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Five media takeaways from a very big primary election night

"Today" exposes Kasich, while CNN delivers, and attack ads make a difference.

Here are five TV takeaways from one of the most important days and nights in the 2016 election.

1. NBC did what might be the best media work of the day by breakfast.

In an interview on the “Today” show with Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie exposed the nature of the plan by Kasich and fellow GOP candidate Ted Cruz to team up in an effort to stop front-runner Donald Trump. (The idea is for them not to compete with each other in certain states — most notably in Indiana, where Kasich would step aside for Cruz.)

Anyone still buying the spin that Kasich was the “adult” in the GOP race had to give up that fantasy when they saw how utterly incapable he was of explaining, let alone defending, the “strategy” he and Cruz had come up with — and then how cranky he became when pressed by the show hosts.

Kasich acted like the problem was their inability to grasp the soundness of the plan and kept getting crankier about it.

"You guys are the ones that are confused and upset,” he said at one point. “We’re not. The fact of the matter is, I’m going to be going on Thursday to Oregon. Ted Cruz is not going to Oregon. He may be in Indiana. I’m not going to Indiana."

“It’s only confusing, governor,” Lauer said, sounding like the real adult in the room, “because I’ve never heard a presidential candidate be unwilling to go on TV and tell people in a given state, ‘Vote for me.’”

But Kasich couldn’t do that because of the empty-headed plan he and Cruz had concocted.

2. Why was MSNBC in Baltimore anyway Tuesday?

MSNBC, the cable channel that tried to be Fox News from the left and now wants back into the news business after failing at that, anchored some of its shows Tuesday out of Baltimore.
The ostensible reason for being here: Maryland was one of five states having primaries.

But watching the coverage, the only reason I could discern for Baltimore was TV cosmetics: to give the appearance that MSNBC was out in America bringing the latest political news to you.
I saw nothing onscreen that MSNBC gained in terms of news and information by having some of its show hosts sitting in Canton or a correspondent at a polling place in Mount Vernon.

Doing news is not as easy as acting like you’re doing news on cable TV. I think MSNBC is finding that out as it eats CNN’s dust week after week in ratings and coverage during this extraordinary and TV-lucrative election season.

3. Good political coverage is good business for CNN.

I hate the eight-person panels of talking heads that CNN gives so much airtime to, especially when they include hardcore candidate advocates like Jeffrey Lord (for Donald Trump) and Paul Begala (for Hillary Clinton). The more Clinton wins, the more annoying Begala gets.

But that said, no one is better at delivering political information than CNN. And they showed that again Tuesday night. They declared winners clean and fast — from Trump in each of his five state wins, to Chris Van Hollen in Maryland’s big U.S. Senate race ahead of AP.
One of the under-reported stories of this election season is the huge ratings gains CNN has made in prime time on top-rated Fox News. On many big political nights in recent months, CNN has been No. 1 in demographics, which is a long way up from where it was when Jeff Zucker took over as president in 2013.

CNN’s making money on this wild and riveting election, and good for CNN. Of all the TV news operations, none spends more money to support a first-rate news-gathering infrastructure. I hope they make a bundle on nights like Tuesday.

4. Sinclair and Robert Ehrlich: made for each other.

Desperate for news of the U.S. Senate and Baltimore mayor’s races and not finding much online or in social media, I eagerly tuned into an election special on Baltimore’s WUTB (Channel 24), Sinclair’s sister station to WBFF (Channel 45), at 9 p.m.

I figured it was going to be Fox 45’s news team reporting on Baltimore races, but airing on WUTB because Sinclair, the Hunt-Valley-based broadcasting company, didn’t want to lose the audience and revenue of prime-time entertainment programming from Fox 45.

But I was wrong about it being Baltimore-centric. It was a Sinclair special featuring a panel of experts that included former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, and much of the talk in the portions I could bring myself to watch was about Clinton and Trump.

The last time I saw Ehrlich on TV, it was on the Sunday morning program he and his wife, Kendel, paid WMAR to air. I predicted their next media incarnation would find them buying time to telecast a cable show out of their basement.

I was wrong about Ehrlich — but not by much.

5. Local TV and attack ads: A winning combination in Baltimore

There will be time for deeper analysis of media strategies in coming days, but there is no argument that TV advertising helped Catherine Pugh overtake Sheila Dixon in the mayor’s race. I’ve written about the link between when Pugh launched her TV ad campaign and when she surged ahead of Dixon to stay. The connection is indisputable.

Meanwhile, Dixon had been under attack online and on the air from the Clean Slate Baltimore PAC since December.

Clean Slate ran a highly effective anti-Dixon campaign. The Grinch ad was clever, but the smartest thing about the campaign was the singularity of its theme. Each of the ads hit one point over and over again: the fact that Dixon had to step down as mayor in 2010 after stealing gift cards intended for needy children.

A flier featuring Dixon in a fake police mugshot went over the line as far as I am concerned, but it did absolutely hit that same note.

Dixon ran what felt to me like an old-fashioned media campaign with more emphasis on radio, fliers and posters than any other candidate, as far as I could tell. Her campaign seemed more like something out of the late 1960s than 2016.

Perhaps she was trying to “reclaim” a Baltimore that is no more — especially after the unrest last year.

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