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

Trump falls from great media candidate to inept media president

A lot of things puzzle me about the presidency of Donald Trump. But none quite so much as how he went from being one of the most effective media candidates in modern history to one of the most inept media presidents.

We are talking about someone who was in a league the last two years with John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan when it came to skillfully using the media of his day to get elected, but is now looking worse than Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford in using them to govern.

He is further fumbling the new media tools he's inherited with the bully pulpit of the presidency. White House press briefings, which should allow even a semi-skilled administration to wield considerable control over the national agenda, have become a nightmare ritual with press secretary Sean Spicer either being pounded with questions he can't handle or overreacting to the back-and-forth in an unpleasant way. Spicer was totally out of line Tuesday when he told April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, to quit shaking her head as he answered a question from her.

What was so impressive about Trump as a candidate was how he found a sweet spot between live TV and social media that was in perfect synch with this moment of vast media transition. He thrived like an improv actor in live cable TV interviews, and he could change the national conversation in 140 characters or less on Twitter some nights.

But the tweets that once skewered his opponents now more often wind up wounding him, like the one of March 4 alleging Barack Obama had Trump Tower "wire tapped' during the election. It's almost a month later, and the political fallout is still being felt from the White House to Capitol Hill.

And it only gets worse, with Trump sounding petulant and even ignorant, when he doubles down, as he did later on March 4 with: "How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"

Thursday Trump attacked the House Freedom Caucus on Twitter, throwing the Republican Party into turmoil, which seems like the last thing it needs after the health care setback.

Outside of his prime-time introduction of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court nominee, I can't think of an instance when Trump showed the same kind of mastery of the live TV interview as he regularly did during the campaign.

Trump's loud, combative sensibility is a great fit for live cable TV interviews where he can banter with, deflect and usually dominate his interrogators in a style of speaking that sounds like everyday speech. The fact that some days during the campaign it seemed as if even he didn't know what he would say next made him even more attractive to those who produced — and watched — live cable news shows.

But since arriving in the White House, the only TV interviews he seems comfortable with are on Fox News. Since becoming president, five of his first seven were with Fox.

That retreat into the bosom of Fox, which has gone hardcore pro-Trump partisan since the departure of Megyn Kelly, only diminishes Trump's presidency further. Fox enables his worst impulses.

On March 25, Trump urged his Twitter followers to watch "Justice with Judge Jeanine," a legal affairs show that airs Saturday nights on Fox and is hosted by Jeanine Pirro, a former Westchester County, N.Y. assistant district attorney and judge.

This was the night after Trump's stinging defeat on heath care, when his team pulled its answer to Obamacare from the House floor late Friday before it could be voted down.

Pirro opened her show with an over-the-top demand that Paul Ryan step down as Speaker of the House for what she characterized as his betrayal of Trump in letting the president get humiliated on health care.

So, was Pirro, a longtime friend of Trump's, playing surrogate for the president? Was he using her to send Ryan a message?

No, said Spicer. Trump did not know what Pirro would be talking about on her show. The tweet and the topic were pure coincidence.

Right. But even giving Team Trump the benefit of the doubt on that claim, is this how the president of the United States spends his Saturday night after an epic defeat the day before — telling people to watch a tabloid show on Fox featuring a TV judge?

No Abe-Lincoln-like soul searching or LBJ-inspired burning of the midnight oil going on in this White House, I guess.

In a recent magazine interview, Trump described himself as "instinctual." Maybe if he were a little more analytical, he would have come to understand by now that for all its power as a political campaign tool, Twitter might not be the greatest platform for governing or incumbency.

Twitter's DNA is disruptive, oppositional, hectoring, questioning, from-the-bottom-up and in-the-streets. Its tone is slash, trash and burn. It's the French Revolution and off-with-their-heads in 140 characters. That's one of the reasons it works so well for protest movements — or for a populist presidential candidate trying to distinguish himself from 16 others in the primaries.

But when it comes to governing, not so much — especially when you are the president of the United States and you're misspelling the word "tap" as you are potentially defaming your predecessor.

CNN convened a focus group of Trump voters to talk about presidential tweets. The headline Wednesday on CNN's report highlighted Trump's presidential Twitter fail even among some members of his base: "Trump voters to president: Stop Twitter rants."

Several members of the group criticized the tweet about Obama and alleged wire taps. They said it showed Trump going off without all the facts.

"Even if he felt that way, I don't think he should have tweeted it," a former law enforcement officer in the group told CNN.

It's a great political tool to have 27 million followers of your personal account, as Trump does. But not if your messaging is now turning some of them off because you are not behaving and sounding as they think their president should.

It's qualitative data, and we can argue all day about what it means. But billions of dollars are spent in TV and politics based on focus group data, and this is the first I've seen that says Trump's base is starting to be displeased with aspects of his presidency.

Trump's biggest media mistake as president has to be the selection of Spicer as his press secretary, and there is no way to hide it. Cameras from all the major news organizations in the world are pointed at him almost every day in that White House press room.

The podium and its attendant audience of journalists can be one of the most powerful presidential tools day in and day out.

A glimpse of that was seen March 21 when Spicer was asked a question by a reporter from WTTG-Channel 5 (a Fox-owned station in Washington) about the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Rockville by two students 17 and 18 years old in her high school. The 18-year-old was in the country illegally.

The story had gone virtually unreported on national TV except for Fox News for five days — until the question was asked at a press briefing and Spicer jumped on it.

"Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, elevated a rape case at a Maryland high school in which an undocumented immigrant has been charged to national attention on Tuesday," the New York Times reported, "saying in response to a reporter's question that it was an example of why the Trump administration was committed to a 'crackdown' on illegal immigration."

Savvy press secretaries have been known to encourage, if not plant, questions from friendly outlets, so that events that favor their narratives can be pushed onto the front burner of national consciousness.

I have no way of knowing if that was the case here. But it shows how effective that press room platform can be for directing the nation's attention to certain events. And that was the first time I saw it happen in the Trump White House.

But just as I started thinking Team Trump might have figured out how to make these sessions into events that furthered its agenda rather than a daily exercise in duck and cover, along came Tuesday's debacle in Spicer's handling of the questions from Ryan.

Within hours, Hillary Clinton was telling a group in San Francisco that Ryan's treatment at the hands of the Trump administration highlighted the "indignities" faced by women "simply doing their jobs."

Clinton, whose billion-dollar media campaign was shredded at a fraction of that cost by Trump's media mastery during the election, was now the one successfully hammering Trump in cable TV soundbites.

Like a star pitcher who suddenly finds he cannot consistently throw strikes any more, the harder Team Trump tries, the deeper its messaging malaise gets. Sad.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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