Policy, identity, and a lot of Harvard at CNN’s town-hall marathon

Since January 28, when CNN hosted its first town-hall broadcast of the 2020 primary season, with Kamala Harris, the format has become a fixture on the network. Last night, the network braved a new frontier, hosting five candidates—Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Harris, and Pete Buttigieg—back to back to back in a five-hour broadcast from St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. In the run-up, CNN’s Alex Marquardt billed it as the “first major event of the 2020 presidential campaign.” It was certainly an event of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Devising the format and schedule for a campaign-season debate or candidate broadcast is a tricky task at the best times. A range of questions pose themselves: Who gets to host? Who gets to ask questions, and what do they get to ask? Which candidate gets their turn when? Last night, CNN lined up more female candidates than male, but viewers still raised questions as to why the moderators—Chris Cuomo (x2), Anderson Cooper (x2), and Don Lemon—were all men. The composition of the audience, too, struck some observers as problematic: more than half the audience questions came from Harvard students. The town halls were focused on young people’s issues and hosted in conjunction with Harvard’s Institute of Politics, but Harvard’s dominance nonetheless felt elitist. Vox called it “an on-the-nose example of power and social status buying political access.” Shane Goldmacher, a reporter at The New York Times, wondered why, in five hours of TV, CNN couldn’t have organized a couple questions from young people at community colleges, or who went straight into the workforce.

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Nor was it immediately clear how these five candidates, specifically, were selected and then scheduled. All five have had high media profiles since they launched their respective campaigns, but it’s not as if they’re all clear frontrunners: Klobuchar, for instance, is currently polling lower than Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. Still, should she have been excluded? Last night’s town halls were not a debate, but they did make up the first high-profile, multi-candidate event to be staged this primary season. Should the line-ups for such events be decided by polls? If polls are a bad guide at this stage, then what other measures might work better? How should CNN and likeminded networks draw the line?

Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, told Politico’s Morning Media team that appearance logistics are more art than science—often, they reflect the schedules of whoever agrees to appear. (CJR’s request for comment, sent to two CNN representatives last night, had not been returned by time of writing.) But a town-hall slot can have a measurable impact on a candidate’s campaign. After Buttigieg appeared in early March, his campaign saw spikes in donations, media attention, and even Google search trends. Vox listed it as a “breakout” moment behind the recent “Buttigieg boom.” Lis Smith, a communications adviser to the campaign, called it “an absolute gamechanger.”

These logistical and scheduling choices all matter immensely. Ultimately, however, none is as important as the caliber of questions candidates face. Town halls are a rare opportunity to nail politicians down to policy specifics—the format, after all, puts them in an undiluted spotlight for an hour. Last night, we saw a decent amount of policy talk. Each of the candidates was asked about student debt as well as climate change and the Green New Deal. Most were asked about healthcare and voting rights for prisoners; there were questions, too, about the decriminalization of sex work, the legalization of marijuana, and entitlements. Cooper asked Buttigieg, who has drawn criticism for his relative lack of detail, when we could expect to see some specifics. (Buttigieg replied that his website was being updated, but added: “I also think it’s important that we not drown people in minutiae before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies.” Cooper pushed back.)

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Otherwise, questions about the candidates’ respective identities abounded. Some of these were entirely legitimate, but others felt like stereotyping. Audience members asked Harris and Klobuchar about the gender pay gap; unless I missed something, Sanders and Buttigieg did not field audience questions on that topic, but were both asked about trade. The worst questions of the night were reserved for Warren. Was she concerned about getting “Hillary-ed,” one voter asked. “Are you afraid [Trump] can caricature you?” asked another. Given the sexist and (from Trump) racist attacks Warren has faced, the questions were probably posed in good faith. But the act of asking boxed Warren with unwarranted stereotypes.

As Politico puts it, town-hall mania is a thing because “everyone—from the networks to the campaigns to the Democratic party—likes them.” Candidates get free airtime; CNN gets good ratings. At its best, the format serves a useful purpose. But CNN—and other networks who try to copy them—should be careful to ensure that candidates are competing on a level playing field, and that the worst of instincts of campaign coverage doesn’t continue to creep in. And next time, fewer Ivy League students, please.

