Politicians turn to new media outlets -- MTV and ''Saturday Night Live'' are two stops during 1996 election

By Erica K. Cardozo
Updated July 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

They came, they saw, they fumed.

While MTV’s Tabitha Soren and a panel of Generation Xers tossed questions to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 52, on Newt: Raw last week, the suited soldiers of the Washington press corps sat in a separate room. Fidgeting. Watching the interview on closed-circuit TV. And grumbling. ”Newt used to hold morning press conferences, which he no longer does,” groused a reporter from The Christian Science Monitor. ”So all the serious press has to come to events like this just to catch a glimpse of him.”

Get used to it. Ever since 1992, when President Clinton tooted his sax on The Arsenio Hall Show and Ross Perot launched his quixotic quest for the White House on Larry King Live, vote-hungry pols have become just as likely to court voters through David Letterman, Jay Leno, and — dare we say it? — Beavis and Butt-head as through news shows. And as the 1996 presidential campaign heats up, things are likely to get wilder — and wired.

Back in February, GOP candidate Lamar Alexander, 55, first trumpeted his plans to run during a chat session on America Online. Since then, the Democratic National Committee, and some prospective candidates, have established Web sites (the Republicans have one in the works). And MTV plans to resume its zippy Choose or Lose reports, which helped mobilize young voters in ’92. Meanwhile, there’s talk of the dour Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, 72 — who informally announced his desire to lead the free world on Late Show With David Letterman on Feb. 3 — hosting Saturday Night Live. ”We think it’d be funny,” says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, who’s looking for new cast members to play the key GOP candidates.

You don’t have to be a political scientist to see why pols dig these forums. Despite their late-night cracks, TV comedians aren’t likely to pin a politician to the wall because of a fishy policy decision — at least not when he or she’s in the next seat.

But a serious exchange of ideas isn’t completely out of the question — especially on MTV. Much of Newt: Raw focused not on Gingrich’s favorite Beatle but on abortion, welfare, and tax deductions for student loans. ”Respect is really the key,” says Dave Sirulnick, MTV News senior vice president, who would like to reprise the event with luminaries like Hillary Clinton. ”He wasn’t dismissive. He listened.” HotWired on-line writer Rob Levine, 24, who participated on the panel, believes there should be more Raw deals. ”People denigrate MTV as not being serious,” says Levine, ”but when you really think about it, how different is this from network news? Better Newt Gingrich on MTV than Hugh Grant on NBC.”

But beware: If things get too easy, a pol could wind up trivializing his political message. ”You have to use these outlets like a spice and be sparing,” cautions George Stephanopoulos, the President’s senior adviser. Sure, Gingrich had a ball on MTV — ”Newt thought they asked more substantive questions than the Washington press corps,” boasts spokesman Tony Blankley — but once you’ve shared air with TLC there’s no goin’ back. After the forum, a Virginia TV reporter asked the Speaker whether he wears boxers or briefs.

”That is a stupid question,” Gingrich barked. ”You should be ashamed of yourself for asking it.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Gordinier and Jessica Shaw