Political (De)Generation: MTV And America's Youth Vote

News & Politics

If you log on to mtv.com this month, it may take you a while to figure out there's a presidential election about to take place. There's news all right, in MTV-speak: news about album releases, news about a hip-hop group's upcoming tour, news about feuds between teen pop stars. You might notice the word "vote," but it's an opportunity to vote for your favorite character on the new show "Jackass." Scroll down a screen and you'll find an alphabetical list of the pioneer rock network's programs. There, beneath the listing for "Cool Crap Auction," you can click on "Choose or Lose," which will link you to MTV's election coverage -- programming that broke the network news barrier with its reporting and forums aimed at young U.S. voters back in 1992.

Gore & BushIf you turn on the MTV cable channel, you may get a slightly better sense that there's an election coming. Vice President Gore participated in a September MTV town hall forum that has been in frequent reruns, a team of four young reporters covered the conventions and have reported numerous stories about youth issues, and a continuous assault of get-out-the-vote public service announcements are planned for the week or two before election day. But this is not 1992, when MTV's ubiquitous reporter Tabitha Soren was covered, it seemed, as frequently as some candidates. "I spent as much of my working time doing interviews with other press organizations as doing my own," she recounts. That was the year an MTV forum participant asked then-Governor Clinton about his underwear; the infamous "boxers or briefs" moment was retold in almost every major newspaper. And anyone who followed the presidential campaign of 1996 will remember that year's Todd Oldham-designed "Choose or Lose" tour bus, the giant roving carpool of advocates, reporters, producers and musicians that brought a high-concept road trip to grassroots voter registration. "It was great for us," says executive vice president David Sirulnick. "It got loads of attention. It just coincided with a time when many newspapers were going to color, suitable for framing a red, white and blue bus on dozens and dozens of front pages across the country."

"The novelty has worn off," says Sirulnick. While the network as a whole is more successful than ever, "Choose Or Lose" ratings have remained stable; the audience for campaign coverage has not grown with the boom in MTV viewers. And to the extent that media define media, establishing what is important by what gets covered, "Choose or Lose" has seen a season of neglect. Perhaps, in part, it's because this year's intrepid young reporters don't cut the same kind of celebrity figure that a red-coated Soren did during the novel 1992 season. Or maybe it's the absence of an icon like the colorful and frequently covered tour bus. Or a candidate like Clinton who rendered himself an icon of sorts by linking his campaign to youth culture. This year late-night talk shows and the once-fledgling Comedy Central channel (incidentally co-owned by Viacom, MTV's corporate master) have dominated the buzz over pop culture's intersection with political culture, collecting a New York Times magazine cover and numerous inches of news analysis. Sure, Comedy Central boasts a young audience; in fact, in The New York Times magazine some college students admitted the "Daily Show" was their main source of campaign news. But comedy is entertainment, not information. Host Jon Stewart's send-ups of the candidates never feign in depth exploration of youth issues.

Campaign 2000 has been an exceptionally rough season for everyone working to galvanize youth interest. "The candidates reinforce that," says Mario Velasquez, the president of Rock the Vote, a voter-registration group affiliated with (but separate from) MTV. Velasquez has been wringing his hands all year, trying to lure young people to issue forums and registration drives with the promise of free music tie-ins. "It's been really tough. We've been going to college campuses, we did a 25-city bus tour, but it's been one long struggle. We've been giving away CDs and holding concerts all over the country, but kids just aren't coming out." Rock the Vote has extended invitation after invitation to the candidates, even offering an opportunity for Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan to debate concurrently with the major party candidates. "They didn't even dignify us with a response," he says of all four presidential hopefuls.

