The Media Today

Howard Schultz merits media skepticism—independently of Trump

January 30, 2019

Howard Schultz is on a tear—and the media is tearing him apart. After announcing over the weekend that he’s mulling a third-party presidential bid as a “centrist independent,” the former CEO of Starbucks has kept an aggressive media schedule, touting himself, in repetitious broadcast interviews, as a viable alternative for voters fed up with the Democratic and Republican parties. As Schultz has toured the studios, the progressive commentariat has screamed back, with one voice, “Don’t do it!”

Coverage of Schultz’s nascent run has been dominated by Democratic fears that he could be a spoiler in 2020, splitting the vote and putting Donald Trump back in the White House. In news coverage, that narrative has been boosted, variously, by Michael Bloomberg, himself no stranger to third-party flirtation, calling vote-splitting “a risk… we can’t afford to run right now”; Schultz’s hiring of an ex-Obama aide who, in 2016, publicly warned against third-party voting in a Sacramento Bee op-ed; and a heckler yelling at Schultz, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole.” On the commentary side, most opinion columnists have echoed that sentiment. “By flirting with such a risk, Schultz is demonstrating a level of megalomaniacal recklessness that is itself disqualifying,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times.

ICYMI: A brutal week for American journalism

It’s not the job of journalists to clear the field for the Democratic Party going into 2020, but it is their job to examine candidates’ policy offerings. On this front, too, Schultz deserves tough interrogation. His early messaging has been short on substance. Beyond vague promises to fix problems everyone knows about, it was hard to spot a serious policy in a USA Today op-ed he published yesterday. The same has been true for his interviews, which rarely go deeper than catchphrases like “silent majority” and “common-sense solutions.” Yesterday, CBS This Morning’s John Dickerson asked Schultz what his “big idea” was. “The big idea is very simple: to unite the country. For us to come together. To do everything we can to realize that the promise of America is for everyone,” Schultz said. “But every politician’s gonna say that,” Dickerson countered, looking exasperated. To the extent Schultz has defined his putative candidacy, he’s made it about what he’s against—for example, prominent Democrats’ proposals to raise taxes.

The reason Schultz merits tougher media scrutiny than most is that, unlike most presidential aspirants, he won’t have to put himself or his ideas through an exhausting, and exhaustive, primary season. However stifling it can be at times, the party selection process often goes hand in hand with probing coverage. Schultz is not a scrappy insurgent struggling outside of the system; the media needs to remind the public that he’s a billionaire with the resources to buy his way past the primaries, and the public profile to earn media attention.

This doesn’t mean over-covering Schultz if he does decide to run—while his campaign could be a significant variable in a close race, it’s unlikely to become a serious movement. So far, however, tough coverage of his intentions has been welcome. “I must be doing something right to garner this much attention and this much interest,” Schultz said on CBS yesterday. Most reporters and commentators would beg to differ.

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Below, more on Howard Schultz’s rocky rollout:

  • Who invited you? The Times’s Lisa Lerer asks whether there’s a viable constituency for Schultz’s economically conservative, socially liberal worldview. “Voters with Mr. Schultz’s profile are basically the equivalent of the Yangtze finless porpoise: They no longer exist in great numbers and are probably going extinct,” Lerer writes.
  • Lessons from Starbucks: Schultz has no political experience, so CNN’s David Goldman dived into his record in business for clues about his views. While “Schultz ran Starbucks like a haven for progressive ideals,” Goldman writes, “he also had several missteps along the way, including confrontations over race relations and gun laws.”
  • Lessons from the UK: In 2012, Starbucks attracted scrutiny in the UK after it emerged that it paid a pittance in corporation tax despite racking up $3 billion in sales over a 14-year period. Last year, Schultz defended his company’s record in the country, saying it is “very hard to make money in the UK.”
  • How Schultz got to maybe: The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reports that Schultz has been planning a campaign for months, commissioning more than six national polls and laying the groundwork for paid advertising.

Other notable stories:

  • The Committee to Protect Journalists is out with a new database tracking Trump’s anti-media tweets since he declared his run for president. So far, he’s posted 1,339 of them, with his targets shifting over time. “During the campaign, Trump frequently called out specific journalists by name or Twitter handle,” CPJ reports. “This trend declined in the months leading up to the election and, since taking office, his focus shifted instead to the media as a whole.”
  • The Times’s Ben Sisario checks in with Jim DeRogatis and Dream Hampton, two journalists whose pioneering reporting on the alleged sex crimes of R. Kelly has caused them to fear for their security. DeRogatis, who has been on the story for nearly 20 years, blames other news outlets for failing to keep up the pressure on Kelly. “Where was everybody else?” he asked Sisario. “I wanted everybody in the world to write about this.”
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick explores how local coverage of the Covington Catholic High School controversy, which spread like wildfire on social media last week, got snagged in the national information war over the incident. “It seemed to escape many viewers that we can’t just go on the internet and pluck out whatever we would like to show,” one Cincinnati TV editor said.
  • The Post’s Erik Wemple analyses MSNBC and CNN’s decision not to cut live to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s surprise White House press briefing on Monday. “There is no contradiction in a news network pushing for White House briefings and then declining to carry them live,” he writes. “Even as CNN and MSNBC were airing other material Monday, their correspondents were in the briefing room seeking answers to their questions. Later on, if real answers actually materialize, they can air the footage.” ICYMI, I tackled the briefing-usefulness debate in yesterday’s newsletter.
  • The FBI wrapped its investigation into the October 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas without establishing a clear motive. Instead, the Nevada Independent’s Jackie Valley reports, the bureau suggested “a complicated set of personality traits and health reasons” may have driven Stephen Paddock to open fire on a country music concert, killing 58 people. Jon Ralston, the Independent’s editor, called it “an infuriating mystery.”
  • Jeff Flake, the Republican former senator for Arizona and strident Trump critic, has joined CBS News as a contributor. Over on CNN, Andrew Gillum, the narrowly defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, made his debut as a political commentator on Cuomo Prime Time.
  • Employees from Empower Texans, a Tea Party–aligned group that looks to replace moderate lawmakers with hardline conservatives, have been granted press credentials in Texas’s state Senate, The Texas Tribune’s Emma Platoff reports. The employees, who work for Empower Texans’ “reporting arm,” “Texas Scorecard,” were deemed ineligible for local House credentials on the basis that they work for an advocacy group.
  • And for CJR, Glenn Kenny recalls his work, in 1998, on a story for Premiere magazine about sexual abuse and harassment at a Hollywood production company. The story, “had a good deal in common with the journalism that inspired #MeToo,” Kenny writes. “But it didn’t have the impact we had hoped it would at the time.”

ICYMI: The digital winter turns apocalyptic

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.