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Election 2008: MTV News at the Convention

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Sway Calloway
Correspondent, MTV News
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; 2:00 PM

MTV News correspondent Sway Calloway was online live from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Monday, Aug. 27 at 2 p.m. ET to take readers' questions about MTV's Choose or Lose youth voter registration campaign, how this year's Democratic National Convention compares to the one he covered in 2004, the goals of MTV news, and more.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Sway came up from the hip-hop scene in Oakland Calif., becoming a record producer and radio host before joining MTV News in 2000.

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washingtonpost.com: Sway is stuck in security right now but should join us shortly.

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Sway Calloway: Hey, I'm Sway Calloway -- I'm a correspondent with MTV News and work with the Choose or Lose campaign. I'm here in Denver to serve as a conduit, relay messages about issues important to younger questions, and I'm looking forward to your questions about Choose or Lose or Denver or whatever.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: The young read newspapers and watch TV news at lower rates than all previous generations. They also tend to get their political news from TV comedy shows and the Internet more than older generations. Do you feel that MTV has a greater responsibility to incorporate more hard political news in order to educate this major block of voters?

Sway Calloway: Absolutely, which is why I work for the Choose or Lose campaign. It's not MTV's main goal to become a political news organization, but as the largest youth television network in the world, we absolutely have a responsibility. That's why we're here in Denver and will be in St. Paul as well, and why we put together our 51-person street team that is reporting from every state. That's when we've had certain programming and coverage of the candidates. We had dialogues with candidates in the primaries with Edwards, Huckabee, Clinton, Obama, where they fielded questions directly with the audience; we've done roundtable discussions about returning veterans from Iraq, where they talked directly with Clinton and Obama. I was on the road with Sen. McCain and relayed questions directly from our audience. If you go to our Choose or Lose Web site, we have five members of our street team here reporting what's going on behind the scenes. We're just creating a platform where youth concerns can be heard. And it's had an effect -- a lot of other news organizations have created youth teams, and I think we've spearheaded a trend with that. To see it, go to www.chooseorlose.com.

If I had it my way, we'd have even more hard news on MTV -- give us time.

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New York: I remember years ago meeting one of the MTV video jockeys and asking for his autograph on a program. He signed the program and then walked off with it. I realized it was my mistake: I didn't ask him to sign it and return it to me. This leads into my question: Given that many young people are not finally attuned to the outside world, how do we get young people to pay attention to issues, develop their own positions on issues, and then determine which candidates are the ones they wish to elect?

Sway Calloway: I like -- and I make a lot of analogies to the music industry because that's where I come from. In anything you put forth to the public, you have to market it to the demographic you're targeting. For example, both campaigns now are pretty Internet-savvy, but early in the primaries you saw certain camps that targeted to youth vote by going onto Facebook, MySpace, using text messages, and I think in order to get young Americans more interested in politics and researching policies and candidates and so forth, we have to present it in an appealing way. MTV is using our profile to present politics in a more engaging way. That's why we hired our citizen journalists, gave them cameras and let them upload videos to chooseorlose.com. I also believe that celebrity exposure gives politics a certain appeal. During the acceptance speeches, we'll have celebrity bloggers talking about the issues, and we hope that will get young people more involved -- not that we want to change the way they vote. That's what they do in music at least. When you're marketing music or videos, you learn the demographic, you learn their lifestyles and what they do day-to-day and market to that. Politics has to become a little more sexy, if you will, without devaluing the importance. You can't market to an 18-year-old the same way you do a 48-year-old. I think what we're doing with chooseorlose.com is one way to wake up young Americans.

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Baltimore: There seem to be a lot of questions about "will the youth vote?" comparing this election to 2004's election. I'd like to point out a couple of things -- in 2004, many people were voting Anybody but Bush. It seemed that people weren't necessarily excited about Kerry except that he wasn't Bush. We voted, sure, but we weren't too excited about it. This election, there's more reason to get excited, more reason to get mobilized.

