Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

The news, MTV style

In my advanced state of decomposition, I can remember the olden days - horse and buggies, leather football helmets, and even when MTV actually played music. In our school years, we would sit bleary-eyed in front of the TV instead of doing homework, watching Talking Heads videos, announcers known as "VJs" who at the moment seemed cool, and becoming hypnotized by that little moonman logo the channel used to blare 800,000 times a day.

It didn't take too long to outgrow the novelty of music videos, and even MTV barely plays the stuff anymore. Music has given way to reality shows, slick trend packages, sleazy dating shows and quasi news - in other words, about the same stuff as the networks show, albeit with more pierced belly-buttons and Snoop Dogg than the average evening news package.

As a member of the original MTV generation, I was interested to happen across MTV's head of research and planning, Matt Catapano, who was traveling in the region recently.

Now, to my jaded eye, Matt appears to be about 14 years old, with the trendy haircut and pointy sideburns one might expect of a hip young exec. He was wearing a soft green-melon colored suit that probably cost more than the Jeep I was driving. I own nothing in soft green melon.

Nice guy, it seems. Claims to have been an executive with NBC before this gig, and some kind of advisor to Bill Clinton's White House before that. "Hey kid, order me a pizza and get Monica on the horn, willya?"

Anyway, Matt was good enough to share the results of an exhaustive survey of young people recently conducted for MTV News. (I've been out of the loop a while - I didn't know MTV had a news department except for some creepy cat named Kurt Loder who I seem to remember from Rolling Stone years ago, who would occasionally slink out between Madonna videos and monotone some story about whatever Ozzy Osbourne had bitten the head off that week.)

To summarize the findings, teenagers apparently have the attention span of a fruit fly, can't relate to anything that isn't dancing across a computer screen, and frankly, according to Matt, they can't handle an issue as complicated as, say, a war.

Among the findings of the survey:

* Only 30 percent say they are interested at all in their government or politics.

* About half of the teens and over a third of those age 18-24 don't think they need current news.

* They say video games allow them to create their own reality rather than learning about the world around them. Someone graduating from college this year will never have known life without e-mail, cell phones, Internet and instant messaging.

* They are impatient with information sources, have short attention spans and a "what I want when I want it" mentality.

* Only 38 percent read newspapers. The rest are afraid they will make their hands dirty. I'm not making that up.

* Their top news priority (23 percent) is music band stories. News of their community gets only 16 percent, international affairs 11 percent, politics 3 percent.

Matt says teenagers today are "The September 11th Generation," but yet insisted that the incident "hasn't really changed life for anyone at all." Maybe not, if your idea of "news" is Limp Bizkit's daily activities.

He is also critical of the network news. He said reporters "only hang out with the Americans," and don't tell the war story well enough from the side of their enemies. Interesting...

He said the war's a big yawn for young people, anyway.

They live in a world where breast implants are the second-ranked gift given for high school graduation (after cash and ahead of cars). They might protest a war, but only if it were on their way home from school anyway and doesn't take too much of their time. What's happening in the world can't be expected to compete with The Real World or Jackass in their minds.

And this is coming from a top executive of the one network that is designed for this age group. If I were a teenager, I think I'd feel a little betrayed about that.

Hey Matt - if teens aren't reading news, it's because news is failing to connect with them. Probably every generation in the history of man has looked at the one following it as addle-headed and lazy, while the younger generation regarded the elders as boring and dimwitted. Neither has ever really been right about that.

If you don't think today's teenagers are smart, try doing their homework some night. Try talking to them about what's in their hearts and minds, instead of talking down to them.

Personally, I'd rather trust my hopes for the future in the thoughtful hands of the young people I know, than in the soft melon suits that run MTV "News."