Gideon Yago's Media Project: Press Criticism for People Who Aren't Idiots
If Bill O’Reilly had flipped to the IFC Channel on Sunday at 11:00 p.m., perhaps hoping to catch his favorite Jim Jarmusch or John Waters movie, he probably would have had an aneurysm. The premiere episode of the second season of The IFC Media Project (http://www.ifc.com/mediaproject/) [with Gideon Yago], which was devoted to coverage of international news, showcased:
A lament that all but one cable provider in America refuses to carry Al Jazeera English, the sister network of the cable channel famous for its anti-Americanism and for broadcasting Osama bin Laden’s homemade videos.
A report on last year’s war between Russia and Georgia arguing that it was Georgia’s fault, and that the media took Georgia’s side because of a slick PR campaign and the importance of an oil pipeline that runs through Georgia.
An animated segment about piracy in Somalia that pointed out that for years Western ships have been fishing in Somali waters and dumping nuclear waste there, and questioned whether the pirates are actually “the bad guys.”
Not quite the same complaints that O’Reilly and his ilk might have about the news, but that’s because the people behind the half-hour series—in particular, host Gideon Yago, the award-winning MTV News alumnus, and executive producer Meghan O’Hara, Michael Moore’s longtime collaborator—don’t want to see the mainstream media wither and die. They truly love journalism, and they want it to be better. Like your parents, they criticize because they care. Here’s what Yago and O’Hara had to say when I spoke to them last week.
Vanity Fair: What are your goals with the Media Project?
Gideon Yago: I think the best thing we can do is show who the people are that make the news and show what they’re up against on personal levels and on systemic levels in terms of trying to do their job. We say it all the time on the show: journalism is a craft, not a science. So if you get to know the craftsmen a little bit better, and you get to know how they operate a little bit better, hopefully it makes you a better consumer, makes you more skeptical of some of the stuff that you’re getting, but also gives you an appetite for the better stuff that’s out there.
That sounds like a fairly sympathetic viewpoint toward the people working in the media, but at times the show can come off as antagonistic toward what the media is producing.
Yago: It should be antagonistic. It shouldn’t be uniformly antagonistic. You know, one of the things that we talked about, especially with this season, was: are we just kind of putting everybody in the crosshairs, and are we not praising, at the same time, what we think is the extraordinary job of people wielding journalism correctly? So I think we tried to be a little bit more sympathetic this time around. But the centerpiece of the show is still to get people to ask pretty profound questions about what they’re consuming and why.
Yeah, how much time the media devotes to covering the media.
Yago: The way that journalists are viewed right now in America—I think we’re less popular than lawyers and Congresspeople. Those are pretty rarefied levels of mistrust and hatred, and I think part of that is because over the last couple of years the media has just blown it with a lot of big stories. And if you’re talking about the issue of whether the larger public actually has an appetite for this—I feel like we’re at a watershed moment where the public is starting to ask questions. How many major cities in America now have no longer functioning or bankrupt newspapers? Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle. I know that there’s a death pool at The New York Times. So what does that say, when something that has been part of America since the Revolution is now a no longer functioning entity? And you can say, “Oh, well, they mismanaged their business model” and what have you. But I happen to believe in that Jeffersonian statement that you need a free press to regulate against abuse of power in this country.
That’s interesting what you say about wanting it to be enjoyable for people to watch, because that’s a dilemma that many media organs are facing. There are so many competing draws on people’s time, and I agree with you that people could use more hard news; but I think the fact remains that you sometimes need to give people what they want, and a lot of the time that’s the celebrity stuff and infotainment.
Yago: Well, if the criticism is that we don’t have that in our show, my answer would be that there are plenty of other places to get it.
But the same way that you make your show entertaining and fun to watch, a lot of TV shows, magazines, and newspapers with the fluffy sections are trying to do the same thing as a business imperative.
Yago: Look, if nobody’s watching, what’s the point, you know? If we don’t have things that are going to excite the guy who’s got the shortest possible attention span, then God help us, we’re not doing our job right. I just feel like the one thing about that idea of “you gotta give the people what they want” is that a certain degree of cynicism has gotten reflected in a lot of journalism. This is the golden age of documentary filmmaking, really good feature pieces, really good expositions on human beings, especially on the web or even on radio—you think about the success of shows like This American Life. All of that stuff does a fantastic job of just taking simple stories and telling them well, with good craftsmanship, and lo and behold, you maintain an audience. You don’t just have to do the “Star Jones got another staple put in her gut” story, or “Paris Hilton, patient zero for a new strand of STD” in order to keep eyes on the screen.
And, you can follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gideonyago