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

2020 candidates search for kind of magic media mix that got Trump elected

Beto O’Rourke live streams a trip to the dentist on Instagram complete with a suction tube in his mouth as he opens by saying, “So, I’m here at the dentist.” Then a few weeks later, he announces he’s thinking of running for president in 2020 — in a more traditional format, an interview with Oprah.

Elizabeth Warren announces her exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve with an online video apparently in hopes of getting such a strong head start on fundraising that it will scare off other candidates. The video features her standing in a kitchen talking about her working-class roots and social-class inequities. It hasn’t seemed to scare anyone off.

Kamala Harris, meanwhile, goes old-school with a rally to launch her campaign. But she makes sure she has Oakland City Hall appropriately draped in American flags as a red-white-and-blue backdrop for the press photographs, live TV coverage and videos of the event that will saturate media in coming days — especially social media, where they seem to multiply exponentially.

See how they run in 2019 in hopes of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee for the 2020 election.

Much has been made of the diversity of the early candidates for the Democratic nomination. And that is definitely a story that needs to be further reported, explored and even celebrated as moving us closer to a richer and more inclusive vision of leadership in American life.

And there will be more in coming days with Sen. Amy Klobuchar expected to announce this weekend in her home state of Minnesota, as Warren also made it official while campaigning in Iowa. The Massachusetts senator will be sharing that campaign turf a full year before the caucuses begin with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who announced Feb. 1 with a video and news conference in his hometown of Newark.

The field now includes: two black candidates in Booker and Harris; four women with Harris, Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; a Latino in Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama; and a gay candidate, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.

That’s already historic. But, for a media critic, the story that speaks to me in these early days of the campaign is the way that all of the candidates are searching for a magic mix of media that will help distinguish them from the rest of the pack in the same way that Donald Trump used a hybrid of cable TV and Twitter to lap a large GOP field of candidates.

It is almost as if getting media right has now become as important as — or, maybe, more important than — than having the message nailed before launching a presidential campaign.

Media has often played an important role in presidential politics dating back to 18th-century pamphlets and newspapers. For the sake of this column, let’s stick to TV and start with the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon and the first national TV debate.

By 1968, TV’s role had greatly expanded, as chronicled in “The Selling of the President 1968,” a best-seller by Joe McGinniss about the manipulation of TV to help get Richard Nixon elected. One of the operatives involved in that manipulation was a young Roger Ailes, who would go on to found Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s money in 1996.

Ailes was again involved in the 1984 campaign for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, a former actor groomed for media manipulation by his years working on sound stages in the Hollywood film industry.

The campaign’s “Morning in America” theme sounded in TV ads is legendary for its sunny, warm, reassuring, retro vision of an America that could once again feel as safe and secure as the world portrayed in 1950s TV sitcoms.

The message being sold on TV in 1984 was that America could find its way back with Reagan to a friendlier, safer America. But in reality, that America only existed in TV sitcoms from the era, not the real world. It was an early sounding and selling of the fake “make America great again” promise.

Bill Clinton moved TV campaigning beyond Sunday morning public affairs shows to late-night TV in 1992, and Barack Obama brought it firmly into the digital age in 2008 with a strong social media strategy few appreciated during the campaign.

But it was Trump’s 2016 media effort that was watershed in its effect on the relationship between media and political campaigning. For all the change over the last half-century of campaigning, the one constant was TV advertising. If you didn’t have the big bucks to buys lots of it, you were mainly out of luck, my friend.

Trump had the money, but he didn’t have to spend much of it on expensive TV ads. That’s the new promised land for politicians when it comes to media today: finding the mix of new media that will get you elected without spending a fortune on TV advertising. The effectiveness in social media of younger politicians like O’Rourke and first-year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is generating legions of politician-believers on the left and right.

That’s one of the major factors for what we are seeing now with so many Democratic candidates.

But there is no secret media sauce that will transform a candidate from also-ran to star.

Yes, Trump’s media effort was landmark. As I wrote during the 2016 campaign, in a revolutionary time of media transition, he had found a sweet spot between old (cable TV) and new (Twitter) media and rode it to victory. But that success was not the result of there being some inherent power in either medium or the mix. His success was in the mix not only being perfect for the media moment of 2016 but also perfectly suited to who he was as candidate.

Trump could run his mouth for hours going off in wild directions even he didn’t seem to anticipate. Like a stream-of-consciousness improv comic, some of what he said could be transgressive by TV standards. That was catnip to cable TV programmers and viewers. “What will he say next?” And what was the big deal about giving him 20 minutes to riff like a jazz musician when there 24 hours of air time every day?

And despite his age, he had the perfect attitude and voice for Twitter: rude, angry, insulting, demeaning and attack-dog nasty. He was a one-man, bloodthirsty Twitter mob on his opponents.

The hybrid was perfectly matched with his temperament and manner of engaging life.

But it didn’t work for everyone.

On a local level, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh seemed to be trying to channel Trump when she took to Twitter at the start of 2018 urging citizens to change the narrative on Baltimore while trying to blame the media for city’s image woes.

As I wrote at the time, what she mainly got on Twitter is some of the harsh blowback that the medium specializes in. Meanwhile, media folk like me pushed back hard, too, at her bogus claim.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, on the other hand, had considerable success on Facebook during his 2018 campaign, or maybe I should say his campaign team had considerable success in using Facebook effectively as a kind of low-cost test market for messages and ads later aired extensively on TV. He didn’t escape spending money on ads to the extent Trump did. In fact, he spent buckets of it. But he found as much success on social media as any politician his age anywhere.

There are some media takeaways already from what’s happening in the Democratic race.

No one has launched better than Harris. And her success serves as reminder that old is not necessarily worse than new.

There are few platforms older than the campaign rally when it comes to politics. But, like Trump, she and her team seemed to understand its power as theater. You dress the set as she did with the flags at Oakland City Hall, you get the extras out, as she did with a reported 20,000 at the rally, and you bring some passion to your message. It’s as old as the Medieval morality play and as current as the Super Bowl halftime show. Political rallies are media, too. And the videos of them are perfectly suited to the on-demand demands of audiences today.

And Harris immediately followed with a winning prime-time town hall on CNN. From the moment she walked onto the stage to join host Jake Tapper, she projected an image of strength, smarts and confidence. Not every politician can do that. I remember former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan seeming to shrink and almost slither onscreen in a CNN town hall as questioners in the audience challenged him.

The takeaway here: Cable TV is going to be a huge force in this race — maybe the most important single media force despite the digital age in which we now live. I hope outlets like CNN and MSNBC will use that power responsibly in terms of deciding who gets town halls and who doesn’t. I hope they will honor a sense of public service and think of their audiences as citizens as well as consumers. I am not exactly encouraged by the town hall scheduled for Tuesday night on CNN with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who says he is considering a presidential run as an “independent centrist.” We already have one rich guy to loathe — in the White House.

The least successful launch was that of Warren. And things got worse for her this week with a report in The Washington Post that she did claim Native American identity at least once in 1986.

Maybe she will do better than her New Year’s Eve video in making her candidacy official. But as much as I admire her intelligence and longtime battle against Wall Street and the crueler excesses of capitalism, I wouldn’t want to be her media adviser at this volatile and transitional time in media history.

I don’t think she works that well in social media, for one thing. For the moment, I would definitely argue against any live streams of visits to the dentist.

Then again, not even Beto can pull that one off.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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