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

Zurawik: Ben Jealous has some good free-media moments at CNN and OZY

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous has done a couple of strong turns on free-media stages in recent days, and it looks like he might have found a track on which he can consistently look good and run virtually uncontested with no cost to his limited campaign coffers.

Saturday night, he was showcased on CNN’s “The Van Jones Show,” with comedian Dave Chappelle and Jones, both self-described long-time friends of the candidate. And starting Thursday night, he can be seen on OZY and YouTube in a video of a one-hour town hall meeting, “Black Men in Baltimore,” taped Oct. 8 at the War Memorial building.

These are not landmark, game-changing, media moments like candidate Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on the “Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992 or candidate Donald Trump calling into cable TV shows like “Morning Joe,” “New Day” and “Fox & Friends” almost every morning for what were essentially monologues during stretches of his 2016 campaign. But the two appearances by Jealous are positive ones in venues often overlooked by media analysts focusing on 30-and-60-second ad buys on local TV stations — a media landscape dominated by incumbent Larry Hogan and his deep-pocketed PAC friends at the Republican Governors Association.

Jealous got 13 minutes and 28 seconds of screen time in the OZY town hall at which he shared the stage with host Carlos Watson and Tony Campbell, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. That’s not bad at all. But he got almost twice as much — 26 minutes and 22 seconds by my count — on Jones’ show. That’s a lot of time on CNN.

And it was mostly all good.

In welcoming Jealous onstage, Jones did not try to hide his affection.

“I can’t be neutral,” the host said. “I’m not even going to pretend to be neutral. We’ve been friends for 25 years. I’ve known you so long.”

Despite that warm introduction, Jealous was still talking in campaign-trail soundbites and narratives at the start of the conversation, which was not great.

Jones asked him what he’s learned about himself in this campaign, and Jealous wheeled into talking about how he had to “lug” water to his child’s school because parents didn’t think the drinking water is safe. He followed that with a story about how he couldn’t bring a small factory from Canada to Baltimore because of the rising costs of healthcare in the state.

I had heard him tell the story before on TV. And while he connected his “frustrations” to those of “working families” in talking to Jones, it didn’t exactly answer the question as to what he had learned in a way that was personally responsive to the two-friends-talking tone the host tried to establish.

By the way, give Jones credit, he treated Hogan fairly in asking Jealous about his opponent. He acknowledged that Hogan has managed to avoid having the stink of Trump on him as many GOP candidates have not. He also gently challenged Jealous as to why Hogan is so popular.

For his part, Jealous did not bash Hogan; he attacked the governor’s record with more sound bites about falling school ratings and rising crime, which I had also heard in the debates, Facebook videos and ads.

But Chappelle’s arrival of the set thawed Jealous a little more, and between him and Jones they eventually managed to show me someone I had never seen in all the months Jealous has been running. This Jealous smiled easily and naturally— and was far more relaxed than I had ever imagined him capable of being from his other TV appearances.

And better yet, they personalized him without reducing his stature one bit. In fact, they enhanced Jealous’ stature. Chappelle talked about Jealous’ “daunting intellect” and the many years he had worked for “equity.”

While Jones interviewed Jealous, the cameras occasionally pulled back to show a wall of images, most of which featured Jealous against a background of capitol domes and buildings or standing at a podium looking statesman-like. The video wallpaper images all essentially said: “This guy is ready and able to lead politically.”

The friendly, but super-competent leader depicted during that 26 minutes is at total odds with the extreme, snarling figure depicted in Hogan Facebook videos and RGA Super-PAC TV ads all summer.

The question is whether what happened onscreen at CNN Saturday night will start to offset what the barrage of negative RGA ads seems to have accomplished this summer in defining Jealous in the minds of some Maryland voters.

The OZY video, which premieres online at 8 p.m. Thursday on OZY and YouTube, offers a different look at Jealous, but it also is a good one.

The hourlong production kicks off an OZY series titled “Take On America.”

“The aim of the series is to show differences in opinion of perceived homogeneous voter blocs (each episode featuring a town hall composed of 100 members of a given group), to give insight into the varied conversations these minority groups are really having, and to forge solutions and pathways for progress in the lead-up to the midterms and beyond,” according to a publicist’s email

Future episodes will include "White Women in Nashville," "Latino Families in NYC" and "Millennials in San Francisco,” the email added.

The format features Watson as host with short video clips identifying issues and setting up a conversation to follow among Watson and two experts. Usually the conversation is framed in the form of a question. The conversation is then thrown open to the room.

The segment in which Jealous appeared was framed by the question: “Are Black Americans better off under Trump?” By the time the conversation got to schools, Jealous, Campbell and multiple men in the room were all talking over each other in loud and animated voices.

Campbell tried to link Jealous to former Baltimore mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and what he characterized as “five decades” of failed Democratic leadership in the city. But Jealous was having none of it. And, among all the cross talk, when he seized on the name of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the issue of charter schools, Jealous all but blew Campbell off the stage.

This wasn’t a friendly Jealous, but it was an impressive and powerful one in what felt like a very democratic conversation.

I wish we had seen more of this Jealous on our screens this summer. If we had, the polls might not be so one-sided today.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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