Below, more on town halls:

  • The Hunger Games town hall: Ahead of last night’s marathon, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber assessed the ramifications of CNN’s format: “It may be that the town halls find a new way to call the culture’s bluff. While the town halls are ostensibly realizations of voters’ hunger for more substantive conversations with candidates, they can also double as showcases for the opposite: sound bites. Gaffes. Memes. Viral moments. The fireworks of the presidential debates, without presidents or debates.”
  • The litmus test: Another question every candidate was asked last night: should Trump be impeached? Warren—who already called for proceedings to begin—and Harris said yes; others demurred. The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey writes that “removing Trump is the new question to answer or dodge in the 2020 field.”
  • The Schultz booking: In February, CNN made Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO who’s been flirting with running as an independent, its second town-hall invitee of the 2020 season. That decision attracted considerable skepticism, given Schultz’s transparent lack of policy detail and strong public support. For CJR, I wrote that the Schultz booking was a sign that the lessons of 2016 had not yet been learned.


Other notable stories:

  • The death toll from coordinated Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka has now risen above 300. With social media platforms still blocked by the government—ostensibly to stem the flow of misinformation—journalists and commentators have continued to weigh the appropriateness of the move. (I recapped some of that debate in yesterday’s newsletter.) “There is overwhelming evidence that social media blackouts are not an effective solution to the spread of fabricated information in Sri Lanka,” BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan writes. Shutdowns, she reports, hamper people’s efforts to get in touch with loved ones; extremist groups, meanwhile, can circumvent them using VPNs.
  • The New IRA has admitted responsibility for the murder of Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist who was killed during rioting in Northern Ireland last week. In a statement to The Irish News, the paramilitary group offered its “full and sincere apologies” and said a gunman had been aiming at “enemy” police when he shot and killed McKee. McKee’s funeral will be held in Belfast tomorrow.
  • Luminary, a subscription-based, ad-free podcast service, launches today. The startup boasts big names such as Trevor Noah, Lena Dunham, and Leon Neyfakh—but big shows, like The New York Times’s Daily and Gimlet’s Reply All, are being withheld from Luminary’s app. Podcast rivals “are setting Luminary up to fail—or at least struggle to get off on the right foot with users,” Ashley Carman writes for The Verge. “It certainly seems like the first shot fired in the inevitable premium podcast war and could destabilize one of the first buzzy, well-funded entrants before it can make a dent in the industry. The decisions that happen now will reshape the way podcasts are distributed in the future.”
  • Last month, Chelsea Manning was jailed for contempt of court after she refused to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Yesterday, a federal appeals court rejected Manning’s appeal against that ruling. According to Politico’s Josh Gerstein, prosecutors seem to think Manning’s testimony would bolster their case against Julian Assange, who faces extradition from the UK—where he was recently expelled from Ecuador’s embassy—to the US on charges that he aided Manning’s efforts to crack a password.
  • For CJR, Michael Shaw assesses a series of photographs that show the “visual power” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Increasingly, the visual story of Ocasio-Cortez is coalescing around her commitment to becoming a skilled and effective legislator,” Shaw writes. “With almost each new scene that is published, you get the sense that her passion for legislating, for her district, and for all the wonky business of serving in Congress is, for Ocasio-Cortez, the real thing.”
  • The White House has again set a record for its longest spell without holding a formal press briefing: according to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, today marks 43 days since Sarah Huckabee Sanders last addressed reporters from the briefing room. Since the Mueller report came out, Sanders has come under renewed scrutiny—she admitted to investigators that she lied, and has since been accused of lying about why she lied, and of lying about a reporter who said Sanders should be fired for lying.
  • According to The Moscow Times, Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant, threatened to have Reuters banned from Russia after the news agency reported that the government of Venezuela has been channelling oil sales through Rosneft to avoid US sanctions.
  • And high-school journalists in Lexington, Kentucky, were turned away from an “open press event” featuring Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, because they didn’t RSVP to an invitation they never received. Shut out from the event, the students flayed DeVos in an editorial instead: “How odd is it that even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away?” The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.