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

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? "

It doesn't matter anymore whether it was truth or pure malarkey. ("It did not even happen ever," swears Soren, looking grim, "in a million years.") What matters is that the throwaway news flash impugned Soren's occupational currency, her intellectual integrity. Since then, the Why her? contingent has been whining away: She's unremarkable, she can't laugh at herself, she's pompous, at a moment's notice, her buckled ankle-boots could be filled by scads of smarter, hipper, more politically savvy twentysomethings.

"She irritates the hell out of me," says Jeannette Walls, the New York magazine "Intelligencer" columnist, one of the Why her? contingent's most bumptious spokespeople. "She epitomizes what is both appealing and irritating about Generation X in that she's aggressive and lively, but seems to have no depth or sense of history. And that faux jaded attitude--give me a break!"

Ever since the Democratic Convention, where a lack of other news made "Choose or Lose" a story, Soren has somberly concluded that there is no "other reporter in the country whose work is under this kind of scrutiny." This is not precisely poor-me hyperbole. As a potential target, she figures she's "got everything." She's young, female and "people feel compelled to make fun of MTV for trying to take itself seriously, and I know that I'm the personification of that."

The scrutiny, the scrutiny, the scrutiny. It's driving her nuts . But that's about as much as she'll come up with in the complaint department. "I think that when people decide they want to be actors," she says, "they decide they want to be in public life. But I wanted to be a reporter; I didn't prepare for this." Soren speaks with cool detachment, but it's tough not to notice that while she talks, she is sighing deeply, nervously, her bony shoulders rising up and down.

HERS IS A NAME THAT SCREAMS TO BE DIMINUTIZED. PEOPLE CALL HER TAB Tabby; "Tabbo" is what NBC's 27-year-old executive producer, Jeffrey Zucker, who hired Soren at "Today," bellows gleefully upon her entrance into his office. The unwieldy end of her real last name--Sornberger--was lopped off early on by a television news director who insisted he couldn't squeeze 17 letters onto the screen. At the time, Soren was unfazed by the abrupt surgery: "I thought I could think about this decision later. I didn't think I'd have, like, a ton of people knowing my last name. And now a ton of people do."

There are those who enjoy believing that she was christened in homage to Samantha's gurgling offspring on the television show "Bewitched." Her mother says this is a false notion. "I got it out of a name book," says Mary Sornberger. "It means 'little girl' in Hebrew, doesn't it?" (Actually, it means "gazelle.") Whatever it means, realizing that the public will assume what it wants about the Sornberger family is one of the no-fun side effects of Tabitha's sudden fame. "It irritates me," Sornberger says, "that people think I'd name my daughter after a witch."

As the first child of a career Air Force officer (she has a younger sister, Erin), Soren moved constantly and her upbringing relied on speed-cycle coping skills. By the time she was 3, and her father, John T. Sornberger, had been sent to Vietnam, she had already moved six times. "I felt over-scrutinized on a daily basis," she says. "I was different in the Philippines because I was white. In Germany, I was different because I was American. In Florida, I was different because I didn't want to grow up to be a prom queen."

Before anyone starts in with the sympathy, Soren is quick to point out that having had a flyboy father provided her with some journalistic advantages. When GOP candidate Pat Buchanan became bitterly defensive with her, Soren slyly buttered him up by telling him, "My dad's in the military . . . he's a navigator . . . he was in Vietnam . . . yadda, yadda, yadda . . . the whole bit."

As a military brat, she learned to adjust her behavior every few years to better accommodate a brand-new social order. During her many lives, she has been a competitive swimmer, cheerleader, school newspaper staffer, gymnast and editor of the high school yearbook.

And now she works at the coolest channel on television. As the political face of MTV, there is the expectation that she be both a Type-A overachiever and some kind of with-it demimonde pixie. As it happens, Soren has logged considerable hours at some of the dingier Manhattan clubs, bouncing sweatily to three-chord progressions. "She's had this other life on the punk scene in New York," says MTV news anchor Kurt Loder. "She knows things about music that I'm sure Bryant Gumbel has never dreamed of."