There's a sense of hopelessness to politics for me, a feeling that whatever I do, it doesn't matter anyhow. Parties and faces may change, but overall, government is the same. (I think this might also be the reason for the government having difficulty hiring younger people to replace the retiring Baby Boomers -- it's bureaucratic, nothing changes and there's nothing you can do to fix/help/change things). I feel like Obama has changed that perception somewhat. Now, whether or not he and the voters can/will deliver, well, that's up in the air.

Sway Calloway: Let me add to this. Someone I was speaking with -- someone from Fox News, and we were talking about the history of Choose or Lose and how we fueled some of the highest turnout in history -- in the last election we registered 22 million between 18 and 30, and he said that the numbers showed that a lot of those voters still didn't vote. I told him it takes time. What we found was that 81 percent of our audience right now is interested in election, up from 58 percent earlier this year. 70 percent of our audience knows someone who has fought in Iraq. A lot of people are concerned about gas prices right now -- it directly relates to their lives. They're starting to feel and see how global warming is affecting our planet. I believe these issues will bring more people to the polls, but I do think it takes time. From my personal experience, up until I joined Choose or Lose, I felt disenfranchised from the process -- felt no one represented my concerns. Our goal is to bring the candidates' attention to these concerns. As time progresses you do start to see change. The mere fact that Obama has come as far as he has, same with Hillary Clinton, even John McCain being in the position he is -- the maverick for so long in his own party seen as not performing to the conservative ways 100 percent, even that is a sign of change.

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Arlington, Va.: Why do we do this every year? Obama is different? Once we get into the campaign and traditional debates and Obama appeals to the large middle that actually votes, the young kids will think that he isn't so different, and something else will have their attention away on Election Day -- like a shiny new iPod.

Sway Calloway: Well, we only hope that doesn't happen. Don't know how to respond to that. I feel like that attitude, that belief right there is defeatist. I like to believe that the more we get involved and infiltrate this dysfunctional system and represent youth concerns ... it's a slow process, you won't reinvent the wheel overnight. Just the way this race has gone so far, in my lifetime I've never seen anything quite like it. I've never known candidates to be so Internet-savvy or to speak so directly to your concerns. Progress is a slow turn. Maybe this person from Arlington will find public office, getting us an inch closer to our goals. But if you feel like nothing changes, that's not going to help progress. If you want something to change, change it. If you don't try to make change, it won't. We want to make sure young Americans' concerns are being addressed as much as older voters', and if younger voters show up at the polls, that's tangibility there. If we can show up in large enough numbers, we'll make a difference and force our concerns to be heard. That's how I see it. Maybe I'm a dreamer.

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Detroit, Mich.: Obviously, MTV's choose or lose initiative is aimed to a younger demographic, one that is in tune with MTV culture. And it seems like a great and worthy cause, but I wonder why does MTV not do more to promote a diverse musical universe that appends a long-term message to the choose or lose programming?

Artists like Common, The Roots, Onebelo, Decompoze, JDilla, Finale, etc: They have a message that extends way beyond those normally portrayed on MTV. You, Sway, were a beacon for this during your early years on the Wake Up Show (vol.2 is off the chains by the way, I still rock it on audio tape). Have you, or why haven't you, pushed for a culture change at MTV? Might I suggest something similar to Radio 1, Gilles Peterson. Something that again, espouses a message to a voting initiative.

