Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

10 onscreen moments that paved the road to the White House

Z on TV: A look back at 2016 reveals just how much the media influenced the election.

Media have been playing a larger and larger role in presidential politics since the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

But this was the year that the presidential race became more about media than politics, and the road to the White House was paved with onscreen moments rather than war-room moves on fundraising, field operations or messaging.

These 10 media moments from 2016 shaped the outcome of the election, some of them going by before we understood how game-changing, unprecedented or outrageous they were.

Most not only show how Donald Trump used media to beat Hillary Clinton, but they also suggest how he will govern using TV and social media to control his message and expand his power while trying to marginalize the news media. The rest explain events and choices that didn't work out so well for Clinton and media figures like CNN President Jeff Zucker.

1. March 3: CNN, MSNBC and Fox show an empty podium while waiting for Trump to speak.

There were plenty of times during the election that the cable news channels were so desperate to hold viewers attracted by Trump that they showed an empty podium on which he was expected to speak in coming minutes. This one was particularly egregious because he was set to respond to Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate in 2012, calling him a "phony."

That's a food fight between two rich guys, not news.

But all year, cable news channels gave away the store and any pretense of journalistic or moral authority to keep Trump coming back onto their airwaves to drive ratings.

No channel behaved worse than CNN — hiring Trump's ex-campaign-manager Corey Lewandowski as an analyst even though he was still being paid by Trump, and handing the candidate hours of unfiltered airtime.

Trump understands the dollars-and-cents imperative that drives cable news despite all the high-sounding talk from show hosts and executives about journalism and democracy, and he played it for all it is worth.

I don't want to over-generalize. There were cable news journalists who did excellent work and were held to high standards during the election. They include Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace at Fox News, as well as Jake Tapper and Dana Bash at CNN.

But the empty podium is the objective correlative for the journalistic vacuum and lack of core values that cable news showed in this election.

2. March 8: Corey Lewandowski manhandles a reporter as she tries to question Trump.

If you wanted one snapshot that shows the hostility Team Trump had toward the press, it's this moment after a rally in Florida when Lewandowski grabbed the arm of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields as she tried to question the candidate.

The battle between Trump and the press is going to be big, big news in coming weeks and months.

Over the course of his campaign, Trump rallied his supporters against his enemies and fed off the blood of the political wounds he inflicted.

"Low-energy" Jeb Bush, "little" Marco Rubio, "lyin'" Ted Cruz and "crooked Hillary" are gone, but the biggest target remains: the press.

Look for him to demean and try to diminish the White House and Washington press corps at every turn in the first few months of his administration.

And with some mainstream press outlets foolishly abandoning legacy values of fairness, balance, verification and proportionality in covering him during the campaign, it is unlikely the press will find much support.

3. March 21: Trump says he won't participate in a Fox debate scheduled for that date, and Fox cancels it.

Trump had already skipped one Fox debate in January on the eve of Iowa caucuses.

"Why should the networks continue to get rich on the debates?" he said in explaining his decision. "Why do I have to make Fox rich?"

But his unwillingness to participate was mostly the result of his feud with Kelly, the Fox show host who called him out in August 2015 on the first Fox debate for his history of sexist comments. Trump was lobbying to keep her from being a moderator.

Trump's decision not to participate in the Fox debate in January was a bad one. He lost the caucuses to Ted Cruz, and some caucus-goers said his unwillingness to be in the debate was the reason they bailed on him.

But two months later, he was again playing the same game.

The message: Trump will cause himself pain to punish his enemies — to a point.

4. May 17: Trump sits down with Kelly for an interview.

Really?

After all the rancor, sexist words and Twitter attacks Trump directed against Kelly, he now does a friendly prime-time special with her acting like they are new best friends.

That's Trump, too: Yesterday's enemies are today's friends — if it's good for business. This was very good business for Trump, Fox and Kelly.

