Howard Schultz and the media’s unlearned lesson

A billionaire flirts with a run for president and gets grossly disproportionate free airtime. We all know the punchline. Howard Schultz, the running-but-not-yet-running former CEO of Starbucks, has attracted intense media interest over the past two and a half weeks, sitting for a string of newspaper and broadcast interviews, including a profile on 60 Minutes. Last night, he became the second potential 2020 candidate, after Kamala Harris, to get CNN’s town-hall treatment. In the run-up, prominent media-watchers criticized the network’s decision to offer Schultz such an elevated platform; CNN’s own polls, they pointed out, have Schultz way down. “These decisions can have a big effect on a candidacy,” Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, told The Daily Beast. “But there’s no coherent logic to them.”

As had been the case in his recent interview round, Schultz offered little of substance last night: he repeatedly bashed “far left” and “far right” bogeymen without proposing specific, distinctive solutions of his own. It took 10 minutes of biographical soft soap to get to a policy question at all. When one came, on immigration, Schultz’s answer was clichéd and contradictory—“We should be building bridges and allow people in,” but also securing the border to “not allow bad people in”—yet no request for clarification was made. Much later in proceedings, Poppy Harlow, CNN’s moderator for the night, did start asking for details. When she pushed him, however, Schultz simply sidestepped, and the conversation moved on. “What would you do to fix it?” Harlow asked on veterans’ healthcare. “You have to put the quality people in charge,” Schultz replied.

ICYMI: I was plagiarized by Jill Abramson

Schultz faced tougher scrutiny over his personal finances and record in business. Occasionally, this overlapped with policy: after Schultz admitted he should pay more tax, Harlow pushed, repeatedly, for a percentage figure (she didn’t get one). Otherwise, these questions felt wildly hypothetical. Do we really need to know what President Schultz would do with his Starbucks shares when the odds of that scenario are basically nil? Rich business people merit scrutiny, of course. But scrutiny is weakened when the forum in which it’s administered confers a clear judgment of political legitimacy.

CNN does not deserve praise for grilling Schultz on his wealth when Schultz’s wealth is the only reason he was on CNN. As Vox’s Ezra Klein writes, “in American politics, money is a shortcut to legitimacy.” Shutting out uber-wealthy candidates, or at least waiting a minute until they’ve proven they’re serious, isn’t censorship or bias—it’s the media’s responsibility to conserve a level political playing field, organized around substantive issues of concern to the voting public.

But as political scientist Lee Drutman tells Klein, “the media uses ability to spend money as a proxy for seriousness of campaign. And when the media bestows seriousness on a candidate, the public follows along.” We’re not passive stenographers of candidates’ movements; our coverage choices can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Much ink has been spilled lately on how the media as a whole can do better going into 2020. The fact CNN chose Schultz for its second town hall of the season—ahead of a raft of serious candidates or potential candidates on both sides of the aisle—is yet another bad sign that the requisite lessons have not been learned. Maybe Schultz will find his policy stride, and a serious constituency that embraces it. Until he does, networks should save their airtime for candidates who already reached that point.

At the very least, town halls could be saved for candidates who are actually running. Whenever he was asked a tough, personal question last night, Schultz looked at Harlow with a furrowed brow and protested that he couldn’t say as he wasn’t running yet. “I think we’re getting way premature!” he exclaimed at one point. For once, he had a point.

ICYMI: Photographer behind viral Pelosi photo speaks

Below, more on CNN’s town hall:

