In the Democratic Primary, the media hits are the message

(Critic’s Notebook): You can’t miss the peak of Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Texas Senate campaign in HBO’s “Running with Beto.” Maybe you’ve already seen it, on your phone or in a Facebook post: O’Rourke responding passionately to a question about NFL players taking a knee to protest racism and police brutality.

In the Democratic Primary, the media hits are the message

When the former congressman begins his answer, our vantage point is in the room with him. But then the film’s perspective pulls back to the frame where it mattered most — the screens of social media apps, where the video racked up views and praise, visualized here in likes and adulatory tweets that flutter onto the screen like a hosanna of rose petals, leading in turn to a slew of TV bookings.

That election was barely half a year ago, but the elegiac, fly-on-the-wall film, airing Tuesday, already feels like a document of another era. Since his much-covered near miss in November, O’Rourke has joined the teeming race for the White House, his storyline being rewritten from Great Resistance Hope to vision-questing presidential Pippin, climbing on countertops to search for his corner of the sky.

But “Running with Beto” — a special about a social-media-driven campaign, coproduced by the Dem-friendly polititainment empire Crooked Media — is also an example of the very of-the-moment challenge of running for office in the Trump era. To pitch yourself as a president, you must first prove yourself as a show.

Whether they appear on premium cable or Fox News, Instagram or “The View,” the umpteen Democratic candidates have two challenges. One is to figure out what entices news producers to show their clips and what lures voters scrolling their phones to hit play.

The second, related to the first, is to implicitly argue how they, in a general election, would seize attention from a president who can re-scramble the day’s news lineup by tweeting a mean nickname before breakfast.

All of this — and the sheer number of candidates vying for attention — has meant new importance for media venues beyond the Sunday morning shows. Going to the dentist on Instagram is the new eating corn dogs in Iowa. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced her candidacy on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” where Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., teased her own announcement (and returned again Wednesday night).

Getting airtime has been key to winning elections for decades. But in 2019, as the Democrats each argue they’re the ones who can cancel a TV star president’s 24-hour reality show, there’s also a meta aspect to each appearance: You do media in part to prove that you can use media well enough to win.

That subtext became text in a Fox News town hall in New Hampshire with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg on May 19. In a general election against President Donald Trump, the anchor Chris Wallace asked, “How would you handle the insults and the attacks and the tweets?”

“The tweets are — I don’t care,” Buttigieg said, to one of his biggest rounds of applause. But the media-ubiquitous candidate, who’s written about the importance of “narrative” in campaigns, added: “I think that we need to make sure that we’re changing the channel from this show that he’s created.”

For Buttigieg, that meant getting the president to pre-empt himself. On Twitter and at a rally, Trump groused at Fox for giving airtime at all to Buttigieg and other potential opponents — saying out loud the quiet part of American media and politics, that the channel’s mission is to root, root, root for the Republican home team.

“To Fox or not to Fox?” has become a fraught question for Democrats. Besides Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have done town halls on the network, whether to reach otherwise unreachable voters or to gain the aura of having crossed enemy lines and survived.

On the other hand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — who began her political career on the strength of scrappy viral-video speeches — made a point of rejecting a Fox News town hall, calling the network “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to conspiracists and racists.”

You could say that turning down Fox (just like agreeing to do Fox) is a way of courting and signaling to specific voter groups. (Warren has certainly been active in creating her own media, releasing videos with congressional media star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on subjects from the bankruptcy of Sears to the “Game of Thrones” finale.)

But it’s also an example of how, in the 2020 race, candidates increasingly need to have not just media strategies but theories of the media: a position on how the media have shaped the political climate and a demonstration of how you plan to respond to it.

In any case, there are no shortage of town halls to go around. CNN has hosted nearly every leading Democrat along with not-so-leading ones. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., will have a CNN town hall. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., will have a CNN town hall. You will probably have a CNN town hall. (I’d check your spam folder in case you missed the invite.)

The ubiquity of the town halls, like the plenitude of the candidates, seems to reflect a sense, post-Trump, post–Ocasio-Cortez, that, given a few minutes of attention and a spark of opportunity, who knows who might break out?

You may have noticed one name I haven’t mentioned yet. Former Vice President Joe Biden has not lacked for TV coverage, but he’s let the cameras chase him more than vice versa.

In the rare exception, his April visit to “The View,” he seemed off-balance and uneasy taking questions about his treatment of Anita Hill in Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. An online video he posted, addressing women’s complaints of inappropriate touching — “I get it” — seemed less an effort to reflect on the controversy than to get it over with.

Biden’s approach may be the strategy of a front-runner looking to avoid unforced errors. But it’s also on-brand in a way: Even as he appeals to supporters’ affection for a pre-Trump era, he also seems to be campaigning in an earlier era, one in which candidates — and the president — weren’t pinging you through your phone every 15 minutes.

Most of the field seems to operate on the assumption that they need to show they can keep Trump from hogging the camera as he did in 2016. There’s evidence for that. The candidates who win presidential elections in the TV era (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Trump) tend to be the ones who make themselves the lead character of that ongoing serial.

It’s one more divide in the early stages of this campaign. One theory of the case says you beat Donald Trump by offering people a different story, creating a more compelling program. Another says that you win by simply offering to turn the set off for a while, and give them some peace and quiet.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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