MTV and the nonprofit group Rock the Vote, partners in a massive public awareness campaign to encourage young Americans to participate in today’s (Nov. 2) presidential election, have come under fire from Republicans accusing them of pushing a pro-Democratic agenda and challenging MTV and Rock the Vote’s assertions that their get-out-the-vote campaigns are nonpartisan.
The charges stem mainly from a Rock the Vote campaign focused on the issue of a military draft. To get its point across, Rock the Vote sent out 660,000 e-mails in late September with a mock draft card signed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to a polling place near you,” read the draft cards.
In addition, Rock the Vote created two public service announcements focused on the issue of the draft and a third celebrity-packed PSA that referred to the draft as one of many issues young voters might be concerned about. At least one of the draft-themed PSAs ran on MTV for 10 consecutive days in September. Rock the Vote also has devoted a significant amount of content to the issue on its Web site.
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent a letter to Rock the Vote president Jehmu Greene on Oct. 13 warning her that Rock the Vote had an “obligation to immediately cease and desist from promoting or conducting” its draft campaign “as a nonpartisan organization that enjoys the benefits of being formed under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”
Asserting that the “urban myth regarding a draft” had been “thoroughly debunked” by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, Gillespie wrote: “This is the sort of malicious political deception that is likely to increase voter cynicism and in fact decrease the youth vote, as well as raising serious legal issues regarding the political motivations of your efforts.”
Although the Republican Party’s ire was raised by a Rock the Vote initiative, MTV — which has been aligned with Rock the Vote for more than a decade and is one of the organization’s financial supporters — became a target as well. Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer Tom Freston and MTV Networks chairman and CEO Judy McGrath are founding board members of Rock the Vote.
Dozens of protesters from the California College Republicans demonstrated Oct. 22 outside MTV Networks in Santa Monica, shouting such slogans as “Pimp my ride, not my vote” and “Total Request Lies.” Despite MTV’s statements that it had nothing to do with Rock the Vote’s draft campaign, many Republican critics refused to draw a distinction between the two organizations that have partnered to register young voters and educate them on issues before Election Day.
“The draft scare has credibility because of MTV,” said Michael Davidson, chairman of California College Republicans. “Kids know about Rock the Vote because of MTV.” Davidson also alleged that MTV and Rock the Vote present young voters with perspectives on the issues that he described as “clearly left of center.”
MTV and Rock the Vote executives maintain that their campaigns are designed only to grab the attention of fickle younger viewers and have no partisan motivation.
“We’ve never endorsed a candidate; we’ve never endorsed a party,” said Fred Goldring, chairman of the board of Rock the Vote. “We just raise issues that young people have told us are important to them.”
Goldring said Rock the Vote had Republicans on its board that knew about the organization’s plan to raise the draft issue as a legitimate concern of young people that needed to be addressed by the two major-party presidential candidates. And he said Rock the Vote removed Rumsfeld’s signature from the draft card as soon as complaints were lodged.
For its part, MTV said it has been fair and unbiased in its coverage of the candidates, doing its best to give equal time to Democrats and Republicans. While Kerry has been interviewed on MTV five times, MTV personalities have interviewed Bush surrogates like Gillespie, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman because the president has been unavailable, an MTV spokesperson said.
“We are not biased in our coverage in any way, shape or form,” MTV spokesperson Jeannie Kedas said. “We are very proud of our efforts in that regard, and we’ve been recognized by our audience.”
As part of its “Choose or Lose: 20 Million Loud” campaign, MTV has run a dozen long-format specials and about 120 news pieces about the election. Since the beginning of the year, its has aired nearly 4,000 public service announcements urging young people to vote, only a handful of which were produced by Rock the Vote.
Rock the Vote, along with its partners, has spent about $40 million registering 1.4 million voters, nearly three times the number it registered in the 2000 election.
Rock the Vote’s Greene said the organization never suggested that Bush favors the draft. “The issue is not whether the politicians want a draft,” she said. “The issue is when does the draft become necessary, and that’s what young people want to know and need to know. It’s not a partisan issue when young people of this country need a fair hearing.”