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

A year of fire, fury, fear and vitriol in media's most memorable moments

From Oprah’s show-stopping Golden Globes speech to the back-to-back testimonies of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, before a Senate committee, there has been no shortage of highly emotional and culturally supercharged media moments in 2018.

The most profound media moments are usually not fully understood during the year in which they occur. But still, they generally manage to get noticed.

My favorite example is Democratic candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on comedian Arsenio Hall’s late-night show in 1992.

Many mainstream political pundits mocked Clinton for it, characterizing him as a desperate candidate who was debasing the presidential selection process to get some airtime.

As a media critic, I praised Clinton for reaching out to a younger more diverse audience in picking it as my top moment in 1992. But I did not come close to understanding what a gateway moment it was on the road to politics as entertainment. That did not come fully into focus until 2016 when the nation elected a president whom many voters knew only from his leading role on an reality TV show.

Here are my top media moments from 2018, based primarily on cultural resonance and the potential to change society in years to come.

Oprah’s landmark speech at the Golden Globes

In an electrifying speech that ran just under 8½ minutes as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award, Winfrey delivered what I called a “shot of moral authority for a culture desperately feeling the need for a powerful voice to provide some righteous leadership.”

She had not even finished her address that Sunday night in January when social media started lighting up with calls — make that pleas — for the former talk show host to run for president.

In the middle of what had long been a second-tier entertainment awards show, she took on patriarchy and racism with a searing sense of righteousness that brought some in the audience to tears.

The genius — and I am not using the word loosely for one second — is the way she located her herself in the speech as a little girl in 1964 “sitting on the linoleum floor” of her mother’s kitchen watching the Academy Awards telecast the night Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win the Oscar as best actor in a leading role.

Winfrey says she won’t run in 2020. But if she does, this will feel a lot bigger than Clinton playing the saxophone on late-night TV.

The televised Kavanaugh-Ford hearing

In September, I called the televised Kavanaugh-Ford hearing “one of the most intense, wild, exciting and ultimately exhausting experiences I have ever had with television.”

Looking back, I am not sure even that was strong enough for what we saw on our screens as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard back-to-back testimony from Ford and Kavanaugh, with Ford accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was 15.

I do not for a moment think it is a good thing that the nomination of a Supreme Court justice was orchestrated as a TV campaign by the Trump White House starting with a prime-time reality-TV-like announcement of Kavanaugh as Trump’s selection.

So maybe it was fitting that it ended as a TV spectacle where performance and visceral response mattered more than truth.

The one thing I do know: The hearings brought no clarity. Many people who watched Ford’s testimony, me included, felt that Kavanaugh’s nomination was sunk based on the power of her words.

But then, an angry, defiant, at times tearful Kavanaugh fought back with a lot of help and camera-ready outrage from committee member Lindsey Graham, who rode to the nominee’s rescue.

Cameras are not allowed within the Supreme Court, but they were involved in every moment of this nomination and confirmation — and the nation is worse for it.

John McCain’s Funeral

The media essentially covered the funeral of this senator as if he were a president. The theme of the coverage: the patriotism and honor of McCain’s life.

Given his career of military and congressional service, McCain certainly deserved such treatment, but, as I wrote at the time, it also seemed as if the coverage was a rebuke to Trump. (Friends of McCain let the White House know that the Arizona senator said before he died that he did not want Trump at his funeral.)

Television discovered its affinity for high-end, ritualized ceremonial coverage in 1963 as it took the nation through a national trauma and the collective mourning for slain President John Kennedy. McCain’s funeral was in that tradition as it reminded the nation what honor and public service look like.

Anonymous op-ed article in the New York Times

On Sept. 5, the Times ran an anonymous article on its op-ed page headlined “I am part of the resistance inside the White House.”

It set off a storm of debate in the realms of both journalism and politics.

Some journalists questioned the act itself of publishing an unsigned article by what The Times described only as a senior official.

I was on the side of those saying it should not have been published without disclosing the author. Journalism is supposed to clarify, but this article only added to the confusion about this presidency.

