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Q&A: Gideon Yago

MTV's bespectacled news correspondent on his trip to Kuwait, reporting on the American men and women serving there, and why they opened up to him.

By Jesse Oxfeld - April 3, 2003

Big news stories sorts are always referred to as events that can make a reporter's career, and war is quite possibly the biggest of all news stories. Whether the causal relationship in fact exists—if you don't know what's become of the first Gulf War's Scud Stud, Arthur Kent, well, that's exactly the point—it's nevertheless true that every reporter who can is making his or her way to the Gulf region. There haven't just been the usual suspects there, the Christianes and Geraldos and Peter Arnetts, and there haven't been drop-ins from only the usual parachuters—like Dan Rather, who had his sit-down with Saddam. For this war, as The New York Times reported last week, a whole range of unexpected news organizations have been sending reporters to the area, from Rolling Stone to the Engineering News-Record to People magazine. One such unlikely war reporter is MTV's Gideon Yago, the music channel's young news correspondent with the heavy-framed glasses. Before the war began, Yago went through a brief Boot Camp course in Quantico, Virginia, and then he went to spend some time in Kuwait, talking both with local residents in the MTV demo and with the men and women in America's armed forces—who themselves aren't too far from the MTV age bracket. Yago returned to New York before the fighting started, and last week he took a break from planning MTV's continuing war coverage to talk about reporting from Kuwait, talking to the young American men and women fighting there, and why his own youth helped him report better stories.

Tell me about your trip over there.
We left on Valentine's Day, and we came back about 13days later. Initially we were going to do a bunch of news briefs, these little self-contained three-minute packages that run 10 minutes to the hour on MTV News and MTV2. The idea was to put a face on the war, who were the people living in this region, what's the country like, who were the young men and women serving, what are they into, what do they do, what do their lives entail, what are they thinking about. I had also been shooting a lot on my digital-video camera, just interstitial stuff on my own, because I had been trying to document what it's like. So we had all this great DV footage and we had about 11 hours of Beta footage, and the decision came literally 24 hours before we left to come back that we're going to turn it into a half-hour special. Then on the way back we decided to do it as a diary-style special, because it's a popular format with the audience; it was a real way to get them dialed in and interested in the story and then interested in the subject matter. So it went from just a regular "get story xyz and see what else you get on the ground" to "OK, we're going to do a story about getting the stories that we got." And we also rolled out the daily news packages in tandem with it.

Did you do some military training before you went over?
The Pentagon had offered MTV two embed slots. They told me in order to take these embed slots you have to go to this reporter boot camp that they're sending all embedded reporters to. So I went with my producer to that, a five-day training course at the officer-training school in Quantico, Virginia. It was five days of a lot more information than we needed to know. If we were embedded it would have been a lot more helpful: How to put on your gas mask, how to deal with carrying your own stuff, not being a burden on the marines, being aware of the realities of being in a conflict environment. Which we weren't involved in because we didn't pick up the embed slots.

Do you have any feeling, having gone through that training for the embed, that you sort of wish that you were over there now and could be taking part in the embed coverage?
I do, which partially has to do with being 25 years old and feeling like you're bullet-proof. But the real reason I wish I was embedded was that based on our very short meetings with the young marines over there, you come to the realization—and we said this in our show—that in a couple of months we're going to have tens of thousands of young men, ages 18 to 22, who are going to be veterans. They were all, up until last week, combat virgins, untested, it was all hypothetical for them. It would be really interesting to see how being at war, especially if this war is longer and entrenched, as it's looking more and more to be, how it changes them and what it does to them. Yeah, we're MTV and we're certainly not the be-all-end-all of coverage, and we certainly don't have the resources that conventional networks or conventional papers have. But honestly those guys opened up to us immediately. And when we were with the First Division, we watched a lot of the other media trying to talk to guys and relate to guys. It's one thing to just interview a 21-year-old, and it's another thing to have them really open up to you and confide in you and feel that you're a peer and talk to you as a peer. I think to be the network we are, and to get the kind of response we did from the marines, and to watch them change over a period of time, I think that it would really be a unique and honest portrayal of what war does to young men, what war does to those who grow up underneath its realities. And I think that it's a really important story and it's really up to those journalists who are out there now embedded to tell that story. Because I think it's as important a story as anything else in this conflict.

I hadn't thought of that before talking to you, but, sure, most people think of The Washington Post doing the serious coverage and MTV doing something wacky. But the people who are in the military are the MTV generation. They're going to be more comfortable with you than they are with a reporter from The Washington Post.
It's the difference of dealing with somebody professionally and dealing with someone personally. From other journalists that we were talking to, the only real glaring difference was, it wasn't the guys talking to us, it was that they didn't want to stop talking. We would have PAO [Public Affairs Office] officers and other journalists come up to us and, looking at our tape, just say, "that's amazing." We were working with CBS, and we had a lot of the producers there comment to us, "Holy crap, I can't believe you got them to say that on camera. These are the bites that we're looking for, that's really amazing, how did you get that footage?" And that is very gratifying, because those guys are the pros. And we felt like the little brother, running around with our little DV cams and shooting non-stop and asking all sorts of weird, roundabout kinds of questions. But sometimes it's the most indirect question that gets the most honest and telling answer. That's at least what we found. By the way, I hope this doesn't sound hyper-self-congratulatory, because it's really not. There are many talented people in the region now, who will do a far better job than we would be able to do. But if there was one advantage we had, it was simply that, it's almost an ageism thing—for us, we were almost peer-to-peer versus a journalist-to-marine type of thing. That's the one advantage we had coming to the game.

Obviously there's going to be more of a peer-to-peer affinity between you and these young guys who are doing this, than with an older guy who's been covering war for years. Are you doing continuing stuff with these marines you got to know over there?
We did those four hours of programming, right when the ground troops began, and then we did that live hour-and-a-half show. I think the idea is that as the situation warrants it, we'll go live or do those live-style programs, depending on the gravity of the situation. Aside from that, we're also doing regular updates, and we're figuring out ways to bring the stories back to the audience, so it's stuff that they can understand—we're dialing it back to you, this affects you and affects people you know, this affects your life and you should be interested in this, in way abcdefg. And also we're doing a lot more of the primer pieces. I'm not sure if you saw "What's Going On?" the very successful promo from us, coming out of the news department, but it's sort of the five basic things you need to know about key players or key things in the headlines in any given week. So it's pretty much committing to that here on out.

Is there any effort to stay in touch with the guys you'd been talking to?
I've been emailing guys, but it's been dodgy in terms of communication, as you can imagine over there.

But do you find yourself being more curious about the guys you spent time with?
Well, the story doesn't end with this war. Like I said, I think it's a very profound story, and I think that it would be interesting to hear from these guys when they come home. And it would be interesting to hear from these guys if they're in Baghdad for a protracted period of time. Just because you leave doesn't mean that you leave the story behind. And just because you do one little show doesn't mean that the story stops. An interesting piece of data came from the latest poll the MTV statistics department did, in January; it said 67 percent of our audience has a friend or family in the military. So, obviously to keep on this stuff and who these guys are, regardless of whether they're in or out of uniform, is important. It will be interesting to see what happens, and it seems to be important to the audience, given how many have personal relation to it.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of Photo of Gideon Yago at training in Quantico courtesy MTV.

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