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Turn Up the News

Clinton & Madonna
Tim Kao

Meet the MTV Nation: When it's not busy indulging celebrities like Madonna, MTV News covers the world of presidential politics--even helping to get Bill Clinton elected.

Can a station dedicated to rock videos really cover the world?

By Gina Arnold

MANY YEARS AGO, I had a job at a television news station; I quickly conceived the greatest possible disrespect for the medium of broadcast journalism. To anyone with a modicum of curiosity regarding current events, the medium's method--squeezing all stories into the smallest amount of words at the expense of adjectives, facts and mitigating circumstances--is intellectually offensive in the extreme.

Even more suspect is the medium's idea of "gatekeeping," i.e., deciding what stories matter most. On TV news, each news flash is rated in importance according to what visuals are available. Thus, fires are the best possible stories, particularly ones going on during the broadcast, so that a reporter can be dispatched (at great expense) to report from the scene. The least-important stories are the ones having to do with politics or complex legal issues, because the only visuals available are talking heads.

This is the rule at all TV news stations across America; it's why television news in America is so terrible. In contrast, MTV News--the news arm of the MTV cable network, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this month--is superior in both concept and execution.

It is also one of our more left-leaning news outlets. In 1991, for example, MTV was the only news organization in America to cover adequately protests against the war in Iraq, reporting on activity in various cities across the U.S. In 1992, MTV News was instrumental in electing Clinton; during the 1996 election, it profiled each candidate in the primaries, week by week; and its 1996 Republican Convention coverage easily outstripped anyone else's. A bit wherein Public Enemy's Chuck D. interviewed Strom Thurmond pretty much succinctly summed up every single problem with the electoral system in America today.

MTV News consists of half a dozen or so five-minute-long floating news items per day; an hour-long weekly broadcast called The Week in Rock, which airs on Friday and Saturday nights; and various special reports, including MTV News Unfiltered, which features personalized news briefs made by viewers. Besides merely reporting rock & roll news--music-industry deals, concert dates, deaths at rock concerts, rock-star drug charges and the like--MTV News has a keen eye for stories involving First Amendment issues.

A kid can't be expelled for a dress-code violation in Maine or Indiana without MTV News getting to hear of it. And woe betide the cities that try to ban Marilyn Manson from playing the OzzFest, limit record sales or ban raves! MTV has both the authority and the means to inform its children of their errant civil rights, and it will not hesitate to use them.

That MTV News is at heart a liberal entity can best be seen in the way it keeps abreast of abortion rights, from covering Rock for Choice concerts to more specific legislative issues. One week, The Week in Rock even aired a feature on the morning-after pill, essentially informing female viewers how--in an emergency situation--they could terminate a possible pregnancy at home.

This is not to say that MTV News is the intellectual equivalent of The Nation. It is only relatively left-leaning--and relatively informative--relative, that is, to the regular news and to what one might expect from the station that invented Singled Out and Jenny McCarthy.

LIKE MTV'S more conventional programming, MTV News does have conflicted moments, from anchorman Kurt Loder's constant smirks and asides about MTV sweethearts like Michael Jackson, Courtney Love and Rage Against the Machine, to its habit of juxtaposing various PC attitudes with artists, ads, products and songs that exude quite opposite values.

But it has also done special reports on topics such as guns, violence and the military that bring to light attitudes not normally aired on television. MTV's special report on drugs, for example, propounded the idea that drugs shouldn't be illegal, a fairly sane stance to take for an entity that lauds so many drug addicts.

Sex in the '90s was a similarly long, well-balanced and seriously considered piece on masturbation, in which various rock stars, actors and models--Veronica Webb, Michael Stipe and Janeane Garafolo among them--praised the practice as the one truly safe form of sex, while others debunked various myths about masturbation being unhealthful or a sin--a stouthearted stance when you consider that former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was fired for saying that masturbating is a normal activity.

Granted, MTV News has an advantage over more mainstream news outlets in that it has a limited number of topics that it considers under its jurisdiction. It also limits the artists it covers to the kind that make headlines. Recently, MTV News did a feature on the five artists most often mentioned on its broadcasts in the past decade, and they turned out to be Pearl Jam, Guns 'N' Roses, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morissette, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails may have been more popular during those years than the artists mentioned--but they seldom did anything as controversial or newsworthy.

As is the case with network news, MTV News relies on its fair share of sound-bite inanities, in which reporters can be heard to fawn over unpleasant characters such as Mary J. Blige, Puff Daddy and Fiona Apple. But at least on MTV News, this type of interchange is confined to celebrities. The real bummer is watching Tom Brokaw or Diane Sawyer behave in a similar fashion with Al Gore and Bill Gates.

Of course, this says more about the degraded state of television news than it does about MTV, and what it says is that the mainstream media have messed up their priorities, confusing entertainment with information-dissemination and so-called objectivity with nonsense.

Americans are supposed to pride themselves on democracy and freedom of the press. And yet when it comes to news, freedom of the press is often deliberately curtailed not by censorship or the powers-that-be but by mere market forces: the ones that have declared ratings to be more important than substance, that allow advertisers to have say over content and that decree that all TV news viewers are subnormal in intellect.

MTV News takes a different tack, whereby its own opinions are perfectly apparent, though occasionally undermined by the bullheaded observations of its sometimes dimwitted interviewees--and this may well make for the most "objective" thing on television. By smushing together all views and attitudes--smart, dumb, left, right, PC, un-PC--in one huge, colorful welter, MTV has the balls to do what no other news outlet in the country dares to: i.e., let its audience to make up its own damn mind.

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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