Mock the vote: what’s wrong with MTV’s hot new political coverage

Mock the vote: what’s wrong with MTV’s hot new political coverage – Cover Story

Christopher Georges

“Thank you, MTV !” gloated A1 Gore, in front of 4,000 of America’s most connected at MTV’s Inaugural ball in January. “Thank you for winning this election. You did it!”

Even during that week of inflated rhetoric, Gore’s 30-second MTV love-in wasn’t much of an exaggeration. After all, hadn’t MTV’s year-long crusade of election specials inspired America’s jaded youth to unplug their Sony Discmans long enough to tune into campaign ’92? Hadn’t the music station’s funky get-outthe-vote drive prompted nearly a million young voters to register and thousands to volunteer for the campaigns? Hadn’t MTV helped make politics hip again? Of course it had. Indeed, the new vice president–in fact, all of America–had much to be thankful for.

And for all that, MTV is now being toasted–even with a prestigious Peabody award for its campaign coverage–as the spunky new kid on the political block. Of course, the music station is still a political lightweight compared to the networks and Beltway pundits, but a worthy sidekick–one they’re happy to have tag along.

So what’s so troubling about MTV’s foray into politics? Actually, it’s no one thing–not just the size of MTV’s audience nor just what MTV presents–but, like mixing harmless nitrogen with harmless glycerin, it’s the combination that’s created a political hazard. What exactly is that mix? Consider, first, that the music station boasts one of TV’s largest audiences-about 2 million viewers weekly and about 20 million annually, outdrawing, for example, even some of CNN’s news coverage. Add the fact that MTV–although it denies it–provides this massive audience with news that is obviously slanted to the left. Then consider that this slanted, widely seen news reaches an audience that is by all accounts politically malleable and detached from news sources other than those on TV. Take into account that this influential, widely seen, slanted news outlet has dedicated itself to becoming over the next few years the number one news source for America’s 45 million 18- to 29-year-olds. Finally, factor in that this influential, widely seen, slanted, growing music station has become such a political bigfoot among politicians that President Clinton held his first national interview not with Ted Koppel or Tom Brokaw, but with MTV’s Tabitha Soren. The upshot: Despite what the over-50 Washington insider crowd wants to believe, MTV is arguably one of the most influential political players in the American media–but it’s only playing half way. If MTV is going to profit from the perks that come with playing in the big leagues–such as wielding the power to influence the opinions of millions of Americans-shouldn’t the network bear the responsibility of playing fairly? Of course, the music station and the VJs who run it have the right to be biased, but they also have an obligation: Either provide news coverage with an agenda and admit the bias, or claim a standard of fairness and live up to it.

Yet, far from being held to any standard of responsibility, or taking it upon itself to stick to one, MTV news is treated gingerly–even exalted-by the political pundits and the usually frothing media watchdog groups who, for the most part, seem oblivious to the extent of its impact and bias. The media watchers, explains Jon Katz, media critic for Rolling Stone, “are out to lunch. Apparently they’re too busy poring over every line of the op-ed pages to notice MTV.”

MTV’s defenders retort that characters such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson also bring an agenda to their large audiences. But the comparison’s a leaky one. MTV’s audience, after all, is more ideologically diverse and more easily influenced. And unlike Robertson or Limbaugh, MTV’s claims of providing objective reporting have gone virtually unchallenged by media watchers and the mainstream press.

Of course, MTV insists that its 18 daily news reports and nearly 20 in-depth political reports and specials aired annually are as objective and non-partisan as what the networks and the major dailies dish out. As evidence, MTV news director Dave Sirunlick points out that the network’s . election coverage–which included lengthy candidate profiles and interviews, eight nights of convention reports, and features on issues such as abortion, the economy, and the environment-offered equal time to Bush and Clinton, did not endorse candidates or specific legislation, and even carried reports of Clinton’s draft and Gennifer Flowers fiascos. That’s true. But anyone–even the most avid Clinton supporter-who watched more than a few minutes of MTV’s political coverage this past year would have trouble making the case that MTV’s reporting was even close to objective. “Clinton walked into a dream,” says Katz, referring to MTV’s coverage. “He would have to have worked hard to mess that up.” MTV’s slant may be to a certain extent subtle, but its message is also unmistakable to its under-30 audience. A few examples:

* A news report on the New Hampshire primary opens with grainy, black and white video of Bush: “For pure political reasons,” Bush says, “I need the help of the people.” The tape cuts to a young woman: “I went yesterday to register to vote because I want to make sure he doesn’t get re-elected.” Then to Bill Clinton, addressing a crowd: “Together, I believe we can make America great again …. “

* MTV political correspondent (and rapper) M.C. Lyte reported from outside Madison Square Garden during the Democratic National Convention: “This is what was passed on the platform,” she says, reading an excerpt from the Democratic party platform. “‘Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose.”‘ “All right!” she adds, waving the paper excitedly, “We’re starting somewhere. We’re getting somewhere!”