5. July 15: Trump announces his vice presidential pick — on Twitter.

What matters is he told the world about Mike Pence not through a news conference or story leaked to the New York Times or the Associated Press. He did it on Twitter.

Heads up, White House Press corps. The precedent guaranteeing access to the president will mean nothing to Trump in coming weeks and months. He has his own idea of what access means, and it has nothing to do with White House correspondents.

6. Oct. 9: Donald Trump holds a YouTube press conference with women who said Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harrassed them.

While there is no shortage of jaw-dropping moments, the one that sticks in my mind came just 90 minutes before the start of the second TV debate between Clinton and Trump.

Clinton had mopped the floor with Trump in their first of three TV debates, and then came the Access Hollywood tape with Trump boasting in vulgar terms about how he sexually assaulted women. The tape had been released by NBC two days before this debate, and it was looking like the end of Trump.

But Trump made an audacious move by using this press conference to remind voters of the transgressions of Clinton's husband and her subsequent actions in the wake of them.

Trump's argument against his opponent: She claims to be a champion of women, but she not only defended her husband against the claims of these women, she ridiculed and further victimized them with her words — particularly Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern Hillary Clinton called "a narcissistic loony tune."

After the YouTube conference, Trump brought some of Bill Clinton's accusers into the debate hall as his guests. They included Juanita Broaddrick, who claims Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, as well as Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones. Willey, a former White House aide, says Clinton sexually assaulted her in 1993, while Jones says she was sexually harassed by Clinton in 1991.

As I said in my review of the debate, seeing them sitting in the balcony looking down on Bill Clinton, who was seated near the stage, reminded me of ancient Greek theater with the ghosts of someone's past coming to sit as a chorus in public judgment of his sins.

Trump's moves that night showcased two of his great media skills: his savvy use of social media in going to YouTube for a press conference that mainstream media might have ignored or contextualized in a way that was negative to him, and understanding that the tableau of those women looking down on Bill Clinton would be far more powerful than anything said on the stage during the debate. Trump gets visuals like no candidate since Ronald Reagan.

7. July 21: Trump describes a dark and troubled America in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention.

Some pundits mocked Trump's closing speech with the title "Night-time in America" contrasting the tone of his address with the optimism of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ad campaign for his presidency.

But what the pundits missed: Dark, diminished and even scary is exactly the way America looked to many of those who felt left behind the last eight years, particularly in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — the states that gave Trump his victory on election night.

8. Sept. 9: Hillary Clinton says half of Trump's supporters belong in what she labeled a "basket of deplorables."

You would not expect a veteran politician like Clinton to give her opponent a gift like this in an election with so many voters feeling angry and betrayed by Washington elites. But there it was, and Trump reminded voters of her words every day until Nov. 8.

9. Sept. 11: Clinton is shown on video stumbling and being helped into a van after abruptly leaving a 9/11 ceremony.

This is smartphone video meeting and feeding fake news.

By and large, the mainstream media reported Clinton's medical episode in a straightforward manner — including her doctor's statement that she was suffering from pneumonia.

But the Web was filled with the images contextualized in other ways.

"This video proves we have been right all along and Hillary Clinton is sick and needs urgent medical care," the cutline on the YouTube video from infowars.com said. "Thanks to the patriot who took this video."

That post has more than 1.3 million views.

10. Oct. 31: CNN announces Donna Brazile's resignation as an analyst after WikiLeaks emails indicated that she fed Team Clinton at least one question in advance of a town hall she moderated for the channel.

Nothing speaks to the lack of journalistic judgment at CNN during this election like the fact that a long-time party activist such as Brazile, who still serves as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, was allowed to moderate debates and town halls for the channel.

CNN flooded the zone during this election with politicos like her and Lewandowski, and they brought the channel far more criticism and embarrassment than political insight.

But, hey, let's not get cosmic. What was at stake anyway?

Just the presidency of the United States and the next four years of the nation's life.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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