Cable TV networks bring unconventional coverage to proceedings DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

July 16, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Staff Writer

NEW YOUR — NEW YORK -- In the upper reaches of Madison Square Garden where the most raucous Rangers and Knicks fans convene in more ordinary times, the Democratic National Convention has become a background for music television, comedy and even the views of diminutive sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

During the afternoon, as technicians work in the distant background preparing for the night's speeches, Dr. Ruth tapes segments for the tantalizingly titled show on Nostalgia Network, "It's Never Too Late."

Next booth over, MTV's top election correspondent Tabitha Soren, 24, has just finished innumerable micro-reports that will be compressed into a kaleidoscopic series of 20-second or less bites on politics for the music channel's news program "The Day in Rock."

At a third booth, the cable network Comedy Central works on its nightly two-hour convention report called "In Decision '92" -- a program that explores why 4,000 grown-ups would voluntarily descend on New York in the midst of a summer heat wave to nominate a candidate who has already been, essentially, nominated.

With the news media outnumbering delegates by better thanthree to one and everyone knowing the conclusion, the most unconventional and novel aspect of the Democratic convention may be the off-beat coverage. Cable television has created dozens of new outlets with novel perspectives, and everyone who can hold a microphone, it seems, feels qualified to opine on politics.

This is serious stuff.

Before the convention, MTV's campaign coverage -- most notably a 90-minute special with Gov. Bill Clinton in June -- received the kind of adulatory praise that comes with exceeding non-existent expectations, and it is basking in the glow of new found self-importance. "We've proved," says Anne Hartmayer, part of the news team, "that we can cover anything.

Ms. Soren has quickly acquired the requisite celebrity persona. No questions will be considered, says the new star as she nibbles a burger, gravely explaining, "I feel overtaxed."

MTV's other convention correspondent, Dave Mustaine, lead singer of the heavy-metal group Megadeth, is also difficult to reach. Unlike old-style newscasters such as Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, clearance must be gained through his manager. But he is ultimately forthcoming and personally engaging, describing a blistering one-day guest stint as a reporter as enlightening, if occasionally terrifying.

"It's a little sketchy out there on the street," he says. "As much as I'm concerned with the homeless, they are very unpredictable. I felt a little threatened. They could bite you."

Mr. Mustaine has tended to take an apocalyptic view in his songs, with titles like "Countdown to Extinction," "Symphony of Destruction," and "Foreclosure of a Dream" -- songs that touch on technology, corruption of power, and even debt. That, and the cache of thousands of fans, qualified him as a special MTV journalist, but it may be a limited engagement.

"I don't see a big future as a correspondent," he says, as he sits in a VIP lounge at MTV headquarters, a converted midtown bus terminal, awaiting the conversion of his seven-hour ramble into a four-minute video. "It was fun, but fun is the first three letters of funeral."

Many of the people he attempted to interview, Mr. Mustaine said angrily, didn't take his questions seriously. Some subjects went so far as to snub him, including Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, former presidential candidate Paul E. Tsongas, rock star Joan Jett and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.

"I don't see a future in me doing something for television unless I get the respect I deserve," he said. "I don't champion mediocrity."

Comedy Central's two-hour program on the convention is the most extensive of the alternative television outlets and has managed to lure many of the big-name politicians.

It featured a fairly earnest discussion between Nation correspondent Christopher Hitchens and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot on the last convention when anything happened.

"Maybe '48 with Truman," Mr. Gigot said. "Maybe '56. I don't know, I wasn't there."

Then why have one at all? "Doctors have conventions, lawyers have conventions, why can't journalists have conventions when they have an excuse for them," Mr. Gigot said.

All, of course, hasn't been smooth for Comedy Central. Mr. Hitchens had to be pulled Tuesday night for using too many expletives on live television. Some gags don't work, and, like Mr. Mustaine, the network has had a hard time getting some of the interviews it wants.

"They are politicians, so they never say no; they just don't show up," said the network's anchor, Al Franken, a comedy writer and performer.

To broaden its coverage, the network has tried some enterprise reporting.

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