Still, at times, it must be hard not to crack under the pressure of being thought of as a link between two disparate worlds. At one point, this meticulous phone-message returner, thank-you-note sender and giver of small-but-thoughtful gifts unexpectedly blurts out: "I don't bathe every day," and one has to wonder if she's kidding or if something triggered an urge to boost her grunge quotient.

It's tension between the dual sides of Tabitha Soren that makes her such perfect casting for MTV. A New York Times reporter once summed her up as "something of a work in progress," which is precisely the point. Unlike Establishment talking heads, with their carefully modulated frowns or grins, Soren mirrors her same-age viewership because her face betrays her feelings: During her 10-minute daily newscasts and the 30-minute "Week In Rock" roundup (which she co-anchors with Loder), she might flash looks of apprehension, insecurity or excitement.

When it comes to identifying the source of her appeal, Soren says: "I think the reason people relate to me is that I am pretty much the same person on camera and off." Then sometimes she'll contradict herself and say things like: "I'm always wary about doing anything that could make me come across as a bimbo. That's part of the reason I think I'm funnier off camera than on: I'm afraid of not being taken seriously."

Before the nightly taping of the MTV news, a makeup artist with a tattoo painted on her ankle will conceal Soren's freckles with layers of beige foundation, comb down her roosterish cowlicks, then etch on the skinny eyeliner that gives Soren her trademark squint. The utter transformation, from blue-eyed part-Irish beauty to smudge-resistant television anchor is startling. People sometimes stop her in the street to gush about how much prettier she is in person.

Tonight, when Soren enters the garish sound stage at the National Video Center where the MTV news is taped, she is wearing a gauzy lavender-flowered sun dress, and because she is filmed from the waist up only, faded blue jeans and beat-up saddle shoes. "I basically wear what I want. I mean, I think if I was wearing the top of a bikini to do the news, I'd probably hear about it," says Soren. "I think the ratings would drop off considerably."

Like all anchors, she is subject to cosmetic tweaking. Recently, MTV's make-over seemed to involve purging her of any remaining signs of honor-roll crispness, of the pursed-mouthed reserve that is a part of her natural style. Since she's become an MTV reporter/anchor, one occasionally sees Soren staring out uncomfortably from the tube in scoopnecks or puffed-sleeves, beaded chokers or stripey '60s numbers and any number of hit-or-miss coiffures. A minor altercation developed one day over the length of her bangs. "Look," she informed the MTV executive who wanted to discuss a trim, "talk to me about my interviewing skills or some piece that you're not happy with. That other stuff is extraneous to me."

Although she views life through a feminist perspective, Soren seems to have reconciled herself to the sexually exploitative aspects of MTV, from the bare-bellied veejays to the video-clip rump-shakers. "That sort of T&A; nature of rock 'n' roll is not something I'm going to change by my self at this channel," she says. "Every time I complain, they turn around and give me the ratings for shows like 'The Grind,' where everyone is in bathing suits. The less clothes that people have on, the better the show does. This makes me sort of an enigma," she says wryly. "But it's hard to argue with. Television is about money." Her solution, she says, is "concentrating on what I do" and "not watching MTV that much."

Still, she says, her MTV setup is "pretty perfect." "I can call someone a butthead, if I feel like it," she points out. Mostly, she says she is allowed to be who she is--a 26-year-old. This luxury expresses itself most profoundly in her on-air interviews, where she might use either well-formulated "Meet the Press" questions or probing queries disguised in the voice-of-youth. "Did that piss you off?" she'll ask, with oddly affecting sincerity.

