critical looks at the news in the hopes that someday, some way, somehow, it’ll turn journalism back around in this country into something that really does do an excellent job of informing and engaging and getting people participating in the world around them.

Transcription by RAFisherInk.com