How MTV Broke News for a Generation
A little over a year into his first term, President Bill Clinton made good on a promise to return to MTV if young voters sent him to the White House. The town hall-style program in 1994 was meant to focus on violence in America, but it was a question of personal preference that made headlines and helped put MTV News on the media map.
Boxers or briefs?
“Usually briefs,” Mr. Clinton responded to a room full of giggles.
Now, a generation after MTV News bridged the gap between news and pop culture, Paramount, the network’s parent company, announced this week that it was shuttering the news service.
The end of MTV’s news operation is part of a 25 percent reduction in Paramount’s staff, Chris McCarthy, president and chief executive of Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Networks, said in an email to staff that was shared with The New York Times.
MTV News and its cadre of anchors and video journalists were the ones to tell young people about the suicide of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and the killings of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. They brought viewers on the presidential campaign trail and face to face with world leaders like Yasir Arafat, and took them into college dorms in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They also embraced the messy chaos of 1990s and early 2000s celebrity, as when Courtney Love interrupted an interview with Madonna. They always put music first.
Through it all, MTV News never strayed from its core mission of centering the conversation around young people.
“There were no comparisons, it was one of one,” said SuChin Pak, a former MTV News correspondent. “We were the kids elbowing in. There just wasn’t anything out there for young people.”
MTV News broke up the television news environment “in terms of young versus old, hip versus square” rather than the conservative-versus-liberal approach of many cable news networks today, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. MTV was able to corner a young audience who could name the entire catalog of the band Flock of Seagulls but also had a curiosity about current events, he said.
The Music Television network debuted in 1981 like a “fuse that lit the cable revolution,” Mr. Thompson said. Six years later, MTV News came on air under the deep, sure-footed voice of Kurt Loder, a former Rolling Stone editor, who co-hosted a weekly news program called “The Week in Rock.” But it was his interrupting-regular-programming announcement of Mr. Cobain’s death in 1994 that cemented Mr. Loder as “the poet laureate of Gen X,” Mr. Thompson said.
“It was live TV at its best, I suppose, for an awful event,” Mr. Loder, who now reviews films for Reason magazine, said in an interview.
MTV News tried to set itself apart from other cable news operations in a number of ways, Mr. Loder said.
For starters, its anchors and correspondents did not wear suits. They also weren’t “self-righteous” and tried “not to talk down to the audience,” he said. That became especially important as rap and hip-hop seeped into every fiber of American culture.
“We didn’t jump on rap at all as being a threat to the republic; we covered that stuff pretty evenhandedly,” Mr. Loder said. MTV then started adding more hip-hop to its music programing “and suddenly there’s a whole new audience.”
Sway Calloway was brought into the MTV News fold to “elevate the conversation” around hip-hop and pop culture, and to do so with credibility.
“MTV News took news very seriously,” he said. “We all wanted to make sure that we kept integrity in what we did.”
Mr. Calloway, who now hosts a morning radio program on SiriusXM, said he knew respect for hip-hop culture had reached a new level when he was sitting in the Blue Room of the White House with President Barack Obama.
“When Biggie said, ‘Did you ever think hip-hop would take it this far?’ I never thought that the culture would be aligned with the most powerful man in the free world, that we would be able to have a discussion through hip-hop culture that resonates on a global basis,” Mr. Calloway said. “That’s because of MTV News.”
From its inception, MTV News saw itself as a critical connector for young voters. Tabitha Soren, an MTV News correspondent in the 1990s, saw that first hand on the campaign trail with MTV’s “Choose or Lose” get-out-the-vote campaign, and in the White House.
“People were very earnest and sincere in wanting young people to be educated voters, not just willy-nilly, get anybody to the ballot box,” she said. “I felt like we were trying to make sure they were informed.”
For Ms. Soren, who was 23 when she first appeared on air for MTV News in 1991, being able to connect with a younger audience was made all the more easier because she was their age, she said. That meant asking Arafat about the role of young people in the intifada and going to Bosnia to follow American troops, many of whom were the same age as MTV’s viewers.
“I was empathetic because I was their age,” said Ms. Soren, who is now a visual artist in the Bay Area. “My natural curiosity most of the time lined up with what the audience wanted to hear about.”
That rang especially true for Ms. Pak, who filmed a docu-series for MTV News about first-generation Americans like herself.
“It was a culture shift for me personally, but with an audience that suddenly was like, wait, are we going to talk about this version of what it means to be American that is never shown and never talked about, and do it in the most real way possible?” said Ms. Pak, who was with MTV for a decade and now co-hosts a podcast. “Where else would you have seen that but MTV?”
Just as Mr. Loder and Ms. Soren became cultural touchstones for Generation X, Ms. Pak, Mr. Calloway and others filled that role for millennials. Racing home after school to catch Total Request Live, they watched video journalists report the day’s headlines at 10 minutes to the hour during the network’s afternoon blocks and between Britney Spears and Green Day videos.
“A lot of people were getting their news from us, and we understood that and knew it,” Ms. Pak said. “For all of us it was, OK, what is the audience, what’s our way in here that feels true? You do that by sitting down with them versus standing over them.”