News of the Monoculture

For those who weren’t there, a quick explanation as to why MTV News was once something worth giving a crap about.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I remember the day well. In 1994, I was watching MTV on a small television set in my kitchen, at which point “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was playing. I loved “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m pretty sure I turned it up. Even though it was probably one of the network’s most-played videos, I always wished MTV would play it more. But what I saw after that video shook me more than anything else I can think of. The news that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide was one of the indelible memories of growing up, and I learned about it from my generation’s Edward R. Murrow, Kurt Loder. (Unlike you, I did not get a trigger warning.) I was a news junkie who watched CNN for hours, but I cannot think of a moment growing up that grabbed me quite like that one. I think it can be lost in the 21st century just how much something like MTV News mattered to us. It exposed us to a kind of culture that was sometimes hard to find in suburbia, or in small towns. Today, we take for granted that we can find our tribes anywhere on the internet. But in the early ’90s, MTV News was what we had. And as MTV News shutters, today’s Tedium ponders why this outlet mattered to so many people. RIP MTV News, you were the best. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“Our main focus here is to dig up news that is revolving around us in the music industry; whatever makes sense to our audience.”

— Doug Herzog, the then-new director of news for MTV, discussing the thought process around the network’s news coverage in a 1984 interview with Billboard. Herzog, who would become an extremely influential television executive and helped develop another famous news show, The Daily Show, while president of Comedy Central, would spend years nailing down the formula of MTV’s news coverage, culminating in The Week in Rock, which premiered in 1987.

Why MTV News and The Week in Rock somehow transcended their original mission

Above is one of the very first promos for The Week in Rock, which was MTV’s flagship news program throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The promo clearly suggests something light and topical, but basically just another interview show in a sea of interview shows.

But somehow, in just a few years, the show gained an unusual gravitas that somehow transcended its subject matter. Sure, it was a show about music that was heavy on press junkets. But really, it was a show about being young and culturally aware at a time when cultural awareness was rare.

One thing that helped is that Loder, a rock-music lifer who was already roughly twice the age of the average MTV viewer when he took the anchor desk in 1987, was as close to an elder statesman as music journalism had to offer at the time. (Apologies to Robert Christgau.) Loder had been writing for music magazines for many years, culminating in a long run at Rolling Stone starting in 1979, during which he helped Tina Turner write her autobiography. He knew the scene, and could talk about it with authority. He was not picked from the masses. He was no Jesse Camp.

Kurt Loder

Kurt Loder, as seen in 2015. It always blows people’s minds how much older he is than you remember. He’s 78 years young. (montclairfilmfest/Flickr)

And given that his background was mostly in magazines rather than newspapers, where having a strong opinion on things wasn’t frowned upon, he somehow managed to cut a reputation as a news anchor who could be “outspoken” about things, a rarity in his day. In a January 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, he criticized his own network for putting boring videos on the air, while banning interesting and provocative ones—like Madonna’s “Justify My Love.”

“It’s a fight. I mean, it would be nice to see the William Burroughs video, for instance, on MTV,” Loder said. “The limitations are puzzling. There are all these things you can’t say, show or even suggest.”

(Loder has carried this rep to the modern day, and gained a reputation in his later years for his libertarian views. Nowadays, Loder contributes to Reason as a film reviewer.)

One of the other nice things about MTV during this period is that the network benefited from an ecosystem. Bands would visit the MTV studio; MTV would land at large festivals or at shows on tour. They’d interview random concert-goers, or have an extended conversation backstage about music, and that footage would eventually find its way on the air a year later. And it was clear that quite a lot of B-roll was shot during these appearances—if you combined Heavy Metal Parking Lot and This is Spinal Tap, but played it 100 percent seriously and realistically, you would get a huge chunk of MTV News.

MTV would gradually build a news operation around Loder, bringing in personalities like John Norris, Allison Stewart, and Tabitha Soren. Later, Channel One News anchor Serena Altschul became a prominent face on MTV News.

