David Zurawik

Sick of media filled with ugly political fighting? Guess what, it's going to get worse

Last Sunday night, all I wanted from TV was a little escape, a bit of emotional rescue from another week of political gut-fighting in the media and a horrible act of violence against members of the media in Annapolis.

Season 5 of the British crime drama “Endeavour” on PBS Masterpiece seemed tailor made to take me away. The prequel to one of my favorite all-time Brit dramas, “Inspector Morse,” it features top-flight acting and is set in leafy Oxford in the 1960s, long ago and far enough away, I reckoned, from an America today that seems to be mainlining meanness in the age of Trump.


But less than 10 minutes in, along came a scene featuring two police officials talking about a home filled with recently arrived immigrants that was set on fire, killing the occupants.

The investigating detective said he thought the arsonists were extreme right-wing locals, “afraid of losing to foreigners … whipping up ill feeling.”


Nodding in agreement, his supervisor agreed: “These ‘Make Britain Greater’ types. They put a leaflet through my door only the other day, ‘Would you let your daughter marry a darkie?’ ”

Historically, the phrase “Make Britain Great Again” was used in a 1950 speech by Margaret Thatcher, according to The Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, so the reference is historically plausible. And it was certainly used during the Brexit debate.

But all I heard Sunday night as I watched were echoes of the rancor fueled by President Donald J. Trump in using immigrants as a political tool, and I turned the TV off and went to bed. No escaping the pain in front of this screen, I thought. The poison has already penetrated too deeply into our popular culture.

But that moment crystallized a feeling I had been having the last two weeks that there will be no escaping the pain in front of almost any screen between now and November. The latest onslaught has already started.

We have been living for 18 months in a media world where Trump’s mercurial tweets drive the morning shows on network and cable news channels, while White House press briefings and the president’s more divisive acts during the day wind up dominating the evening news, prime-time cable and monologues by all the late-night hosts. Sunup to sundown and beyond to bedtime, Trump, Trump, Trump.

But now on top of that, we are thrown full bore into a cage fight to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. And that battle is going to be played out in the media, not just through cable and network news coverage and debate, but especially in ads. It is no small irony that Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 landmark Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending by corporations, unions and other deep-pocketed special interests.

Within a day of Kennedy’s announcement, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group that spent $17 million in the fight to fill the last open seat on the court, according to Slate, released a Facebook ad praising Trump for having picked what it described as a “a fair and independent justice” in Neil Gorsuch. The ad went on to attack Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker as "extremists [who] will lie and attack the nominee.”

The pitch: "But don't be fooled. President Trump's list includes the best of the best. ... And with your help, America will get another star on the Supreme Court.”


I saw the ad, which Politico describes as part of a million-dollar media buy, Sunday morning on CNN, so it is now off and rolling on national TV.

Demand Justice, a liberal group, meanwhile, has been running Facebook videos opposing Trump’s Supreme Court actions. It is said to be buying TV time in states of senators who might be willing to oppose Trump’s pick, such as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. The group is also organizing a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court Monday night after Trump announces his selection.

And that Supreme Court media battle arrives on the eve of what is sure to be a tidal wave of advertising in connection with an epic midterm election for seats in the House and Senate.

Any Marylander thinking we’re going to escape a media deluge the next few months because we live in a non-battleground state better think again. I believe the race for governor between Republican incumbent Larry Hogan and Democrat Ben Jealous is going to be culture-wars nasty and played out all over the screen with attacks and counterattacks.

On primary night, I couldn’t miss the portentous edge in the voice of a top political aide who told me, “You’ll have plenty of ads to write about between now and November.”

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


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 is ominous. Fear and danger.

In a tactical sense, I was impressed with how quickly Team Hogan set about trying to frame their opponent for voters. The video is titled “Introducing Ben Jealous.” The strategy and timing is 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.

I was even more impressed with a web video that appeared the next day, which was not pre-made and ready to go should Jealous win the primary, as the first one appeared to be. The core of this video was an interview Jealous did with MSNBC on the morning after his victory.

After congratulating Jealous, hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi asked him: “Already in the last 14 hours you’re seeing Republicans sort of jump on your win and a similar win we saw in New York and say, ‘The Democratic Party is cracking.’ … What do you say to that?”

When Jealous dodged their question, they twice interrupted his talking points with Ruhle finally saying, “You’re not answering our questions, Ben.”

At that point, he stopped and started, looking as if he was unwilling or unable to directly address issues about conflict within the Democratic Party on leadership.


Jealous did recover to some extent from that point on, but, of course, that’s not in the Hogan web video that ends with “BEN JEALOUS: TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY.”

Not that Jealous is playing any nicer. His paid media campaign hasn’t kicked off yet, but you can see where it’s going.

On election night, Jealous came out swinging in trying to link Hogan to Trump.

“Larry Hogan, you aided and abetted Donald Trump when you invited Education Secretary Betsy DeVos into our state,” he said in his victory speech. “You aided and abetted Trump when you were silent as he appointed Scott Pruitt, who before he was secretary of the EPA, made it clear he would destroy the Chesapeake Bay restoration plan.”

There were more charges of aiding an abetting, but what I thought most noteworthy was his choice of such language formally used for someone who encourages and helps with the commission of a crime.

Both sides went for instantly aggressive and inflammatory. But I predict it is mere prelude to how down and dirty this media war will get by November. All the issues of the day that divide us are going to be on the table before it’s over: Trump, race, crime, immigration, education, the environment, you name it.


Both sides have access to major money, thanks in part to Citizens United, which means they can fill the airwaves with their attacks, charges and counter-claims.

What’s going on now with Facebook and YouTube is a process of test marketing images, words and strategies to see what works best with visitors to the sites and focus groups. The TV blitzes will be fashioned in part out of the feedback to these social-media, video ads.

And you can forget about waiting for the traditional launch of Labor Day for the TV campaigns to begin.

When I asked one of the general managers of a network affiliate in Baltimore how soon the ads could be expected, he surprised me by suggesting Hogan and Jealous might be launching TV ads during Ravens exhibition games.

Not during a Ravens game!

Why not? If you want to reach a big Baltimore audience, where better to go? You might have to pay more, but if you have $9 million to spend as Hogan does, that’s not such a concern, is it?


The first exhibition game is Aug. 2 against the Bears, less than a month away.

Brit crime drama or NFL football, there is no escaping the ugly, political fighting of today.