Candidates go where the votes are. Historically, the young have never populated that arena. In 1972, when 18-year-olds in America were given the right to vote, only half showed up at the polls (65 percent of the general electorate voted). But that's an enormous turnout compared to the record lows of 1996 when only 30 percent of young people voted (there was under 50 percent turnout overall). Perhaps as a result, candidates are tailoring this year's platforms and television appearances to older and more dependable voters (think Larry King appearances and discussion of Medicare benefits). After Comedy Central, the daytime talk show "Oprah," where the viewership is older and more likely to be registered, has been this election's pop cultural venue. Both major candidates made the front pages after appearing there to discuss their family-oriented platforms. Oprah's well-lit easy chairs are a far cry from the back of MTV's retired tour bus: whatever this may be the year of, it certainly isn't the year of the youth vote.

While Gore has appeared in a "Choose or Lose" forum, Bush hasn't obliged. "We're ensuring that the Governor has the exposure to as many American voters as possible," a Bush spokesperson said when explaining why Bush had yet to participate in a youth forum. Bush the Elder agreed to a last-minute interview back in 1992, which did little service to his campaign. He was awkward, rushed and seemed entirely out of his element. "Bush's Dad did not have a good experience with MTV," says Soren.

"'The novelty has worn off,' says Sirulnick. While the network as a whole is more successful than ever, 'Choose Or Lose' ratings have remained stable; the audience for campaign coverage has not grown with the boom in MTV viewers. "
In such a tightly controlled campaign, the take-it-as-it-comes form of MTV's town hall may present itself as a hazard to those vying for office. "The candidates worry about questions like 'what kind of underwear do you wear,'" says Thomas Patterson, the author of "Out of Order "and the director of Harvard's Vanishing Voter project. "They really worry that something like that will send their campaign careening for a few days. It doesn't matter what that answer is" -- Who actually remembers that Clinton's answer was "boxers, usually"? -- "the question can drive a news story. Imagine what would happen if someone asked 'when's the last time you smoked marijuana?'"

Back in 1992, Clinton could handle that sort of surprise. In fact, it worked in his favor as part of his sax-playing, charisma-beaming affect. He thrived on MTV's energy -- and the publicity it attracted. Tabitha Soren interviewed him more often than any other television journalist during her career at MTV. "But it's not like Clinton just had a thing for MTV," she says. "The White House and the campaigns only do something if it's particularly useful." Sirulnick remembers Clinton as a new kid on the block trying to carve out an identity. "He didn't have name recognition. He was really looking to make a name for himself," he says. "It worked for both sides. MTV was able to say we can bring in a major candidate, and he was able to address new voters."

So just as Clinton needed MTV, MTV needed Clinton. The popularity of "Choose or Lose" made MTV's four-year-old news department famous. Jonathan Alter, now a political correspondent for Newsweek and MSNBC, helped develop "Choose or Lose" back in 1992 and continued with MTV's election coverage through the 1996 election. It was "both a service for their viewers and a way to try to establish themselves as a more serious, unfrivolous network," he recalls. Respectability rose alongside high ratings, accompanied by new sponsorship from AT&T, "the network's first grown-up advertiser," says Alter.

But what candidates and MTV discovered after the huge success of 1992's coverage was that it didn't have a great effect on turnout. "I remember going on MTV on election night in '92 and saying young people helped elect Clinton," Alter recalls. "Then afterward I found out that they didn't. The turnout wasn't great, and it certainly didn't make the difference between winning and losing." This was before polling and focus groups loomed over each tiny campaign move. Now candidates know better. And so goes a vicious circle: young people aren't targeted because they don't vote and they don't vote -- in part -- because they're not targeted. "Candidates are controlled by demographics," says Rock the Vote's Velasquez. "Demography, I like to say, is the death of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you're only talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."

Television news follows the lead of the candidates. Campaign platforms in which young people are invisible -- notable exceptions being the candidates' family members: the telegenic Karenna Gore Schiff on the Democratic side and George Herbert Bush on the Republican side -- lead to network coverage in which young people are invisible. ("Have you aired or do you plan to air any youth-centered campaign coverage?" I asked a spokesperson for CBS. "Nope," she replied.) It's a mutual avoidance. About half of young adults say they don't read the paper or watch television news, according to Patterson's Vanishing Voter project.

