Chances are that if you were a teenager at the start of the new millennium, the name Gideon Yago rings a bell, as it should: The former MTV News reporter and unlikely heartthrob was a constant presence on the network, especially during presidential campaigns.
As the second guest to speak at the University of Miami’s lecture series A Dialogue For Democracy, Yago was a welcome familiar face, and Tuesday’s speech at Storer Auditorium, entitled “They’re Doing What? Politics, Cool, and the Youth Vote,” drew a near-capacity crowd.
Yago, whose Emmy award-winning documentaries feature such controversial subjects as hate crime, natural disasters and the war in Iraq, started reporting for MTV in 2000 when he was a senior at Columbia University.
Along with MTV reporters Kurt Loder and John Norris, Yago’s appearances “10 to the hour, every hour” made him a household name and exposed many teenagers to social issues for the first time.
Yago, 30, told The Miami Hurricane in a press conference for student media that he truly believes college students have the power to change the course of history, but only if the effort is made.
“The history of change was written on college campuses,” said Yago, alluding to the student activism of the 1960s and the recent creation of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, a Darfur awareness group founded at Georgetown University. “[Change] spawned in a dorm room.”
Yago also expressed disappointment in the direction his former employer has headed.
“There’s a reason I don’t work there anymore,” he said of MTV, whose focus seems to be more on reality TV shows such as “The Hills” than its “Choose or Lose” programming less than 50 days from the election.
Yago also expounded on the history of the network’s socially conscious programming and noted that Sept. 11 was the watershed moment for MTV News. While the network wanted to show music videos in the hours following the collapse of the Twin Towers, Yago and his fellow reporters viewed themselves as civics teachers, wanting to explain the key players and events of the day to their audience.
“When the apocalypse happens, that’s when MTV will revert to showing music videos,” Yago said. The epitome of informed cool, Yago’s candor impressed many students. Freshman Megan Moran was especially awed by his brutal honesty.
“I was very interested to hear the views of someone I consider a journalistic icon,” Moran said. “[Our generation] can relate to him.” On Yago’s actual speech, Moran felt he was “really intellectual, but in a manner that was totally stimulating.”
Yago views complacency as the most antagonistic force facing the “post-reality” generation today. The youth vote, which comprises a fourth of all citizens in the United States today, is a far more powerful bloc than other “niche groups” such as soccer moms and Evangelicals, according to Yago, who worries that young voters will flock from the polls no matter the outcome of the presidential election.
“There’s no reason in particular for politicians to pay attention to us unless we make them,” Yago said. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a place at the political table. Things will be okay until they’re not.”