Trump a master media manipulator in his prime

Z on TV: Trump improvises and deflects on screen with the speed and skill of a jazz musician.

TV news anchors and talk show hosts have embarrassed themselves so often in covering Donald Trump that I stopped counting.

From Joe Scarborough letting Trump control the conversation on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" day after day with live call-ins, to Bill O'Reilly begging Trump to participate in a prime-time Fox News debate, there has been no shortage of media on bended knees before the bombastic businessman who calls the press "scum."

But Wednesday night on the heels of Trump becoming the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, TV news went to a place even I thought it wouldn't go when Lester Holt anchored "NBC Nightly News" standing in the lobby of Trump Tower.

The symbolism alone of a major network's flagship newscast and its anchorman coming to this glitzy, gilded monument to Trump's ego should have been enough to give anyone with any sense of TV news' place in the journalistic ecosystem serious pause.

Sure, network news doesn't hold the kind of national agenda-setting function that it once did, such as when CBS or NBC cameras covering police abusing peaceful civil rights marchers could help ignite a national movement. But evening network news is still the largest tent in real-time American media, and you don't betray that audience and sell that history cheap by doing your whole newscast in Trump's lobby when he is only a few blocks away from your own newsroom.

As the website TVNewser tweeted: "@LesterHoltNBC anchors from Trump Tower, w/Trump intvu. So, he couldn't make it 5 blocks down 5th Ave. to 30 Rock?"

And that was one of the gentler tweets.

I'll guarantee you that Trump knew the symbolism of having NBC News come to him and stand in his lobby for the full newscast. Power is the one thing Trump absolutely seems to understand..

For the record, 60 percent of the 20-minute and 30-second newscast was devoted to Trump in one form or another. That number goes up to 70 percent if you include the 1-minute and 52-second piece done with Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.

And it should be counted, because most of it was about how she would respond to Trump if he got nasty. Talk about setting the agenda and the parameters of the discussion – even in the treatment of your opponent, who happens to be leading you in most polls.

A spokeswoman for "NBC Nightly News" said in a email to the Baltimore Sun that the same offer made to Trump of doing the newscast from his location will be made to the "Democratic presumptive nominee."

While I get the effort at fairness, in a larger sense, doing a newscast at the Clinton home in Chappaqua, N.Y., or her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn only doubles down on the mistake of misusing the power network news has to influence the civic conversation of American life.

It mattered last year that Holt anchored his newscast from the streets of Baltimore the night after the riots. It helped focus an international spotlight on massive urban problems that some local officials and even President Obama tried to minimize.

That's how you righteously use the agenda-setting authority built up across the 90-year history of NBC Radio and TV news. But each time you exploit that power for false, cosmetic purposes as NBC News did Wednesday, you lose a piece of it.

Holt's interview wasn't even an exclusive. By the time the interview started to air just before 6:35 p.m., Trump had already done live call-in interviews on "Morning Joe," ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today" and Fox News' "Fox & Friends." And he taped an interview with Wolf Blitzer to air at 5 p.m. on CNN.

No news came out of the interview either. I am not totally faulting Holt for that. He asked questions that were well researched and sounded tough, at least.

"Your negatives are staggering," Holt said. " Disapproval, 69 percent women. African-Americans, 88 percent. Latinos, 79 percent. People under 34, 79 percent disapprove. … How do you heal that while still respecting those that got you here?"

"Well, the highly respected Rasmussen Poll just came out, and I'm 41 to 39 up on Hillary Clinton," Trump replied. "It just came out, and I haven't even started on Hillary Clinton yet. So I don't know what you're talking about with those negatives. Now, I will tell you that I'm going to do very well with women …"

And Holt followed up, just like the textbooks say: "So, you just disregard those numbers?"

"I disregard nothing," Trump said.

Holt got nowhere, and I do fault him for not trying a new strategy. In August, I wrote a piece headlined, "TV may be too timid to cover Trump." In it, I mapped some of the ways Trump was outsmarting and intimidating TV interviewers.

One of the people I interviewed was CNN's Chris Cuomo who called Trump "The Great Deflector." The morning-show host explained how Trump deftly deflected his questions about misogynistic comments.

"So, I ask him, 'What about those things you said about women?'" Cuomo said. "And he says, 'I'll tell you who has real trouble with women: Jeb Bush.'"

And Trump was off and running, pivoting away from the question of misogyny to attack Bush.

I am not saying that Trump isn't important enough to be the lead story on the evening news – or that he is not worthy of flood-the-zone coverage in coming months. His rise as a political candidate is one of the most important stories of the decade. I fear it might become one of the biggest of the century.

The media part of Trump's candidacy alone is a huge cultural story that has yet to be analyzed in anywhere near the depth it deserves.

In February when I called Trump "the apotheosis of the TV candidate," I worried that I might have overstated the case. But as I watched him use the medium in recent weeks to close the deal on becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, I came to realize I had barely started to describe him as a media phenomenon.

I had been viewing his TV persona mainly through the lens of television and politics, judging him on a continuum from John Kennedy in the 1960s, through Ronald Reagan in the '80s, to Barack Obama today. In that regard, I truly believe he is the most adroit TV candidate ever.

In the age of social media and the Internet, TV is all about being ubiquitous and constantly improvising on screen, which is what Trump does with the speed and skill of a jazz musician.

And he creates an echo chamber for TV appearances through his mastery of social media – particularly Twitter. As I have said before, he has the snarky, nasty, dominant tone of Twitter down cold. He's learned like no other politician to thrive during this time of massive media transition in the space between TV and social media.

Obama was a very good TV candidate in image and style. He adapted himself well to the casual, chatty, laidback rhythm of late-night TV during his first presidential run in 2008 and used such shows successfully for easy exposure with no tough questions asked. But he was mainly a one-trick TV persona.

And while he had an outstanding team of social media operatives, he never developed a convincing voice of his own in realms like Twitter.

Trump has multiple TV identities going for him. The much-discussed businessman/boss persona, which was skillfully crafted for him by executive producer Mark Burnett on NBC's reality series "The Apprentice," is only one.

What Trump is doing with TV that Clinton isn't is positioning himself as an agent of transformation who can deliver us from anxiety, failure and fear. He's the TV doctor in the crisp white jacket writing the script for Viagra that will rescue baby boomer men from impotence. He's the smiling white-haired gentleman in the sweater who will find millennial women their perfect partner at eHarmony.

At the low end, he's Larry The Cable Guy pushing the purple pill that will end heartburn. At the high end, he's The One who can make us great again – a persona and promise perfectly in sync with the over-riding message of TV advertising the last 60 years. Buy me, and your life will be transformed.

Unpacking some of that in a way that will register with voters before November is only one part of the epic job we in the media have before us if we are to serve American voters responsibly.

But we won't succeed at that task standing in the lobby of Trump Tower acting like there's nothing more important in the whole wide world of news than getting a nothing interview with the guy upstairs.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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