The author’s claim that there are adults in the White House restraining the president from his worst tendencies seemed self-serving and falsely reassuring.

My take on it was headlined “Times anonymous op-ed piece looks more like self-serving weasel dancing than journalism to me.”

Unsigned op-ed articles are a terrible precedent from one of the nation’s great newspapers. But, hey, the article got 10 million page views in 24 hours. We have not seen the last of it.

Trump attacks reporters after midterm losses

The day after Republicans lost control of the House in the midterm elections, Trump personally attacked several reporters during a press conference.

As I wrote at the time, it was not surprising to see him go after CNN’s Jim Acosta, one of his favorite targets.

But the dismissive, hostile and superior tone he took with Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks was ugly and had disturbingly racist overtones. Both correspondents are African-American.

As I watched, I wondered what people of color around the world think of America when they see a president who behaves as Trump did in that session.

Long-term, this is the news conference that led to the White House pulling Acosta’s press credentials, only to have to restore them after CNN went to court and won a favorable ruling. This battle between the press and the executive branch of government is far from over.

Fire and Fury and Fear

Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” a backstage look at the chaos of the Trump White House, debuted on Jan. 5. By Jan. 24, it had sold 1.7 million copies, according to its publisher, Henry Holt.

I tore through the book, but I trusted very little of it because of the author’s methodology and his claim that if dialogue or a scene in the book “rings true,” then “it is true.” Read that here.

But on Sept. 11, Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” another nonfiction account of Trump’s White House was published and confirmed in general terms Wolff’s characterization of the dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (The Times published the anonymous op-ed immediately after excerpts from Woodward’s book started leaking out. Coincidence?)

Political nonfiction became a red-hot genre in 2018. At least one good thing has come from this administration being in office.

Murder at the Capital Gazette

I still have a difficult time writing or talking about what happened in Annapolis on June 28 when five members of the Capital Gazette staff were shot and killed in the newsroom.

They are Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith. We must never forget those names.

At a personal level, I cannot start to understand the pain of those who survive the victims, particularly at this time of year when families traditionally gather.

The lives and deaths of the five informed many and reminded some of how deeply those who work on community newspapers are engaged in the communities they cover. Community newspapers are parts of the fabric of local life as much as or more than schools, banks, hospitals, grocery markets, car dealers, churches and synagogues.

If you read the obituaries and appreciations of these five, you know there were no enemies of the people here — far, far from it.

Good Pai, Bad Pai

Ajit Pai, the controversial chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was responsible for two of the biggest media moments of the year: the rolling back of net neutrality and the refusal to approve the purchase of Tribune Media by the Hunt-Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast group.

The Sinclair move was shocker given Pai’s record of kowtowing to corporate consolidation, but I don’t think I will ever be able to forgive him for the damage he did to the internet with his widely-reviled action on net neutrality.

Cosby sent to jail, Moonves stripped of severance

Patriarchy dies hard. The men in American culture who think they have the right to invade the privacy of women’s bodies and lives are not going to surrender what they see as their privilege easily.

Last December, Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of the parent company of Fox News, described the monstrous behavior toward women in his company by Roger Ailes and others as “nonsense” and a “bit of flirting.”

The abuses by men who once held great power in our culture industries need to continue to be exposed and widely talked about. Those who abuse women need to be publicly humiliated as Cosby was with his jail sentence and Moonves was with a CBS investigation that stripped him of $120 million in severance. Here’s my take.

Frontline remembers Charlottesville

When “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” a joint production by PBS Frontline and ProPublica, aired in August, it did not make as big a splash as some of the other moments here.

But as I wrote at the time, it was a righteous and powerful example of two news platforms understanding the huge cultural role media plays in shaping national memory.

This fearless documentary reminded millions of the violence and death brought to Charlottesville by white supremacists carrying tiki torches and brandishing clubs and guns in 2017.

Frontline had a great year with other reports about Facebook and the Investigation of President Trump by Robert Mueller. But this investigation of some of the white nationalists who were not punished for their acts in Charlottesville was one of the best moments anywhere on TV in 2018.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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