While this network and this show was supposedly about popular music, MTV News and The Week in Rock quickly became about culture at large. Soren, a former NYU student who appeared briefly in one of MTV’s most famous videos, The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” often found herself doing political coverage. As a 1992 New York Magazine article noted, the fact that MTV was doing campaign trail coverage caught fellow journalists off-guard at times:

A correspondent from one of the old-line networks who encountered Soren in New Hampshire was startled to learn that the music-television channel had a news department, let alone that it was commit-ted to campaign coverage through Election Day—information that may also surprise viewers when they see Soren jostling with the other mike-toters at the Garden. But then, who’s to say who is a political journalist these days? Or, for that matter, what qualifies as a news network? Maria Shriver is NBC’s podium reporter, and most of NBC’s live convention coverage will show up on PBS.

(I bet an old-line network correspondent fainted when they learned BuzzFeed had a news operation.)

Now, granted, MTV News was a support apparatus for a music network, one that carried all the messiness and conflicts of interests that come with that role. And that meant that there were often things the network had to do that didn’t strictly fit the news bucket. One can argue that the heavy promotion of the Video Music Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, and Rock the Vote occasionally went a bit afield from news coverage into promotional material or even straight-up advocacy. (The internet would further blur these lines.)

As imperfect as the network sometimes could be, MTV News proved an essential tool, one that did more than give the four minutes before the top of the hour a framing element.

But as popular culture changed, the surrounding network was ill-equipped to adapt. Having Kurt Loder and Allison Stewart and John Norris in your back pocket could only do so much when disruption was pushing your network into different directions that were completely incompatible with your news outlet’s mission.

You’ll notice that I’m largely focused on MTV News’ first decade. That is not an indictment of its later history, but a reflection that this is the period in which the network’s news coverage had its largest impact. (There were some great journalists in its later years, such as Gideon Yago, who brought a serious news mindset to the network amid the Iraq War, and the radio host Sway, who took on the Kurt Loder role for MTV after Loder left.) That MTV News survived as long as it did is a nod to the fact that the network’s past once meant something. That it’s finally going away shows that the past only goes so far when money is on the line.

“All the people I knew who were music writers totally looked down their nose at MTV, said, ‘This is a perversion of music. Music shouldn’t come with pictures, it’s just horrible.’ … they didn’t get it at all.”

— Kurt Loder, discussing his unusual position at the time of his hiring at MTV—working at a network in support of an art form that his fellow writers looked down upon. Speaking to the Archive of American Television, Loder (whose Wikipedia page helpfully notes that he had just a month of professional journalism training) added that he had literally no experience on television at the time MTV reached out—but in a way, that was kind of OK, because MTV had no experience running a news show. “There are no rules about what this operation should be,” he said of MTV during the period. In many ways, Loder taking the role he did helped give MTV artistic credibility that it might have been lacking.

Five moments in MTV News history that shaped pop culture

  1. Loder breaking in with news on Cobain. It was not common for the network to break into regular programming with live news coverage, so the impact of seeing Loder on air, soberly discussing the death of one of the MTV era’s greatest icons, can’t (and won’t) be topped. Loder was joined by his former Rolling Stone colleague David Fricke, a close friend of Loder’s, who helped contextualize a strange moment for the audience.
  2. Whenever they put Tupac on the camera. Tupac Shakur gained a reputation as a thoughtful interview source largely on the back of his insightful interviews with MTV News throughout the 1990s, with perhaps this interview with Tabitha Soren most effectively nailing why he was so good at this. His loss, like Cobain’s, reverberated hard through MTV’s viewership.
  3. The long-running Choose or Lose campaign. The idea of MTV winning a Peabody award seems so strange today, but it’s something that not only happened, but it was something MTV excelled at. The concept of combining rock stars and nonpartisan political advocacy proved such an effective tool that MTV used the Choose or Lose slogan for nearly 20 years before retiring it in 2011.
  4. Ol’ Dirty Bastard picking up his welfare check in a limo. MTV was not above stunts, and you don’t get stuntier than having the Wu-Tang Clan member, whose life circumstances had changed so quickly that he famously put his welfare card on his album cover, appearing at the welfare office with a limo.
  5. The network’s role in contextualizing the AIDS epidemic. MTV News, throughout the 1990s, helped to surface important discussions on HIV to its audience, helping to highlight the lives of artists lost to the disease, such as Keith Haring; this coverage crystallized in the 2000s in the form of the “Fight For Your Rights: Protect Yourself” campaign, which also won a Peabody. By helping to draw attention to these stories, MTV served as a reminder that AIDS was often as much a cultural epidemic—one that led to the loss of prominent artists and creators—as much as it was a physical one.

