MTV is a player in the election Television: Tonight's election special shows that there is more than flash on the flashy music network.

June 10, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The time has come for another upgrade in conventional wisdom on MTV.

Following the 1992 presidential campaign and the related MTV interviews and election specials, the caste of middle-age media critics reluctantly acknowledged that MTV News was a player in the political process.

But MTV was only important, the thinking went, because of its style -- the fast-paced, flashy presentation attracted young voters -- not because of substance. Few critics were willing to concede that MTV or Tabitha Soren, its chief political correspondent, had anything special to say.

Soren and MTV News, though, do have something to say, and tonight's "Choose or Lose '96" election special on education is typical of the competent, solid and generally informed way that the cable channel has come to deal with issues important to its audience of teens and young adults.

Soren opens tonight's program with the results of an MTV "Choose or Lose" survey showing that two-thirds of the viewers polled believe education is the most or one of the most important issues in the coming presidential election.

"This raw political interest is often kick-started by the disparity between high schools in suburban and urban areas," Soren says. "While we all may have the right to an education, what kind of an education you get may depend on where you live."

Correspondent Alison Stewart then checks in with a report on two very different schools in California -- George Washington High School in South Central Los Angeles and Dana Hills High School in Orange County.

Rather than relying on the poses of outrage or shock that the networks often traffick in with correspondents like Diane Sawyer, MTV producer Jane Sangster uses the pictures and the words of the students to show the vast gulf between the two worlds.

Dana Hills has an Olympic swimming pool, tennis stadium, banks of computers and inviting, airy classrooms. George Washington appears to be mostly boarded-up windows, rusted metal grating and graffiti.

The montage of separate-and-unequal is followed by a round-table discussion involving Stewart and three students from each of the schools.

It is impossible not to notice the confidence and sense of certainty about their futures from the Dana Hills kids, while the George Washington students seem to shrink into themselves as they mock their school and worry about what the world holds for them after graduation.

School prayer, mandatory uniforms, affirmative action, partisan political spin on student loans and the value of a bachelor's degree are also addressed during the half-hour report, which travels from California to Mississippi, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., for stories.

Here's Soren interviewing a provost at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst on the lack of career counseling for seniors: "How would you justify four career counselors for 17,000 undergrads?" Soren asks.

"I wouldn't try," the provost says with some embarrassment.

I won't try to tell you this is flawless television journalism. For instance, the Washington segment, which features politicians and administration officials explaining the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties on education, is clearly skewed in favor of President Clinton, who helped put MTV News on the map with his fervent courting of its audience during the 1992 election.

But compare Soren's work in tonight's MTV report with, say, the puff job ABC News' Cynthia McFadden did on behalf of her fellow Disney employee, Kathie Lee Gifford during a recent edition of "Primetime Live," and you tell me which news organization is doing a better job of serving its viewers.

'Choose or Lose'

What: "Learn It"

When: 4: 30 p.m. and 10: 30 p.m. today

Where: MTV Host: Tabitha Soren

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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