MTV Aims to Rock Youth Vote

The channel wants to make voting - and youth activism - cool to its viewers

CHOOSE or lose. If you don't vote for the candidate of your choice, someone else will choose for you." That's the message bombarding young people all over the country. But its not coming from the classroom or the political parties. It's coming from Music Television.

MTV, the wild and woolly music-video channel dedicated to pop commercialism, is an unlikely spot for this civic-mindedness. Yet the cable channel has taken on the 1992 election as a cause cbre, encouraging young people to get involved in the democratic process by registering to vote. Its "Day in Rock" news service has tackled the election from the New Hampshire primary on, reporting on major events such as Super Tuesday and both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

MTV produced a 90-minute special on Bill Clinton, with the Democrat answering questions from 300 young people. The same offer was extended to President Bush, Barbara Bush, and Dan Quayle, none of whom have so far accepted.

The "Day in Rock" segments have been praised by members of both parties. While one would expect the MTV generation to have a strong liberal Democratic bent, recent polls have found that youthful voters are evenly spread between the two parties and independent status.

MTV's involvement with the election began two years ago, during the Music Video Awards ceremony. The channel ran public-service announcements for Rock the Vote, a recording-industry campaign to register 18- to 24-year-olds. Industry people were worried over potential government censorship of rock lyrics, and saw MTV as the door to young opinion.

Since then, Rock the Vote activists have launched a campaign (especially on radio) to encourage youths to become active in causes and register to vote. They have enlisted the respected League of Women Voters to help register first-time voters at big concerts such as U2, Guns and Roses/Metallica, the "Lollapalooza" tour, and in 8,000 record and video stores.

While the record companies may have their own reasons for wanting young consumers to have a say in Washington, Rock the Vote's Patrick Lippert says the organization is pursuing a non-partisan approach. "Seeing the young delegates at the Republican convention was very encouraging - we don't have to worry about those young people. I applaud their activism," he says.

MTV News Director David Sirulnick says, "We want our viewers to choose a candidate, choose a stand, choose an issue, and choose to vote. It's their future.... We are trying to excite young people by saying, not only is politics important, but it is kind of interesting."

Linda Corradina, vice president of news and specials for MTV, says, "The challenge was that the subject matter is different than what we usually do. We have covered pro-choice and pro-life rallies, first-amendment issues, and so on, but most of what we cover is entertainment news. We asked how can we make politics interesting to young people? We found out [through research] that they are concerned about education, the environment, and maybe most about the economy. And AIDS has become a big concern of th eirs.

"If we can make being knowledgeable about the political process cool - if we could give them the idea that it's cool to be informed, they may pick up a newspaper or book and read more about the issues," she says. Kids are willing to get involved when they are roused to care about a problem, adds Ms. Corradina. But they seldom connect positive change with casting a ballot.

That is where MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, who covered the recent Republican Convention in Houston, comes in. She brought the convention to MTV viewers, explaining the political process and the issues in the familiar clipped video-style sound bites.

Of course this was not "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." Everyone talked fast, and the issues itemized onscreen whizzed by before one could properly digest them.

The roving reporters included rock stars - Ted Nugent of the group Damn Yankees and rapper Treatch of Naughty by Nature - whose skepticism was sometimes amusing, although they did try to keep their personalities in check. And while network-TV election coverage concentrates on the big-wig political types, MTV reporters divided their time almost equally between the politicians and the young delegates on the floor. House minority whip, Newt Gingrich, was interviewed, as was Marvin Bush, the president's youn gest son.

Not everyone is pleased with the efforts of MTV, Rock the Vote, and the League of Women Voters to sign up the young. Registration officials in many states drag their feet when it comes to young voters, according to the national League of Women Voters' President Becky Cain. She says that the registration system puts up unreasonable barriers to college students, the poor, and the disabled.

"A democracy depends on the consent of the governed, on ordinary citizens showing up on election day and casting their ballots," she says. "Yet fewer and fewer are giving their consent. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important reasons so few vote is that they have not registered. Over 80 percent of the registered will vote. And the statistics hold up for the young people as well.

"So we have been working for the past 20 years [since 18-year- olds were enfranchised] to get the 18- to 24-year-olds to vote. Partnering with other groups that have access to young people was natural for us. Rock the Vote and MTV have been very successful in terms of reaching the young," Ms. Cain says.

"We didn't want it to be homework," Corradina says of the coverage. Kids "don't understand the process so we explained it. We did a piece, for example, explaining the buzzwords - what's a caucus, what's a primary, and so on.... [We made it] easily digestible to them.

"What we hope to accomplish is to see a number of 18- to 24-year-olds actually cast their vote," says Corradina. "What I think we are doing is informing them enough to help them make an intelligent decision."

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