Back from the War and on MTV’s Radar

The New York Times

July 28, 2008 – Lorenzo Zarate sits on a couch and plays an Xbox game while a cameraman films him. Mr. Zarate, an aspiring rapper, thinks he is being featured in an MTV news segment.

Then Kanye West comes to the door. Once the surprise subsides and the two men settle down in the living room, the talk turns to “before I went” and “when I got back.” Mr. Zarate, 24, is a veteran of the Iraq war who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He is also a member of MTV’s core young demographic of teenagers and 20-somethings.

A recent MTV survey showed that nearly 70 percent of that demographic knew someone who had served in Iraq. “In some ways we think it’s the defining issue of this generation,” said Ian Rowe, vice president for public affairs and strategic partnerships at MTV.

With that in mind MTV is reinvigorating its get-out-the-vote campaign, “Choose or Lose,” even though it has scaled back its news and documentary programming in recent years. MTV plans to cover the 2008 election largely by spotlighting a few of the roughly 1.6 million Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Zarate’s story will be featured in “Homecoming,” an hourlong special about veterans presented by “Choose or Lose” and Mr. West on Monday night at 10.

In “Homecoming” Mr. West and an MTV correspondent, Sway Calloway, show up at the homes of three veterans and surprise them with gifts. Mr. West participated despite saying in the fall, after being overlooked at the MTV Video Music Awards, that he would never again appear on the channel.

At Mr. Zarate’s house Mr. West plays an excerpt of his song “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” on a keyboard before revealing the gifts: rent payments for six months, a new microphone, a week’s worth of studio time and an internship at a local radio station. MTV describes “Homecoming” as a documentary, but it could pass for a celebrity-fueled reality show of the type that viewers are accustomed to seeing on MTV, like the soap opera “The Hills.”

MTV first contacted Mr. Zarate on April 20, the fifth anniversary of a fierce gunfight in Iraq that still haunts him, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Tex. Hearing from MTV on that day lifted his spirits.

Mr. Zarate said he wrote song lyrics almost every day while stationed in Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, in 2003 and 2004. “My mom taught me to love,” one verse begins, “but I lost track of that somewhere in Iraq.”

In “Homecoming” Mr. Zarate, with glasses, a gold chain and tattoos on his forearms, describes the hardships of readjusting to life in Austin. “The Army could teach you to kill, kill, kill, but they can’t teach you to come back home and be a civilian,” he says.

Mr. Zarate pursued a college degree but found that he had to sit in the back of the class. That way, he could be fully aware of his surroundings. “I couldn’t have anyone behind me,” he said in the interview, “I was always alert,” adding that he hadn’t regained his sense of safety.

Patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder relive disturbing experiences and may display a wide range of symptoms, from nightmares and instability to feelings of estrangement from family and friends. In the documentary Mr. Zarate, whose doctor has recommended that he not work, and his pregnant wife are said to be a month away from losing their home.

MTV has covered similar issues before. “True Life,” the documentary series it began in 1998, has profiled military personnel shipping out, the spouses of soldiers deployed overseas and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2006 a half-hour program, “Iraq Uploaded,” showed videos shot by soldiers in the war zone. More recently MTV has broadcast two forums with veterans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one with Senator Barack Obama and the other with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Rowe, who oversees “Choose or Lose” and other public-affairs programming, said more shows related to veterans were in development. One would pair Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, with a group of veterans, similar to the MTV forums last spring with the Democratic candidates.

“Their coverage has been as aggressive as anyone’s,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Addressing the use of celebrities and gifts in “Homecoming,” Mr. Rieckhoff said, “When you’re trying to crack through Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie coverage, you have to be creative in the ways you interest young people.”

Dave Sirulnick, an executive vice president of MTV who oversees the news and documentaries division, said the channel had recruited musicians and celebrities for documentaries for years. The gift idea, though, is a new one. “We didn’t want this to be a cash kind of show,” Mr. Sirulnick said. “We wanted to make sure that the help we were giving was very specific to the needs of these veterans.”

Another veteran featured in “Homecoming” — Tirann Laws, 25, from Oklahoma City — is also experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr. Laws says in the program that he estimates he has lost “close to half a dozen jobs” because of his condition.

The third veteran interviewed is Shameeka Gray, 24, from Charlotte, N.C. Ms. Gray is also looking for a job. One of the gifts she receives is a college tuition fund for her young son.

Mr. Sirulnick played down concerns that “Homecoming” overstates the challenges facing veterans. “These stories are emblematic of a lot of veterans, certainly not all veterans, but a lot,” he said. “Over the last three years we have found — this is not scientific — but we have found that well over 70 percent of the veterans we speak to have had some sort of” post-traumatic stress disorder.

A study released in April by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, found that nearly 20 percent of troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of major depression or stress disorder.

MTV and the Dr. Donda West Foundation, named for Mr. West’s mother, who died in 2007, provided most of the money for the gifts, with additional support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Charles Schwab.

The war remains one of the most important issues in the coming election. And MTV, which inaugurated the “Choose or Lose” campaign for the 1992 election, has long emphasized the potential power of young voters. This year young people’s interest in the election has soared. Mr. Rowe said the MTV survey showed that 80 percent of respondents 18 to 29 are “closely following” the election, more than double the number four years ago.

Even so, news isn’t as prominent on MTV as it once was. The newsbreaks (“10 to the hour, every hour”) have mostly vanished. Much of MTV News now exists online, where reports usually draw significantly smaller audiences than MTV’s television shows. MTV News and Documentaries, a unit that produces long-form programs, is probably best known now for “The Paper” (about a high school newspaper) and “My Super Sweet 16” (about lavish birthday celebrations).

“Once we started to get runaway ratings hits like ‘Laguna Beach,’ it took an extraordinary amount of pleading and begging of our programming gurus to get them to really support our war and political coverage,” said a former MTV News and Documentaries producer who requested anonymity to avoid criticizing former colleagues publicly.

Mr. Sirulnick said the division’s budget “ebbs and flows” and emphasized that the formats of MTV’s news programming were constantly changing, adding, “We don’t stay in one place for very long.” He disputed the idea that it required particularly heavy lifting for news to earn a spot on the schedule. “Not if it’s the right show,” he said.

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