Politics makes up only about 30% of MTV News' hourly broadcasts, and Soren covers wildly free-ranging topics--from Sting to sexual harassment to the life and times of American Indian teen-agers. Her one-of-a-kind beat provides her with certain peerless credentials when it comes to making political/pop cultural comparisons. She is probably the sole owner of this curious observation: "This is going to be a bad analogy," she chuckles, recounting Clinton's visceral reaction to her mention of his haircut boondoggle. "But the only other time I watched this gloom and anger come over a person's face was when I asked Axl Rose about the riot in Montreal. It was like a thunderstorm; I could see it coming, feel it hit me, see it going. On a lesser scale, Clinton did the same thing. But, you know, one's a psycho and one's not."

Because MTV isn't unionized, Soren can, and still occasionally does, produce, write and edit her own pieces. Her full-service proficiency comes, in part, from power-interning during four years as a journalism major at New York University. From the very beginning, she was one of those go-getters, volunteering for technical drudge detail and sponging up know-how from hanging around the majors. At CNN, she answered the telephone, cut tape and tagged along on shoots. She spent a minimum-wage autumn working as a production assistant at MTV, then returned six months later in a more grown-up capacity, pulling the sundown shift writing "Headbanger's Ball."

At "World News Tonight," the college sophomore got the attention of Peter Jennings, who, conscientious about his mentor duties, tipped Soren off to things like, " 'Be skeptical of what the President says,' which might sound very duh , but I grew up in a military family." Once, when Jennings inquired about her future, she responded with, "I want your job." "He laughed and thought that was very clever," she remembers. "And I laughed and pretended I was joking."

Of course, she meant business, and to prove it she landed a job a month after graduation as a Statehouse correspondent for WVNY, an ABC affiliate in Burlington, Vt. It was one of those suffering-builds-character jobs where the news director thinks he has to act like a slave driver, the pay is lousy and your few spare hours are spent missing your boyfriend. Like all the other WVNY cub reporters before her, she was expected to be a one-person electronic news-gathering crew, dragging around 50 pounds of equipment and operating it herself. "If you're going to do a good story," she says, "you have to pay attention to the details of what people are saying. But I didn't have time to analyze the holes. I was running the camera, thinking about the framing, is my mike in the right place?"

It took months of hustling just to move beyond the blooper-reel stage, of turning in headless field reports or audio-free footage. But Soren "was a hard worker," remembers Judy Simpson, WVNY's former news director and anchor who ran the newsroom. "I mean, sometimes I had to throw her out of here. Once she got working on a project, it was like tunnel vision." In acknowledgment of her steep improvement, WVNY promoted her to 11 o'clock anchor, which was another way of saying, "Congratulations! You're the one who gets to horsewhip the newscast into being every night."

So there she was, a 22-year-old with looming shoulder-pads and big hair and no social life, watching her life being swallowed whole by the dismal grind. After five or six months of this, Soren came to the realization that she had been trapped by her own ambition. "Ever since I was little," she says, "I was constantly living life for tomorrow. When I was in junior high, I wanted to be in high school. When I was in high school, I wanted to be on my own in college. When I went to college, it was like, 'What is my identity? Who am I?' If I had a job, if I had a career, I'd be a reporter. That's who I'd be."

The WVNY job was "supposed to be the end of the rainbow," Soren says. "And it did not make me happy. At all. Everything I'd worked really hard for, all the keg parties I'd missed because I was working for all these different people, busting my butt around the clock--this was supposed to be the reward. And it was awful . And that's when I sort of re-evaluated things. I would say to myself, 'God, if I quit, I'm not going to be Diane Sawyer on '60 Minutes' in 10 years.' Or whatever my ultimate dream was. But I took a chance, and said, 'Well, look: I know my friends make me happy. I know New York makes me happy. Let's have those things and then we'll see what comes. I'll take it one day at a time.' I came to MTV to fill in for somebody. When I stopped worrying about what was down the line, really good things started happening."

