Before an unfortunate encounter with his television show on Tuesday night, I had never heard of Gideon Yago. According to Wikipedia, Yago is a former correspondent for MTV News, an occasional print journalist, and an aspiring screenwriter. He dresses the part too—hipster glasses, a wispy beard, low-cut Doc Martens boots. A Wisconsin native, Yago is the Midwesterner-as-refugee, keeping it real in New York; outraged by the "corporate media," yet with a minor corporate media pedigree. When asked by The New York Times if he is cynical about the American media, Yago told the Times, "That, my friend, is the understatement of the year."
Yago is the host of The IFC Media Project, a six-part documentary series on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) arguing the anti-media brief for the "change we can believe in" crowd. According to the show's creator and producer, Meghan O'Hara, Yago will look at the "influences shaping today's media coverage including journalistic integrity, biases, corporate influence, profits, ratings, propaganda, agendas, obsessions and more." It is also the intention of these brave souls to demonstrate "how the government uses propaganda in the media to sell policy decisions to the American public." In an apparent conflation of shows like Today with actual news programs, Yago told the Times that he was tired of "news stories that were super-relevant [that] get the kibosh because Purina had bought the first hour of the morning show and they wanted to do a profile on fat cats."
Case in point, according to the debut episode, is the media's treatment of the Israel-Palestine issue. American foreign policy, says segment host Mark LeVine, is in "lockstep" with Israel, a fact that is "difficult to discuss," the "third rail of journalism," something we Americans "don't debate," and speak of only in "hushed tones." There are critics, he concedes, but "the lobby monitors these people." It is unclear where these brave dissenters are airing their opinions, considering that the mainstream media doesn't allow them a voice, and just why "monitoring" (which, in this case, is a euphemism for criticism) is such a bad thing. In fact, isn't this what The IFC Media Project is doing?
Stressing that "the media"—which is never adequately defined—genuflects at the feet of pro-Israel hawks, Yago and Levine present a clip of Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (an opinion journalist) on Fox News. In a 2006 interview with Neil Cavuto, conducted at the start of the Lebanon war, Kristol comments that, "It's unfortunate that Lebanese get killed in the cross fire, but at the end of the day, this is really much better for Lebanon…" Cut.
But hang on. Here is, according to the Fox transcript of the exchange, Kristol's unexpurgated quote:
"It's unfortunate that Lebanese get killed in the cross fire, but at the end of the day, this is really much better for Lebanon than them being forced to tolerate Hezbollah, as they were forced to tolerate Syria for all those years, occupying their territory."
As tempting as it might be, pay no attention to the substance of Kristol's argument—it is irrelevant to the point at hand. For a television show accusing the mainstream media of selectivity and dishonesty, Yago and Levine don't seem to mind taking some liberties in the editing booth themselves.
The other "pro-Israel" clips are even more bizarre. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig proclaims that "we've got to stick with our ally" (though a comment about the Israel-U.S. relationship not actually being "down the line support" is excised), once again demonstrating that people with opinions are invited on television to express them. A brief clip of MSNBC's only conservative host, former Republican Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough, asking a question of his guest is also truncated. But on the receiving end of Scarborough's interrogation is—surprise!—the anti-Israel pundit Pat Buchanan, a frequent MSNBC guest who has managed to evade the omnipotent and omnipresent Israel lobby.
And so on.
It's hard to know what to make of all of this. One wonders if media criticism is—or has become—merely an expression of ideological frustration. If the deeply held views of the complainant are not represented on CNN's Situation Room, it's the result of a shadowy conspiracy. That IFC doesn't make a convincing case for a uniformly pro-Israel media didn't bother the Columbia Journalism Review, which enthusiastically wrote that "kudos are in order to any project that explores, as [host Gideon] Yago puts it, 'what the media gets right, what it gets wrong, and who calls the shots that influence what you actually see.'" [emphasis added]
This is, in a sense, the political version of Tipper Gore's Parents Music Respurce Center (PMRC), relying as it does on a reductionist argument that the plebians will uncritically swallow whatever the networks feed them (and like Gore, it vastly overstates the broadcast media's influence). But Yago considers himself a member of the resistance, a heroic figure to be celebrated for struggling mightily against the media "noise machine," for being a terribly clever person that watches the BBC. (Yago repeats the hipster cliché that "the foreign press [is] often far more sophisticated and far more nuanced, subtle" than the American media. Has he never heard of the Daily Mail, The Sun, or Bild?)
The IFC Media Project isn't actually engaging in any real media criticism; it's merely signaling to those who are already on his team. No one who has spent significant amounts of time on a college campus in the past 30 years will find anything new or novel in this type of kvetching. But unlike those campus activists who knew how to complain but failed to offer solutions, Yago thinks that media freedom is the problem, not the solution, telling Mediabistro that news is "a public service and for the common wealth."
Perhaps, he continued, we need the government to intervene and force us—a sort of media dictatorship of the proletariat—to watch the correct programming: "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."
That way, the Purina Cat Chow executives and the Israel lobby can't monopolize the flow of information and obscure the truth about the Middle East.
Michael Moynihan is an associate editor of reason magazine