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tabitha confidential : Like, can MTV's star reporter learn to stop worrying and love the spotlight?

September 19, 1993|Margy Rochlin | Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor of this magazine. Her last article was "The Mathematics of Discrimination."

it's funny now, but it wasn't funny then." It is early afternoon in a small, airless office in MTV's Manhattan headquarters and Tabitha Soren, the cable music channel's cayenne-haired political reporter, hovers over her Beta machine. Bell-sleeved and mini-dressed, the 26-year-old is rewinding to a time that predates her Peabody Award (for MTV's "Choose or Lose" presidential campaign coverage), her one-on-ones with our country's top leaders, her once-a-month "Today" show segments, her column distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.

The footage she's cueing up documents the Soren era of innocence. It's a fairly recent period in history, actually, before she was drafted as the simultaneous translator for Generation X--explaining the rest of the world to 18-to-34-year-olds and vice versa--and way before the media critics (and the merely bitchy) started wondering aloud if the fresh responses she was extracting in her interviews were the outcome of journalistic precocity or just the predictable result of an uncomplicated formula: press-weary politician colliding with lite media equals giddy revelations.

The flickering images on Soren's monitor are from New Hampshire, early in the "Choose or Lose" series, and they capture her first meeting with then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton. "It was, like, the day after Gennifer Flowers," she explains. "And the Clinton people said we couldn't talk to him." After giving herself a rousing pep-talk ("Like, screw that . I've got a camera crew; I'm here . Why shouldn't I get him?"), she headed over to the auditorium where Clinton was scheduled to appear. Her cameraman merged with the clump of shuffling journalists at one entrance; she staked out the deserted back door. Clinton's handlers opted for ducking in via Soren's dead zone. And that's when the candidate found the microphone emblazoned with a blocky yellow M hurtling toward his bow-shaped lips.

"Why should the youth of America," Soren asked after the first of the cameramen arrived, "vote for Gov. Clinton?" OK, so it was a cotton-puff question. But it fit the "Choose or Lose" keep-it-basic format--and it worked. To Clinton, it must have sounded so wondrously Gennifer-less that he couldn't help but pause for some hoarsely earnest sound-bites.

Soren focuses intently on the clip and her finger taps the TV monitor. "Here's where the press sees him talking to me." The entire screen is suddenly cluttered with nothing but bobbing heads. Absurdly enough, this is the only scene the MTV cameraman, immobilized at the tail-end of the stampede, managed to capture; tape of the actual conversation had to be purchased from WNBC. "Now they're squishing me up against him." The crowd is pressing Soren and Clinton so close together they could be ballroom dancing.

Zipppp. Soren rewinds. She's searching for a split-second when . . . crack!, someone's 35-pound television camera connected with her skull. "I think we show me rubbing my head," she says. Although this never made it into the broadcast, Clinton, looking mildly horrified, had shot out his meaty hand to administer a sympathetic head pat. Just remembering the moment causes an expression of unmasked frustration to fall over Soren's thin face. "Clinton stops the interview and is going 'Are you OK?' And I'm thinking, 'Shut up! Just answer my questions!' "

This is how Tabitha Soren's mind works: If it hadn't been for Clinton's nice-guy first-aid attempts, she might have coaxed more out of him. Maybe the Flowers stuff even, who knows?

These are the details that animate Soren: how it came down, how it could've come down, how she could have made it come down better. One after the other, she'll push black plastic cassettes into her videotape deck, as many as you ask her to show you, happily sharing shoptalk, remembering the dozens of supplicating interview requests she made, the ungodly amount of research she put in, the multiple pages of questions she wrote.

She cooperates pleasantly, beyond the standards of professional empathy, perhaps because she seems to greet every assignment--even her own publicity--with a workaholic's dogged thoroughness. It's also possible that she'd like to let the Why her? contingent know that she does most of her own exhaustive legwork, that there's no one behind the scenes manipulating puppet-strings.

It's generally acknowledged that the Why her ? contingent made its splashy debut at about the time of the Inauguration. That was when various versions of a gossip-column item surfaced, all using the same punch line: After President Clinton referred to the late jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, Soren walked away wondering, "Who's the loneliest monk? "

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