For as long as anyone could remember, MTV had been searching for someone to team up with the darkly erudite Kurt Loder, a former Rolling Stone editor. So far, they'd only dredged up grinning smoothies who didn't get MTV's pop sensibility. Then someone came up with the idea of screen-testing Soren. She knew music; she knew her way around a TelePrompTer. Besides, she was there , free-lancing as a segment producer. "She just sat there, really nervous," says Michael Shore, the managing editor of MTV News, who'd known Soren since she was a likable but unpolished teen-ager and who produced the audition. "And then she read the script like it was 'Headline News.' I almost cried. It was, like, 'Wow, she is so good .' Then I came back and said, 'Hire her.' "

In the next nine months, Dave Sirulnick, vice president and news director of MTV News, set about gently molding the on-screen Soren. "Tab," he'd say, "this is what we do: We're a little more conversational. This sort of anchor-type voice that local news really likes--we like to drop that. We want you to be a little bit more like you're talking to a friend." By early 1992, he'd chipped off some of the small-town newscaster in her.

At about that time, Soren popped up in his office. It seems that a meeting about coverage for the upcoming presidential race had made her "grumpy." Most of the news staff wanted to go with MTV's traditional approach of lampooning weighty topics. But she wanted to cover the campaign "just like a real news organization." Sirulnick agreed, but he was at a loss when it came to who should be appointed chief political correspondent. "Well," Soren told him, "that person would be me."

TABITHA SOREN'S ESTIMATION OF HER WORK IS BOTH FRANKLY SELF-AS-and harshly unforgiving. In reference to the seven interviews with Bill Clinton , which are her biggest claim to fame, she'll say, "I've made news every single time I've done an interview with the guy. And that doesn't happen every time a reporter (talks to him). It really doesn't." Or she may inspect her raw footage and fret over how the heavy-hitters might have handled it.

Take her recent chat with Anita Hill at the Human Rights Film Festival in Manhattan. After luring the law professor in front of the camera by promising her that she'd only ask one question, Soren managed to squeeze out three before Hill, smiling sweetly, stood up and glided out of the room.

"I felt like someone punched me in the stomach," Soren moans. "I did research for, like, a month. I had written five pages of questions." Then the self-analysis kicks in. How would Brit Hume haved used those minutes? What about Sam Donaldson?

She measures her success in the excavation of first-time disclosures, such as Clinton's revelation that he thought abortion should be covered in the health-care package. "Here's where I really get going," she says, fast-forwarding a tape to the moment when she took on then-vice presidential nominee Al Gore and exposed his reluctance to speak out on environmental issues during the presidential campaign. And MTV, which usually follows the lead of the Establishment press, was the first to break the news that Tipper Gore had quit the Parents' Music Resource Center, which she founded in 1985 to police record lyrics. "To other people it was probably a really low B-story," says Soren. "But we got it before everybody else. And I was really happy about that."

Soren's singular talent is sparking pop-culture-meets-world-leader moments. You could say it all began with Clinton's New Hampshire head pat. And since then, the enduring MTV images have just kept spilling forth. Her most recent coup was engineering the televised debut of Janet Reno, our normally wooden attorney general, as amateur chanteuse; Reno blasted off a few bars of a rap song, while Soren stood by, head thrown back, laughing hard.

For better or worse, the "Choose or Lose" series made entertainment-skewed media a crucial part of campaign strategy. Probably its most memorable installment was Soren's interview with George Bush. After shunning MTV for the entire campaign, the President finally acquiesced to a 10-minute session in the midst of a whistle-stop train trip, his last push through the Midwest. As Wisconsin's fall colors passed behind him, Bush stood inches away from Soren, looking decidedly vexed.

Seconds after the cameras clicked on, Bush and Soren were already bristling and interrupting each other. "May I finish?" Bush snapped a couple of times. The televised warfare proved so riveting that the antagonism is just as weirdly evident with the volume turned down: Bush, in his jogging suit, gripping a coffee mug and a cake doughnut, with an expression so patronizing that Soren might as well have been a yippy poodle. Soren, in turn, had set her soft jaw and stayed feisty, trying to force him to make eye contact.

