FRESH YARN presents:

I Want My RNC
By Betsy Nagler

When you work freelance in the city that never sleeps, you never know where the money for your next order of Singapore Mai Fun is going to come from. That's why when I received a call about a job recording sound for MTV four years ago, my first answer was "Dude! I'm so there." Okay, I don't actually talk like that since I don't work for MTV on a regular basis -- although it was not the first time I had been asked to work with America's favorite purveyor of music videos and enlightening programs for young people such as "Road Rules," "TRL" and "Jackass." I've helped count down the Top Ten Videos at Hamptons beach houses, eaten California rolls with Japanese rocker girls, rehearsed with TLC before the Video Music Awards, and ridden the tour bus with Linkin Park before attending their MTV Family Values Concert with fellow family-unfriendly bands Stone Temple Pilots, Staind and Static-X. And even if a mosh pit of the pre-pubescent isn't my favorite place to spend a Saturday night (well, not since I turned 35), I have to admit that MTV jobs have always provided me with a little coolness-by-association, as well as a pretty good time.

This job, however, was different, because MTV was calling to ask me to record something that would split my ears in a completely different way. They wanted me to work with one of their two camera crews filming at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Upon learning this, I immediately wanted to change my answer to, "I'd rather be set on fire." I'm left of center and I come by it honestly. My paternal grandparents were socialists. My Great Uncle Isidore was Vice President of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. When my father graduated from law school, my parents joined the Peace Corps, then he returned to work as the Executive Director of the New Jersey ACLU for over a decade while my mother taught public high school in Newark and helped found the Essex County chapter of N.O.W. During my childhood, I participated in my own way -- arguing down other third graders whose parents supported Ford over Carter, making the sacrifice of going Disney Land over Disney World so we could boycott Florida for not passing the Equal Rights Amendment. But in the years since, I'd strayed from the fold by deciding to go to film school over law school and I had enough healthy, Jewish guilt about it already. Did I now intend to just go and spit in the eye of that legacy?

But this job wasn't meant to glorify Republicanism -- or so I was told by the absurdly young producer at MTV with whom I was to work. MTV was going to both conventions with its MTV News team as part of its "Choose or Lose" campaign, to report on the convention, get young people interested in, and excited about, politics and get out the youth vote. My activist forbearers would certainly approve of that. Yes, this was my chance to make good by going in there and cracking that convention wide open. And for me, personally, getting to indulge the writer's penchant for voyeurism and the sound-person's love of eavesdropping behind the scenes at a seminal event in our political culture? Dude.

The heat was blistering and sweaty when we arrived at the rambling press compound outside the First Union Center that we would call home for the week. Getting there was a challenge in itself. Each time we entered the compound, via golf cart (no cars allowed), we had to pass through one checkpoint, where guards would check our passes and circle our vehicle with dogs and security devices -- that I'm sure have some fancy name but are basically mirrors on sticks -- used to check for bombs attached to the underside of its diminutive chassis. Then, every time we went from MTV's barely air-conditioned hotbox into the convention center itself, our gear, passes and persons would have to be checked thoroughly again. This was made both more complicated and hotter by the several pounds of equipment I had to wear for nearly all of my twelve-hour days as an ENG sound recordist, attached to the cameraman by an umbilical cord-cable that is practically guaranteed to get wrapped around your knees when he runs off somewhere in a hurry, dragging you behind him.

Which frequently happened, because we spent our days on a tight schedule -- one, unfortunately, not quite as journalistically hard-hitting as I had hoped. Twice a day, we did live satellite broadcasts with John Norris, MTV's main 'info hunk,' but since these were done from a sky-booth we had to borrow from another network, we had only a small window in which to set up, make sure everything was working, and broadcast -- for a minute or two. We also went with John to various spots around the convention hall to tape MTV News Bulletins!!, which would generally open with, "We're here at the Republican National Convention" then proceed to announcing dates for the Springsteen tour or advance word on Matchbox 20's new album. The rest of our time was spent chasing around MTV's high energy Street Team reporters, whose main responsibility was to "cover" MTV-created media events, like a press conference with pro-wrestler turned actor The Rock, or a rally at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Philly with John McCain. These generally consisted of a few shouted words from the MTV host, a few more from the political celeb, some cheering and lots of loud music, and, if we were lucky, a brief softball interview. The one time we did go to film and interview the protesters outside the convention, we didn't stay long because our producer and reporter seemed flummoxed by the fact that there was something unplanned -- aka some real news -- going on. Luckily, at least one member of the Street Team had been hired based on something besides her telegenicity. Erica Terry, a 28-year-old - geriatric by MTV standards - with a masters in journalism from Berkeley, had no problem accosting Newt Gingrich in the hallway to ask him about how the Republicans were doing with the youth vote, or stopping Steve Forbes for a few impromptu questions about the flat tax (maybe, I hate to say it, because she was the only one who knew what it was). And while it was considerably more stressful running after somebody shouting "Senator! Senator!" than covering a scheduled media non-event, I believed these moments were really the point: we were giving the kids in the MTV heartland something to think about.

