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

Zurawik: Just when you thought Ben Jealous couldn't do worse as a media candidate ...

Ben Jealous was floundering as a media candidate before he used the f-word at a news conference yesterday to respond to a reporter’s question. Now I find myself wondering if it’s about to get even worse.

I have been shaking my head and wondering and writing much of the summer about the pathetic media presence of Ben Jealous since he won the Democratic nomination for Maryland governor. Where was his media effort? Did he even have a media strategy? How long was he going to be asleep at the wheel or totally missing in action as Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign team harshly and skillfully defined him as “too risky” and “too extreme”?

Worse yet, the shadowy imagery in the Hogan ads depicted him as snarling, scowling and angry: someone to be feared. Culturally, that’s low and nasty stuff, but politically that’s the way the game is played. Why didn’t Jealous or his surrogates try to explain what Hogan’s political consultants were attempting to do in those ads and punch back against them?

But radio silence beats creating negative news about yourself, which is what Jealous did yesterday when he used the F-word to respond to a reporter who asked about Hogan labeling him a socialist in a newspaper story last week.

Jealous later apologized to the reporter, Erin Cox, of the Washington Post (and previously of The Sun) — a righteous thing to do. But the damage was done.

For that moment on the campaign trail, Jealous surely looked to some Maryland voters like the guy Team Hogan was depicting him to be in their attack ads. It was a media jackpot for the Republicans as Jealous trended on Twitter all day for all the wrong reasons.

I see a narrative in some of the campaign coverage essentially blaming the poor media effort by Team Jealous at least in part on the Democratic Governors Association. The linchpin here is that the Republican Governors have spent more than a million dollars on Baltimore TV alone for attack ads, while the Democratic organization has not countered against Hogan.

I’m the guy who reported that Baltimore media buy. It was $1.2 million from late July through yesterday. And let me be the first to also predict that another $500,000 will be spent on Baltimore TV by Labor Day.

I lamented that much dark money coming into Baltimore and Maryland. I wrote about it last month. I moderated a panel on it last week at a local theater after the PBS documentary “Dark Money” screened.

But Jealous was dropping the ball and losing the game long before the RGA money started crushing him on TV.

Within hours of Jealous’ primary victory, Team Hogan had that attack ad on Facebook, which ended with the statement “BEN JEALOUS: TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY.”

As I wrote at the time, I understand that the same text can be interpreted many different ways depending on the personal histories of the people watching it. But the red background behind the words TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY screamed “radical” to me. The black background suggested fear and danger.

I was most impressed with how quickly Team Hogan set about trying to frame Jealous for voters. The strategy and timing was reminiscent of the Obama campaign’s effective effort to define Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate hatchet man the moment he won the GOP nomination in 2012.

But the attack ad that appeared the next day was even more impressive in terms of its near-instant turnaround by Hogan’s media team and possibly harmful effects on the opponent.

The core of this video was an interview Jealous did on MSNBC the morning after his victory. It showed him badly messing up free media with hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi as he repeatedly dodged their question about a possible fracture in the Democratic Party as some new candidates appear to be taking it farther to the left.

I have been disappointed with Jealous as a media candidate since the first primary debate. If he is as poor in front of the camera as he sometimes seems, there is still time to get some coaching. If his media team is as dead in the water as it seems, there is still time to find a new team or at least shake up the one he has so that it tries to compete with Hogan’s.

It’s too easy to blame his lack of competitiveness on the pile of money Hogan has and the help the governor is getting from the RGA. Jealous defines himself in part as venture capitalist; he should be able to raise money if labor unions and wealthy Democrats consider him competitive.

Maybe what happened Wednesday will force Jealous and his campaign advisers to look in the mirror and take stock of how pathetic their media effort has been since winning the primary.

Or, hard as it might seem to believe in the wake of his F-word response, maybe he has not yet touched bottom as a media candidate.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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