"The Bush thing was the worst," she says today. "I felt like at any minute the floor was going to fall out and I'd be kicked off the train tracks." The segment drew two very different interpretations: Viewers either thought Soren had been willfully impudent to the Leader of the Free World or that Bush had wantonly kissed off the youth vote.

Clearly, Clinton was the hands-down winner when it came to comprehending the MTV medium. And with his election, what had been a network/candidate flirtation looked as though it might bloom into an all-out romance when he gave her two more exclusive interviews.

The only snag had to do with the new Administration's fondness for snubbing the Washington press corps while focusing its energy on untraditional outlets like Larry King and MTV. That bias, along with other perceived shutdowns, kicked off a nasty, well-documented quarrel between Clinton's communications office and the media. Somewhere around this point, Soren was transformed from provocative addition to the scene into proof of the media's access problem, and her name became, among some Establishment journalists, synonymous with "lightweight."

The implication was that during her four exclusives with Clinton (including one of the first major interviews of his term), Soren wasn't as hard-hitting as she should have been. Where were the stinging follow-up questions? Why gobble up precious time asking him who his favorite Beatle was? From which one could read, "What's she doing on our turf?" "When it comes to making Washington work," media critic Edwin Diamond wrote in New York magazine, "the (Bob) Doles--and the (Andrea) Mitchells--are more important than Larry King or Tabitha Soren."

"There's a lot that can be said about the way Washington pundits and commentators operate that isn't very attractive," says NBC's chief White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who admired the MTV upstart's reportorial flair enough to befriend her. "I think that they should be the last ones to judge a bright young person who obviously works very hard. It's true that the Clinton Administration hasn't done enough interviews and that's a fault that I would lay at their feet. It has nothing to do with her." Besides, how was Soren supposed to respond when she netted an exclusive?: " 'No thank you, Mr. President,' " Mitchell wisecracks, " 'I'd rather not if you haven't given an interview to Time magazine.' "

But Soren's outsider position vis-a-vis the Washington press corps also gives her an edge. Take the relaxing effect she seems to have on Bill Clinton. He'd stroll lazily into their meetings, she says, "looking like he thought it was going to be easy for him," and just when he slumped comfortably in his chair, she could hit him with something provocative.

But it's not like she hasn't had her own difficulties with him. During her last private sit-down, which took place in the Oval Office after the May 20th signing of the "motor voter" bill, Clinton pulled up his psychological drawbridge. While Soren sat there, a stopwatch ticking away in her lap, Clinton spun out one overchewed response after the other, just as he would have done with any other media representative. "It was so obvious that he was just taking up time," Soren says. "Him talking about how much mail they were getting at the White House? He hadn't done that to me before."

On a muggy summer afternoon in her cramped MTV office, she recalls the disheartening Q and A: "My reaction was like, 'The answer to that sucked, so let's tackle something else.' It was like, 'All right, let's move on to Bosnia.' "

In the end, only snippets of the session were broadcast. When asked what prompted Clinton's closed-off demeanor, Soren embarks on a typical deconstruction of what went wrong, how she might have done better. "Maybe he thinks he can walk all over me so he will. Maybe I had an off day and I was a wimp. But I don't really think that was the case." Their conversation, she says, was going so badly that she glanced at her watch and told herself: "This isn't my entire life."

Then, without warning, Soren's voice starts to crack and her eyes fill with tears. Her pale skin goes quite pink, and she averts her head, embarrassed and quiet. A second ago, she was just another brazen fed-up reporter; now she's a spiritually downcast phenom with so much on the line.

"It's just something I have to get better at," she says shakily. "You know, leaving time for real life. I'm not friends with the Clinton Administration. Everything is work.

"I feel very blessed," she makes sure to mention. It's just that she misses the little things that have fallen by the wayside--reading a book, or seeing a movie, spending "quality time" with her boyfriend, Chris Mundy, a senior writer at Rolling Stone. Instead, she usually is driven home to her apartment, sometimes feeling so zombied-out she can only gaze at clothing catalogues. "I think I get emotional," she concludes, composure fully regained, "because I miss my friends."