“We had them held captive. There was no internet. There was radio, limited television, and there was print.”

— Doug Herzog, as quoted in the 2018 book Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late-Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters Are Transforming News, discussing the role that MTV played for popular culture at the peak of MTV News’ power. The effect of what MTV created during this time is not to be missed—the network could have given us lowest-common-denominator information, but instead chose to tell us about Keith Haring and David Cronenberg and the political climate and Tupac Shakur. Now that it’s not really telling us about any of those things, the void is more deeply felt.

I think a lot about MTV these days, and what it tried to do during my formative years. About the bands that I always wished it played more. As a teenager, I would often wake up at 5am in the morning, on the off chance that they would play a band that would never get airtime during the day.

I shifted my entire day to get more out of this monoculture.

It always seems like nobody is happy with how this network actually turned out in the end. While I can’t imagine a lot of folks in Middle America were complaining about the lack of William Burroughs music videos like Loder was, I think there was always a sense that, at some point, the network’s profit picture separated from its broader mission to help shape culture, and that meant that, gradually, it no longer reflected the world in which we were living.

I also think that MTV, as one of the first major cultural outlets on the internet that I can remember (thank you, Adam Curry), suffered at the hands of that very internet over time. It wasn’t an instant thing—we didn’t figure it out right away, nor at the same time—but eventually the veil was lifted, and we all slowly realized that we no longer needed a cable television network to tell us what was interesting about popular culture.

I think that in many ways, MTV figured this out, too, and that’s why it had shifted its content so sharply away from youth culture to stuff like Ridiculousness—cheap to produce, cheap to re-run, not predicated on taste. The MTV News arm of the network tried to hold on in a digital age, at one point rebranding as a Grantland-style home for long-form journalism—complete with a strategy reminiscent of, of all things, the 1984-1985 season of Saturday Night Live, in which the comedy show brought in a bunch of ringers who were already famous. (In MTV’s case, it brought in Jamil Smith and Ana Marie Cox, among others.)

But try as it might, it was unable to stick around—which is ultimately an indictment on Paramount Global more than anything else.

One of the things that I also notice about MTV is that, as someone who tries to keep on top of popular culture in all its ways, shapes, and forms, I only really run into the MTV logo when I’m watching shows created by Taylor Sheridan, the mega-rich creator of Yellowstone, 1883, Mayor of Kingstown, and numerous other shows, none of which actually air on MTV. The bug for MTV Entertainment Studios still evokes Dire Straits, but for some reason it’s being used on content that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as anything related to The Week in Rock.

As you are probably familiar, cable networks often change their tones and missions over time—sometimes, even their names. MTV could not make the money part of its original mission work, so that slowly disappeared in favor of whatever did. The name didn’t change. Everything else did.

I think a big part of that is the fact that, when something is a monoculture, you look for yourself in that monolith, and you keep looking until you find it. I found something of myself that day in April 1994, when Kurt Loder carried himself like Bernard Shaw, knowing that a lot of people would be sad, scared, and traumatized upon learning the news that the rock star they idolized was gone.

Within five years, people didn’t have to dig through the monolith anymore.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And to the staff that was laid off at MTV News this week, know that people feel for you and respected the hard work you did.

And thanks again to Morning Brew for sponsoring.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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