Being there certainly did that for me. Watching all the Republican hoo-ha, I was having flashbacks to my own MTV years in the late '80s -- which, unlike the people I was working with and the audience we were shooting for, I was old enough to remember vividly. Back then, I was a political science major at Stanford, so along with MTV I was also watching Oliver North and trying to tune out Willie Horton. More often, I was marching against what we feared was the imminent overturn of Roe v. Wade or watching my boyfriend do "guerrilla theater" that re-enacted the massacre of civilians by Salvadoran death squads. It was sort of exciting to be angry all the time but it was also exhausting, and eventually, it drove me out of politics and into film, in the interest of finding a better way to make a difference. Now, ironically, MTV had pulled me back in -- and even more ironically, into the same politics. The guys on stage could talk about compassionate conservatism all they wanted, I knew these people and I knew what they would do. The first thing I did when I got back to New York was to send $100 out of my paycheck to Al Gore.

But my behind-the-scenes experience was not to be shared, alas, by the new MTV generation. When I tuned into MTV's half-hour, "Choose or Lose" special on the RNC, I saw that everything we'd shot had been reduced to a three-second sound bite. There were glimpses of politicians to be had as long as you didn't blink at the wrong moment, but there wasn't time for anyone to say anything, much less anything substantial. All that had been distilled from our hours of footage was one big, self-promoting music video. Sure, it made the convention seem a lot more lively than it was; maybe it would encourage the kids to go out and vote, but based on what, who had the sharpest tie? What was the point, I wondered, of encouraging people to choose when you didn't give them any real information about their choices?

I'll admit that the convention doesn't make good TV. People who watch it won't see the real people that I saw -- the Newt Gingrich who was actually quite friendly and charming (so that's how he got elected!) or the John McCain who directed his greetings at my chest rather than my face (sad but true). What viewers are fed is one big excuse to par-tay with the party and hear the party line over and over and over again. MTV was just trying to make it a better party for its core audience -- the one with the lightening-short attention span. The networks do the same by cutting down their coverage to only the "important" speeches and punditry to make them more watchable. But should participatory democracy be watchable? Instead of trying to improve the armchair viewing experience of the conventions, maybe we should be trying to get people to talk about why they have become so boring; about the fact that they no longer have a real function because the primaries determine the candidates earlier and earlier, so that more money can be saved for the general election. Until we address the real problems -- lack of debate within the parties themselves, less and less influence over their agendas and platforms by the people who cast their votes and more and more by corporations and special interests who contribute the money that drives political campaigns -- the conventions will stay boring, with everyone putting on those frozen, "We're one big happy family" smiles for the cameras. And maybe they should, as a reminder that our system will continue to function dysfunctionally until we do something about it.

MTV, the networks, the R and DNCs, they get it wrong by trying to make politics into something it shouldn't be: infotainment. People should take an interest in politics because it matters, not because it's fun. It's not fun. It can be thrilling, as Barbara Jordan's speech was in 1976 and Barack Obama's speech -- the one the networks missed -- was this year; or it can be disturbing, as Pat Buchanan's speech was in 1992, the last speech that might actually have affected an election. In each case, a man or a woman simply stood up and said what they thought and if you were watching, like it or not, you had to decide what you thought about it - which, my Commie-pinko-card-carrying-ACLU-liberal-feminazi family would say, is what politics should be. Whether we're watching Fox News or Fahrenheit 9-11, politics should be chewed thoroughly, not chopped up and pureed into Jell-O for us so it can be sucked down like a music video. It should make us do what I've tried to do since I went to the RNC: get off the couch and into the streets, to protests and rallies, to register voters and volunteer in the community, to create change.

But then that wouldn't be very good for ratings, would it?



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