Patterson sees that avoidance as central to young people's low voting rates. "Trace the media environment people grew up in. In the '60s and '70s families watched TV in the evening. Now, eight year-olds don't care about the news, but if it's on you'll get some interest in it. You form a news habit," he says. "If you don't have that interest, you're not likely to vote." Here's where MTV's coverage may affect young viewers in a way other television cannot, explains Soren. "It's sort of a bait and switch. You go from Madonna's new record to young people not having medical insurance."

If sneaking news into pop culture -- sometimes even disguising it as such -- can't make the difference, what can? "I'm still hopeful that they will get out there and vote," says Sirulnick. "But if they don't do it, we'll feel like we took our best shot at it." But it seems as though year after year MTV's best shot isn't enough. Back in 1992, the culture -- for peacetime -- was highly politicized. The Los Angeles riots occurred that summer. Unemployment followed graduation for many college students. Young America was visibly exasperated with a president running for reelection. Pop culture, especially rap -- was far more political. Still, the voter rolls didn't significantly increase. And this year all-time lows are projected. No galvanizing issues have risen to the top of this election. "Let's face it," says Velasquez, "this is a boring election. And boredom breeds apathy."

Some would say, however, that apathy is bred in part by the exact apolitical material that fills the bulk of MTV's daily programming. Critic Todd Gitlin, author of "The Whole World Is Watching," says MTV can't have it both ways. In his opinion, a network can't depoliticize the culture with a constant barrage of empty entertainment and then expect a population primed for critical thought. "If the major thing that people are doing during their waking hours is amusing themselves, the custom of paying coherent attention to politics and making a rational connection between political ideas is not sustainable," he says. "And if you drop an exceptional moment into this torrent of entertainment, you're just sprinkling salt into the ocean."

Asserting that MTV can't make much of a difference regardless of its intent, Patterson echoes Gitlin's metaphor. "MTV is throwing a pebble into a lake. And the ripple can't be seen by Election Day," he says. "I think MTV multiplied by several hundreds could make a difference. But it would take that -- a truly dramatic increase in cable and Internet outlets that have this as their goal." It will take, he says, a total shift in media culture to redirect the movement of these circles that keep young people disengaged. But Gitlin thinks it would require more than even that. "It would take some convulsion in the popular spirit, some break down of the assumption that the world is spinning around in a relatively satisfactory way, some huge economic calamity, perhaps some huge psychic breakdown. Of course," he sighs, "none of which I'm expecting."

Yet some would say that American youth today may not be quite as apathetic as the voter rolls indicate. Youth involvement in community service is on the rise. MTV's Sirulnick sees a new politicized generation existing outside the realm of presidential politics, he says. "There's a resurgence of young people seeing that you can affect local community, whereas the effect on national politics may be out of reach." And beyond the local level, beyond even the national level, is an impasssioned anti-globalization movement that has seen thousands involved in protests this past year in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Melbourne and Prague. To some critics, though, this hardly represents a sea change. "As a social force it's a pinprick," says Gitlin, who was the third president of the 1960's radical group Students for a Democratic society. "What's generated is a lot of focused indignation and declarations about change, but as a political force it's not serious. What's serious right now is voting in serious numbers."

Indignation in serious numbers is the card Rock the Vote in playing in its final push of get-out-the-vote advertising. "Piss off a politician. Vote," their ads encourage, communicating the paradoxical possibility that it's anti-establishment to vote for the establishment. Perhaps it's the politicians that must first piss off youth en masse. Maybe if they're forgotten -- like the red, white, and blue "Choose or Lose" bus that now sits on a lot in Columbus, Ohio -- they'll just get mad enough to change the culture themselves.

-- Lauren Sandler is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written commentary and reported stories for a variety of publications and media outlets including National Public Radio, Newsday, and Feed. She has been awarded the Arthur Carter Fellowship to study cultural journalism at New York University.

This article originally appeared on MediaChannel.org.

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