* MTV toyed especially with Dan Quayle. In one case, background music from the song “Shiny Happy People” by the group R.E.M. was edited onto a clip of Quayle delivering a speech. To the casual viewer, it’s simply background audio, but to anyone who watches enough MTV, the message is clear: The popular music video of the song features colorfully dressed children and adults in a silly, arm-waving, happy-golucky frolic.

* MTV’s four minute profile of Clinton was generally positive, and offered a balanced mix of the candidate’s successes and failures. But consider the four minute feature on the Bush record. The opening 25 seconds featured none other than Quayle; Soren narrates (over video of the potato-e incident and other shots of a generally goofy-looking Quayle): “George Bush’s first major decision that would shape his presidency was choosing his vice president… During the next four years, Quayle bloopers would become more well known than anything else about the man.” The next 30 seconds are spent skipping through foreign policy events (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War), leaving the rest of the piece to detail in succession: Bush breaking his no new taxes pledge, the recession, Bush failing to spur employment, Capitol Hill gridlock, the Los Angeles riots, Bush’s six vetoes on access to abortion, his broken promise to create 30 million new jobs, and the fact that Bush “took a lot of heat at the Earth Summit in Rio.” Towards the end of the spot, Soren takes a stab at some balance, saying Bush “focused more attention on education,” but she quickly adds, “without delivering much in concrete reforms.”

* An MTV news primer on the Republican candidates opens with photos of Pat Buchanan over music with the lyrics “stereotype, stereotype,” then moves to photos of Bush, with the singers now repeating the word “monotone.” (The primer for Democratic candidates, on the other hand, opens simply with upbeat music and no lyrics.)

* At the Democratic convention, a typical interview, in this case conducted by MTV floor correspondent Dave Mustaine, a member of the rock group Megadeth: The reporter asks a young woman, an Ohio delegate, “How do you feel about AI Gore getting onto the ballot?” “It strengthens the ticket immensely,” she responds, enthusiastically. “He’s got strong character. He’s been a leader in his state. He’s got real commitment to family issues.” Over at the Republican convention, Soren opens the first night of coverage with an interview with “Tracy” from the “Women’s Action Coalition” outside the convention hall: “It’s imperative that we bring out the fact the Republicans have been horrible about women’s rights,” Tracy says, “horrible about the poor, horrible about health care. And it just has to change.” To MTV’s credit, it did run lengthy features from both conventions allowing the protestors outside the convention halls a forum. Unfortunately, the protestors featured in both spots were almost exclusively knocking the same person: Bush.

* Even MTV’s choice of convention correspondents betrayed a claim to objectivity. Among young people, MTV’s Democratic convention correspondents–Mustaine and Lyte–are widely perceived as articulate, politically astute, and respectable. The station hired Mustaine because “he’s a very smart guy who knows his stuff,” explains Mike McCurry, a former Democratic National Committee official who worked as a political consultant to MTV during the campaign. (Hmm.) In contrast, MTV’s Republican convention correspondent, Ted Nugent of the heavy metal group Damn Yankees, is not exactly, by MTV standards, a model of hip. Choosing Nugent, an icon of seventies’ heavy metal, who conducted his on-camera dialogue while chewing on what appeared to be a footlong piece of straw, is the equivalent of, say, ABC News selecting New York financier Abe Hirschfeld as its floor correspondent. Nugent, an avowed Republican, “is the guy you pick if you want to make a joke of right wingers,” explains Yale Daily News editorial page editor Michael Crowley, who says he watches about an hour of MTV a day. “Just putting him in front of a bunch of Republicans makes you realize how stupid Republicans are.” Even McCurry admits Nugent’s reports were “pretty goofy stuff.”

What isn’t goofy, however, is the number of people this kind of reporting reaches. Each of MTV’s daily news reports is viewed by up to a million people–matching and even occasionally topping the viewership for, say, CNN’s evening news. The slick, often snide, five-to-ten minute reports, each of which contains about 30 percent political news, visit any issue MTV thinks will pique its young viewers’ interests–from reports on the Los Angeles riots to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

MTV’s real wallop, however, comes from its political specials. Eight million people, for example, tuned in to the highest rated of MTV’s nearly 20 campaign specials (each of which was rebroadcast several times). That’s nearly fo,r limes the number of people who watched CNN’s six-hour, award-winning election special “Democracy in America.” During its August 1992 “Choose or Lose Voter Registration Telethon,” MTV logged more than 100,000 calls in a two hour period; tens of thousands of young people reportedly volunteered for the Clinton campaign in the days following MTV’s Clinton specials; and in a post-election poll of 18- to 29-year olds, 12 percent said that MTV’s coverage directly influenced their vote. (Considering that 22 million 18- to 29-year olds voted, and considering that Clinton won by 5.5 million votes, the president could, with a straight face, tell the MTV Inaugural ball rockers, that “MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton-Gore victory.”) Of course, Clinton’s success in winning the young vote also had a lot to do with his ability as a campaigner, but the MTV factor can’t be underestimated: “MTV may not have been the reason why Clinton won tiffs age group,” explains MTV consultant McCurry, who worked for both the Dukakis and Babbitt campaigns in 1988 and who was recently named a spokesman for the Clinton State Department, “but it certainly had a lot to do with it.”