  • Gatekeeper disfunction: HuffPost’s Maxwell Strachan rounded up scathing Democratic reaction to Schultz getting a town hall; they compared it to networks’ early treatment of Trump. “When [Trump] announced [he was running] for office, he deserved to be covered and treated like a candidate, but that’s not what built and elevated Donald Trump: It was the coverage before he announced as a candidate,” Zac Petkanas, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, told Strachan. “If the media just exercised its gatekeeper role in a more efficient way, we wouldn’t be having Donald Trump as president.”
  • Dead Ringer: For The Ringer, Justin Charity situates Schultz in the history of third-party presidential bids. “Once upon a time, insurgent campaigns could push candidates in both parties to revise their policies and alter the face of American politics,” Charity writes. “But the former Starbucks CEO’s race toward the middle has revealed how third-party platforms have all but died in the political imagination.”
  • It’s not just Schultz: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch fears the media is already repeating its 2016 mistakes. Exhibit A: the furor over Kirsten Gillibrand’s recent fried chicken faux pas. “The moment was a Grand Metaphor for a candidate who was ‘contrived,’ who changed her stance on the Fried Chicken Question just like she’d changed her position on amnesty for undocumented immigrants,” Bunch writes.


Other notable stories:

  • To mark the anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which took place one year ago tomorrow, The Trace teamed with McClatchy titles, including Parkland’s local Miami Herald, to document every child killed by gun violence in America since then. CJR’s Amanda Darrach checked in with high-school journalists who were picked to write profiles of the nearly 1,200 victims. Also for CJR, Carlett Spike spoke with Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, about his new book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement.
  • After an acrimonious round of layoffs claimed many of their colleagues earlier this month, US-based journalists at BuzzFeed have overwhelmingly voted to unionize, Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith and Janet Paskin report. “We want to remain spry and competitive, but we reject the argument that we must choose between freelancing in a hellscape gig economy for vampirical platforms or submitting to the whims of a corporation that botches basic HR tasks,” the nascent BuzzFeed News Union said.
  • Apple’s plans for a subscription news service have hit a roadblock with publishers over its proposed financial terms, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin, Lukas I. Alpert, and Tripp Mickle report. Apple “would keep about half of the subscription revenue from the service. The rest of the revenue would go into a pool that would be divided among publishers according to the amount of time users spend engaged with their articles.”
  • Medium has purchased The Bold Italic, an online San Francisco culture magazine, to go behind its membership paywall, Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch. TechCrunch has some membership news itself: the site is launching a $15-a-month subscriber package offering exclusive content and offline benefits like conference calls with reporters, Digiday’s Max Willens writes.
  • Fox News is shifting its pitch to advertisers, focusing less on its shouty opinionators and more on news anchors like Martha MacCallum, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace, Variety’s Brian Steinberg reports. The network’s “opinion programs have come under scrutiny from advertisers. Some sponsors have pulled their advertising from Tucker Carlson’s Tucker Carlson Tonight or Laura Ingraham’s The Ingraham Angle after remarks made by the hosts in 2018 and amid subsequent protest from advocacy organizations.”
  • Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes for CJR that a recent US court verdict holding the Syrian government responsible for Marie Colvin’s murder could clear a path to justice for two journalists murdered by ISIS. “Prosecuting the killers of James Foley and Steven Sotloff would be complex,” Simon writes. “But no more so than the prosecution of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, who was convicted yesterday on all charges.”
  • For Wired, Antonio García Martínez writes that American journalism isn’t dying, it’s just returning to its opinionated roots. “If you explained Twitter, the blogosphere, and newsy partisan outlets like Daily Kos or National Review to the Founding Fathers, they’d recognize them instantly,” Martínez writes. “A resurrected [Benjamin] Franklin wouldn’t have a news job inside The Washington Post; he’d have an anonymous Twitter account with a huge following that he’d use to routinely troll political opponents.”
  • Recode’s Kara Swisher interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on the platform yesterday. If you missed it, or had trouble following live, CJR’s Mathew Ingram rounded up their exchange on Galley.
  • And Aaron Miguel Cantú writes for The Baffler that the mainstream press, with its high barriers to entry, is complicit in maintaining white supremacy. “White supremacy in media is a force of interlocking interests invested in sustaining racial hierarchy,” Cantú adds. “Trump’s racist administration hasn’t just been good for places like Fox and Breitbart… but has boosted media profits across the board.”

ICYMI: I was plagiarized by Jill Abramson

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