Sway Calloway: The way I got to MTV, really the radio was through the "Wake Up Show," about hip-hop culture, politics and lifestyle. It's noted for bringing the underground to life -- those who carried not just messages of fun and monetary advancement, but also political awareness. It's the longest running show on commercial radio. At any given moment you might here original break beats with Chuck D, Farrakhan, Malcolm X over it, anything we felt addressed our audience. When I came to MTV, a lot of those listeners viewed it as a sellout, because of what it represents and doesn't. The reason I decided to work here was because someone told me that by the time you're 18, if you're not a part of a movement against the establishment, you have no heart, but if you aren't a part of that establishment by 25, you have no mind. So I came to MTV to represent the background I came from, but also to understand the business of it. And MTV's not about any particular musical genre, but it's also about revenue, ratings, soliciting advertisers to keep the business going. Because we have to service everyone and their likes and desires for music culture. What I've been able to do and what they've let me do is create programming that directly addresses that genre I come from and educate listeners who didn't know Common, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Dead Presidents, so on and so forth. It's been a slow process, but MTV definitely has provided a platform to do shows dealing with social consciousness in the hip-hop community. Even in Choose or Lose we've done shows with certain artists and interviewed them about their political views. It's a slow process but it's not the only goal of the company. We've created MTV2 and MTV News to serve some of those smaller audiences. I understand where you're coming from, but have you ever seen Common more successful? Mos Def? The Roots? Talib Kweli? Whether you love it or hate it, if you want to reach that level of success or appeal, you've got to learn to play the game a little. MTV has opened its doors as much as it can to get those artists in the game, but it never will be just that. It's a big business. I feel that initially I was a little skeptical when I got there, but once I understood the business, I thought we've made gigantic strides. A lot of things I've aired I've been extremely proud of. We still do the wake up show -- wakeupshow.com. We're broadcast on the internet. We still bring up the political and lifestyle questions of the day. So I really appreciate that question.

And thanks for buying volume 2, but we're already up to volume 8 -- what's up with that? (Laughs) And I'll tell Tech you said hi -- that's my partner.

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Washington, DC: Despite MTV saying that it is 'non-partisan' and is not political, I find that it leans heavily left and that the reporting is pretty biased. While I applaud the station's efforts to get young people involved and educated about the importance of voting, I think it's also important that they are allowed to make up their own minds about parties, candidates and issues. Courting young people to think that only one party is 'good' is as bad as them not voting in the first place. For what it's worth, I'm a registered Independent that has major issues with both parties; I just feel that it is the responsibility of any group trying to educate people about the importance of voting to remain fair, balanced and unbiased.

Sway Calloway: I agree. And that's what we attempt to do. This Choose or Lose movement is nonpartisan and always has been. Maybe some of he reporting you've read, maybe you interpreted it as partisan, but that's not our goal. We just want to bring to surface the issues we find doing our polls, traveling the country, issues that seem to be top-of-mind for young Americans. Sometimes when you go out and do coverage, you may find a young person with a bias, but that's not representing our opinion. Our general efforts are very nonpartisan. Everything we offer to one party we offer to the others. The Green Party, we've given exposure to -- we don't close our doors to anybody. Whether or not they respond, we have no control. We create programming like the roundtable discussion with Hillary and Clinton; we offered that to the Republican candidates as well, but they weren't able to participate. But when we were doing the college town halls, Sen. McCain participated.

So if it's being interpreted as partisan, that's not correct. When we do research, we don't break it down by party, we break it down by what concerns young voters across the board. Regarding polling, we'd like to have an even balance across the political arena, but sometimes that's not possible. If that's what it's coming across as, it's not intentional. But I agree with what you're saying.

Everything we're doing in Denver we're doing in St. Paul. At 7 p.m. Friday, we've got a show called Obama Decoded, in which we're determining whether or not he addressed youth concerns, and we're doing the same thing with McCain on Sept. 5. We don't make a decision for you, we just want to put out as much information as possible to help you make your own. I'm working hands-on with this campaign, and I try to make sure everyone is represented evenly as much as possible.

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Portland, Oregon: There's a lot of discussion about the accuracy of polls that don't take into account the fact that much of the "Youth Vote" has no land-line and relies on cell-phones. What do you think, true?

Sway Calloway: I love this audience. A agree with that as well. What we try to do to compensate for that, I'm in the field -- we don't do this by phone or text or online. A lot of us are actually speaking directly to people without a landline or a cell phone and just getting their response. I don't think every poll is perfectly accurate, but I think ours are closer in our target demographic than anyone else's. What topic is more important than the war, the economy, gas prices, global warming for people between 18 and 30? If you go out in the streets, these are the things people are talking about. You always have a margin of error, but I think our polls get the closest of representing what our audience things. The results we have from our polls are accurate to what we find in the streets, and I've traveled to every state in the country in the past two years. I can't speak to other polls -- when it comes to the youth vote I think they're slightly bogus, I'll be honest.