"WANT TO SEE MY PICTURES from Washington?" It's the next day, and Soren is sharing some touristy side-trip memories from the MTV tour of the White House. There's one of Socks the Cat's red food dish, another of Chelsea Clinton's tree swing; in a third shot, Tabitha and Dave Sirulnick are positioned beside a men's urinal in a White House bathroom. The most unforgettable one, though, is of Soren alone. Gussied up in a conservative pink pantsuit, she's standing beneath an oil portrait of Nancy Reagan, flawlessly re-creating the brittle primness of the former First Lady.

The photographs were taken in May, when she and Sirulnick flew to Washington to promote "Free Your Mind," MTV's series on intolerance, and to pow-wow with the biggies--Atty. Gen. Reno, White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty and 11 other White House officials, as well as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. The director of the office of national service, Eli J. Segal, used a portion of their meeting to consult the pair on how to market the national public service program to the MTV crowd.

Soon after she shows off her photos, Soren heads over to NBC headquarters, and it becomes clear that this day will be an upbeat one for her: After Jeffrey Zucker left "Today" to executive produce "Now" with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, Soren worried that her berth on the morning show might vanish. Instead, she'll meet Zucker's replacement, executive producer Steve Friedman, this afternoon, and while he'll spend most of their appointment talking distractedly on the telephone and twirling a stained Louisville Slugger over his head, he'll also make an attempt to let her know she has no cause for alarm.

On Nov. 24, Soren's MTV contract will expire. This has ignited the rumor that she plans to make a permanent move to the big leagues. And while Soren says, "I wouldn't go so far as to say that NBC has asked me to go over there," she does say "that NBC is not the only player" who has emerged. Her agent, Sherry Berman, of N.S. Bienstock, Inc., the agency that also represents Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer, has, Soren says, fielded inquiries for "everything from syndication to network to print to radio." Although Warner Books strenuously courted her, she turned down a book deal because she didn't feel ready. "Maybe when I have more stuff under my belt to tell," she says. Perhaps hidden in that display of prudence is an awareness that members of her age group are predisposed toward loathing those who claim to represent them; it wouldn't be bad strategy to let someone else go for the sitting-duck title of most-accessible twentysomething.

Besides, Soren's schedule is already so tight that she has to shave most of her ideas from the same bar of soap. A concept that doesn't make it as an MTV News report may be pitched to "Today." Whatever leftovers there are might find their way into her syndicated column, which, she says, will explore "social issues that are important to people my age." What she dreams of is consolidating her base. "What I'd like," she says, "is to get things down to a one-person job. But I don't know if it's feasible."

Until then, there are millions of projects, both huge and subtle, for her to set her sights on. For example, she and Kurt Loder have made some tentative, if occasionally stilted, attempts to enliven the "Week In Rock" with happy-talk. In real life, the duo's teasing badinage makes both of them seem downright adorable; their chemistry cancels out each other's sang-froid. But so far, Soren shrugs, the collaboration is still "better on the commercial breaks. I have to be more secure in showing my real personality. 'Maybe I should loosen up'--that's what sticks in my head.' "

Perhaps it is this epiphany that inspires Soren several weeks later when a particularly gratuitous item runs in Entertainment Weekly. Under the heading, "THINKS SHE'S COOL," comes the observation: "Who died and made her the voice of Generation X?"

In the past, Soren might have read this and blown a gasket. "All those things . . . upset me," she has said before. "It's painful." But this time her response, at least for the public record, is to brush it off lightly. "I should have expected it," she laughs. "Two months ago, I was in their 'What's In' column. And if you're in one month, you're out the next."

It's been a hard-to-negotiate learning curve. "If I'm going to be in this business," she had said in an earlier interview, "I've got to get a thicker skin. Hellooo ? This is a realization that I came to very slowly. I was just like, 'God, what do these people have against me?' Nothing. It's a slow news day.

"You know?"

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