Los Angeles Times
June 18, 1992, Thursday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Part F; Page 1; Column 4; Entertainment Desk
LENGTH: 1292 words
HEADLINE: THE COURTSHIP OF THE MTV VOTER;
TELEVISION: THOSE INVOLVED IN 'FACING THE FUTURE' HOPE VIEWERS WILL BE
INSPIRED BY THE CLINTON SESSION TO REGISTER AND VOTE.
BYLINE: By STEVE WEINSTEIN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
The channel of Madonna and "Yo! MTV Raps" transformed itself this week into
a 90-minute oasis of sober reflection about the future when Arkansas Gov.
Bill Clinton, the all-but-crowned Democratic presidential nominee, listened
to the worries of some 200 young people and then tried to persuade them that
he is their man.
Sure, there were the requisite moments of frivolity during MTV's "Facing the
Future With Bill Clinton." One young man asked Clinton if he would inhale if
he had his experiment with marijuana to do over again, while a young woman
wanted to know his astrological sign (it's Leo). There were a few
unrestrained hisses at the mere mention of a likely Clinton opponent, Ross
Perot. And Clinton, during a commercial break, prompted a burst of laughs
when he twirled like a model and said, "How do I look?" after his makeup
person powdered his face.
But mostly, the MTV crowd behaved like a bunch of churchgoers at their
confirmation ceremony, eschewing the catcalls, posing and woof-woof-woofing
that are staples of youth TV. This is supposed to be the generation that
doesn't vote, that is most alienated from politicians and the political
process, but the substance and passion of their questions impressed several
observers on hand to witness a presidential candidate taking MTV and its
young audience seriously for the first time.
"I don't think people would necessarily expect MTV viewers to have such
substantive questions," said Tabitha Soren, MTV's 24-year-old political
reporter, who moderated the question-and-answer forum with CNN's Catherine
But Soren added that everywhere she has gone during her six months covering
the presidential campaign for MTV, she has witnessed the passion that young
people have for the issues that most affect them, but which they have never
had the chance to express in a meaningful way.
Linda Douglass, political reporter for KNBC-TV Channel 4, who was there to
cover the event, expected some "penetrating" questions that no one had asked
Indeed, one 24-year-old, who volunteered that he had contracted the AIDS
virus through unprotected sex in high school, implored Clinton to make
condoms available in junior high and high school. He told the candidate that
he didn't have time for politicians and community groups to sit around and
debate morality. "I have the virus. I can't wait any longer," he said.
Following up a question about permitting gays and lesbians to serve in the
military, Soren asked Clinton why laws in Arkansas still made it illegal for
two men to have sex. And Denise Munro, 25, pinned Clinton down on his record
on abortion, forcing him to explain why he signed a law requiring parental
notification before minors can obtain an abortion.
"This was one of the most educated questions of the entire campaign, shaming
even the journalists who have never gotten that specific with Clinton," said
Steve Barr, co-founder of Rock the Vote, an organization funded by the music
industry that works to register young voters. "Instead of all these
fluff-ball questions and fluffy answers, they're really getting into some of
the real issues that concern young people. It wasn't like, 'I'm concerned
about paying for college' and he said, 'I'm the education president.' He
gave very specific answers, and that's what young people are starved for and
why they're turned off from the system. No one has ever talked to them."
For this first forum with presidential candidates, MTV clearly stacked the
deck. The music network canvassed area colleges and activist groups asking
for participants who "had a passion about an issue and a question you really
wanted to ask," according to Judy McGrath, MTV's vice president and creative
director. The vast majority of the audience was college students, many of
them studying the arts, prompting even some MTV officials to concede that
the group was a little "bourgeois."
When the young people gathered for a rehearsal the day before the event,
Soren said that MTV realized there were too many college students and rushed
out to find some other kinds of people. McGrath said that a few people older
than MTV's core audience of 18- to 24-year-olds made it into the audience,
but some in their late 20s and early 30s were rejected, despite their
proposals of astute questions.
"We tried to get mostly 18- to 24-year-olds because that is the largest bulk
of our audience and those are the people who are not voting," McGrath said.
"What we have to offer America and Bill Clinton is the opportunity to talk
to young people who are just starting their lives and are faced with a lot
of tough things in this country."
These young people, however, seemed to represent the minority segment of
their peer group that is involved and is voting. Quick interviews with a
handful of participants following the taping revealed that all of them were
registered to vote and nearly all of them had voted in the California
Still, all concerned thought that the more-apathetic, unregistered MTV fans
sitting at home would be inspired by the program to participate in the
"It brings it to our level," said Kymberly Jeffries, a 23-year-old art
student, who asked Clinton during the telecast whether he believed Anita
Hill or Clarence Thomas. "Usually all we ever see on TV is politicians
talking to a bunch of gray heads. But seeing people like ourselves talking
to him, seeing him interact with us, will definitely encourage them to make
a difference with their vote."
"This is the raw candidate and that can penetrate some of the cynicism,"
said KNBC's Douglass. "Young people have never voted in large numbers. It
doesn't seem relevant to them . . . but this may make them feel more
responsible. If kids can really sit down for an hour and really listen to
any of these men, then they will feel more of a sense of responsibility to
Soren said that the sheer novelty of a presidential candidate answering
questions in a place generally reserved for music videos and commercials
will encourage the 15 million young people who MTV claims watch each week to
pay attention. She said she has no proof that MTV's political coverage this
year will prompt any young person to vote, but she cited market research and
her own anecdotal experience on the campaign trail to insist that the
audience is listening.
"The research had people quoting from Paul Tsongas' 'Economic Call to Arms,'
something they didn't even know existed before we did a piece on him for the
New Hampshire primary," she said. "We are being a catalyst, I think, for
them to seek out other sources of news -- whether that be the New York Times
or CNN or Tsongas' book. Whatever it is, they are more informed, more
involved and hopefully that will get them to register and vote. I can't hold
a gun to their head and force them to do it, but that is certainly the aim."
MTV executives were delighted with the program and have extended invitations
to both President Bush and Perot for appearances in similar forums. But even
if they don't accept, it is clear that what was once just a flashy
collection of promotional videos designed to sell records has the attention
of at least one politician.
When a 22-year-old member of the audience said that while it was great for
Clinton to come courting the MTV vote, he wanted some kind of assurance that
the candidate would not simply abandon these young voters once he is
elected, Clinton promised: "I'll come back on MTV as President."
Play It Again, Bill
The town hall meeting with Gov. Bill Clinton, part of MTV's "Choose or Lose"
election coverage, is scheduled to repeat on the cable music network today
at 10:30 p.m., Friday at 9 a.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.
GRAPHIC: Photo, MTV executives were delighted with "Facing the Future With
Bill Clinton" and have extended invitations to both President Bush and Ross
Perot for appearances in similar forums on the cable channel. LARRY DAVIS /
Los Angeles Times