Tuesday night, CNN is scheduled to provide an enormous platform to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in the form of one of the network’s signature town halls. It will be the second CNN town hall of the 2020 presidential cycle, and the first given to a billionaire who has yet to formally say whether he even wants to run for president.
To Zac Petkanas, a former senior aide to Hillary Clinton, the whole thing feels like “déjà vu.”
“We have the media rushing to confer legitimacy onto a billionaire candidate,” Petkanas told HuffPost. “It just shows that certain elements of the media have learned absolutely nothing from their role in elevating a Donald Trump.”
As it stands now, Schultz is remarkably unpopular. Since telling “60 Minutes” last month that he was “seriously” considering running for president “as a centrist independent,” he has been heckled in bookstores, ridiculed online and criticized for weighing a presidential campaign that early polling shows would improve Trump’s re-election odds. According to CNN’s own polling, Schultz ranks last in favorability when compared to 10 potential Democratic candidates. But media outlets around the country can’t get enough ― and have continued to attentively cover his cross-country listening tour, where he is also promoting his new book.
That in itself doesn’t bother Petkanas.
“I don’t think anyone is saying that he’s not deserving of coverage,” Petkanas said. “The question is, why is he being given this sort of platform that is typically reserved for candidates when he’s not an announced candidate?”
Petkanas isn’t alone in feeling that way. Soledad O’Brien publicly lambasted her former network’s decision when it was announced last week. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight called it “dubious.” Privately, many Democratic operatives and staffers agree. One staffer for a Democratic presidential hopeful called the decision “dumb & disappointing.”
“I know I won’t be watching,” another said.
Others who spoke to HuffPost went further.
“The Schultz rollout has been an epic train wreck from a messaging and execution standpoint, and that has to be part of the appeal to the show’s producers,” said a Democratic adviser to one of the 2020 candidates. “If 2016 showed us anything, it’s that the camera follows controversy.”
“As someone who was on Hillary’s campaign in 2016, it really feels like major media didn’t learn their lesson,” a different senior 2020 campaign staffer said. “Just because someone says something loud doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to them.”
Last month, CNN hosted its first town hall of the 2020 presidential cycle. In the hot seat was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who had announced her run for president days before. The show proved to be a ratings success ― “the most watched cable news single candidate election town hall ever,” according to a CNN press release ― and many Democrats are rankled that the next one has gone to Schultz.
“It’s odd that they are giving a stage to someone who is not even an announced candidate yet, before they’ve given a stage to all of the top-tier Democratic candidates in a Democratic primary,” said one Democratic strategist.
The Daily Beast reported Monday that at least three Democrats who have officially announced their candidacy for president have not received formal invitations to participate in a CNN town hall ― South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).
“Once again,” the strategist said, “you’re going to see a presidential race that is going to be treated as entertainment.”
CNN did not respond to a request for comment, but the network has reached out to at least one new Democratic candidate for a town hall since the Schultz town hall was announced last week, a source said. Additionally, CNN announced Monday that it will host a town hall with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) next week.
Even so, it’s hard for Petkanas and others working within the Democratic Party not to wonder whether the same media dynamics that propelled Trump’s candidacy in 2016 have kicked into high gear once more. By the time Trump announced he was running for president almost four years ago, he had already been gifted years of free news coverage, which he used to push Obama-focused conspiracy theories and inflate his own brand.
“When he 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,” Petkanas said. “It was the coverage before he announced as a candidate.”
“If the media just exercised its gatekeeper role in a more efficient way, we wouldn’t be having Donald Trump as president right now,” he added. “And I’m concerned that they’re making the same mistake with Howard Schultz.”