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Baltimore, MD: Does the influence of celebrities in political campaigns help or hurt the systematic ideals of voting?

Sway Calloway: I don't think it hurts. It depends on how it's being done. Not every celebrity is pushing people to go out and vote -- I know some who don't vote, think it doesn't make a difference. I think we all should be interested in anything that can affect our lives personally, and government policy does that directly. It would behoove people to be a part of this political process, and celebrities bring attention to people that hey, they should be voting. I don't think it sways people by saying "hey you should go vote for this person." We did a show with Kanye West for example, a nonpartisan one, and we found through our research that a lot of veterans of Iraq are struggling in returning to civilian life, aren't receiving the benefits they were promised, are returning with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries and weren't being helped, and we wanted to bring that to the forefront and make the candidates deal with it. Kanye West took interest in this cause, and in this show we went and surprised three young veterans, sat down and listened to their stories, hung out with them and provided them with things that would help them get back on their feet -- college tuition, money management classes, bought one guy studio time. They represented hundreds of thousands of veterans still serving and at home. That was an example of how celebrities can bring important issues to light, and now maybe some young people are paying attention to the acceptance speeches to see if the candidates address these issues.

I also think that's been a widespread discussion -- does celebrity status help or hurt. It's been used as a tool by both campaigns to hurt the other candidate. But celebrities are all people. It's just a status of your occupation, but they still get opinions and have to live in this society. Everyone has the right to express their views, and you have the choice to decide what to do with it.

And by the way I don't consider myself a celebrity.

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Ashburn, Va: There's a lot of talk about changing the minimum age to drink to 18. There's also a lot of talk of not being able to get young voters 18-24 out to the polls. Do you think putting the minimum drinking age on the polls for legislation would be a good "incentive" to get young voters out to the polls in record numbers? -Khari

Sway Calloway: Are you serious?

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Sway Calloway: I don't think drinking should have anything to do with what inspires you to go out to vote.

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I wish MTV: still played music videos.

Sway Calloway: Let me ask you a question -- we do still play the videos, but if we played them around the clock, would you come to MTV to watch them, or would you go to YouTube. We do still play videos, but it's not the only game in town. There are thousands of video outlets now, and people have so many ways to view videos, as a business you have to find ways to make programming unique to your brand, that brings people to your channel exclusively, and music videos won't do that. We do still play videos -- it was the reason for creating MTV2. We also created FNMTV, a show every Friday that premieres videos. But if you want to stay afloat ... there are just too many other options now. It's unfortunate, but it's a sign of the times.

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Chicago, Illinois: Hey Sway, I'm a long time fan. Is there any young talent out there along the lines of Chino xl, Eminem, Canibus, Pharaohe Monch, Ras Kass, Killah Priest? I don't have my ears to the streets like I once did. Charles Hamilton is decent, any others?

Sway Calloway: Mickey Factz, Roscoe Umali, Crooked Eye, The Hux Family, for now. And go to wakeupshow.com and you'll find a lot of these artists premiered on the show -- we've got video of them freestyling, plus Biggie's last freestyle, Cee-Lo before Gnarls Barkley, etc.

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Sway Calloway: I'm really excited about how concerned and immersed in the political arena everyone here is. It's relatively new to me. I've only been doing Choose or Lose coverage for a couple of years, and prior to that I didn't really have any interest and nor did candidates seem to speak to me. But through Choose or Lose I found I could make a difference, and I think my purpose is to get your concerns and issues out. Our political system isn't perfect, but if you want to make change, you have to change something. That's why I'm here. I don't claim to be an expert in politics -- I'm learning as you guys are learning, and I'm learning from you guys. But as long as I'm affiliated with Choose or Lose it will be fair and balanced, and whether you agree with us or not, pay attention, stay involved, visit us at chooseorlose.com to find programming coming up, and know that we're not robots -- we're real people trying to make a difference and help your voices to be heard.

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