That’s a message the Democrats had little trouble absorbing. “With all the press requests that came in for one-on-one interviews,” says Ginny Terzano, who served as a senior Democratic party press official during the campaign, “we made sure we made time for MTV. We wouldn’t replace Jennings for Soren, but it was close.”

But the numbers explain only part of MTV’s influence: For MTV, respecting the standards of journalistic fairness that the rest of the mass media lives (and dies) by may in fact be more important than for the networks and major print press because of who is watching MTV. The music station’s millions of viewers are, after all, of a generation that admittedly pays little attention to–and places even less faith in–the more traditional news outlets. Fifty percent of those under 35, according to a recent Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press survey, say they rely solely on TV ] for their political news. And the news they do watch is, more and more, from sources like “Entertainment Tonight” and MTV. (Just 18 percent of the audiences for ABC, CBS, and NBC’s I evening newscasts, for example, are under age 30.) All of which means that “MTV, because it is essentially writing on blank slates, has a disproportionate influence,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press.

That influence is even further magnified because young people rarely view MTV with the same skepticism as their parents view, say, Dan Rather. While the news anchors at the Big Three and CNN may be trusted, they’re not, to their viewers, exactly the embodiment of vogue. MTV, on the other hand, is. (The music station’s repeated airing, for example, of a video by the Seattle rock band Nirvana last year was central to helping boost sales of the group’s first album to 5 million copies, making it the hottest act of 1992.) There’s little question that millions of young people, many of whom are becoming more politically active, rely on MTV to help them decide what’s hip and what’s not. And, as anyone raising a teenager can tell you, pop idols like Madonna have at least as much impact as teachers and parents on how young people act and think. “The issues they promote play as cool issues,” explains Crowley. “When you watch MTV, you can’t help but know that pro-choice is cool or that Clinton is cool.”

And why is MTV so intent on making Clinton and a left-leaning agenda appear so cool? Could it be that Soren, Sirunlick, and the rest of the twentysomethings who staff MTV’s New York studios are the Tom Haydens and Abbie Hoffmans of the nineties? Perhaps. But there’s a less high-minded possibility. MTV is above all an entertainment company-and a very successful one at that. It’s not only one of cable television’s most profitable networks, but one of the world’s fastest growing. And as part of multibillion-dollar Viacom International (which also owns the music station VH-I, Showtime, and Nickelodeon), it’s part of an industry where audience share and entertainment value–as opposed to sense of newsworthiness or fairness–essentially drive programming decisions. This emphasis on promotion creates a reasonable, and accepted, financial formula: If you can sell the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or “The Ren & Stimpy Show” (a cartoon featuring a moronic cat and a hairless chihuahua–one of whom regularly spits up hairballs and both of whom apparently suffer from digesfive disorders), do so. Even MTV’s rock news is largely promotional material–tidbits that keep the names of the stars in front of the viewers. So if Bill and AI can boost audience share, why not sell them too? “It wasn’t exactly an attempt to be politically correct that drove their coverage,” explains one Wall Street media industry analyst, “but marketing.”

But Clinton and Gore are not Ren and Stimpy. Of course, the politicians certainly couldn’t object to being marketed as hot new products, but should they be? MTV is so sure the answer is yes that the music station will be doing more–much more of it in the future. The network, according to MTV officials, plans to become “a full-service network” for the under-30 crowd. This primarily means expansion of news and documentary coverage; in upcoming months, for example, says MTV’s Shunlick, the news division plans to tackle topics such as the administration’s national service and summer jobs programs, and it may even eventually open a Washington news bureau. “MTV,” notes Rolling Stone’s Katz, “could well be the primary source of communication for people under 30. With the built-in audience they’ve now got, the only question is how much they want to expand.”

None of this, however, seems to raze the media watchdogs and mainstream press. Why? For one, explains The Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz, “Just about everyone who has written about the new MTV campaign coverage hasn’t seen much of it. It’s partly generational and partly because we don’t have the time to watch it.” In fact, most inside-Washington political analysts and media critics eagerly admit they haven’t given a whole lot of thought to MTV’s political coverage. “That stuff drives me up the goddamn wall,” says Baltimore Sun columnist and TV pundit Jack Germond. “I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me.” (In a random survey of 20 Washington political pundit-types–from Michael Kinsley to George Will–just two, Washington Post editorial writer E.J. Dionne and New York Times political correspondent Maureen Dowd, said they even occasionally tuned in to the music station.)

But however rarely the pundits watch MTV, the professional media watchdogs—on both the right and the left watch even less. “We regard MTV as entertainment,” said a spokesman for Accuracy in Media, bringing our conversation to an abrupt end. And, from a somewhat confounded spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs: “I didn’t know MTV had a news program.”

While the pundits and media watchers may be confused, MTV isn’t. Peabody and accolades in hand, there’s no reason it should abandon its winning formula. But selling Bill and AI was easy. Here’s a real challenge: selling Ren and Stimpy in ’96.

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