Three years after Donald Trump stampeded through the presidential primary on a wave of free media, Democrats still harbor fear that the news industry, and CNN in particular, hasn’t learned its lessons.
That criticism grew more pronounced last week after CNN announced it would hold a town hall with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Schultz, unlike several elected Democratic officials, is undecided about running for president, has little evident support in public polls, and is attempting to promote his current book. But he has been awarded a platform that many actually announced candidates have yet to be given, leaving Democrats with the impression that a candidate’s celebrity is, once again, being prioritized over other campaign elements, including grassroots energy or small-dollar support.
“CNN is free to make their own editorial decisions in 2020, just as they made the editorial decision in 2016 to spend hours broadcasting Donald Trump’s empty podium,” an adviser to a 2020 candidate quipped, requesting to speak candidly on background to The Daily Beast.
CNN did not return a request for comment. The network has hosted a town hall with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). And, aware of the criticism it has gotten in the past, sources say it is likely to extend additional invitations and formally announce more town halls in the future. CNN higher-ups have made it clear that they don’t mind turning their airwaves over to the candidates for these types of interviews.
So far, Democratic operatives are largely keeping their frustrations private, with the tacit understanding that they may want to retain a working relationship and that they too could get offers to do a town hall down the road.
But some Democratic candidates —mainly the lesser known ones—are already feeling neglected. In the past week, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential exploratory committee reached out to CNN seeking information about a town hall of their own, though an invite has not yet been extended, The Daily Beast has learned. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro’s campaign has not been invited to hold one but a senior adviser for the campaign said they were encouraged by CNN’s efforts to give “declared presidential candidates a chance to talk directly to voters.” The two men have recently done interviews with CNN hosts on other programs.
The campaigns for Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and John Delaney (D-MD) have not received invitations, spokespeople told The Daily Beast. And at least one other Democratic presidential campaign sent a critical email to CNN after the Schultz announcement, according to a source directly familiar with the exchange. Underscoring the sensitivity of these exchanges, the campaign declined to be identified or to show The Daily Beast the email correspondence.
The role CNN is set to play in the 2020 election is different from its cable competitors. Democratic candidates have been reluctant to appear on Fox News because of its conservative leanings but they’ve flocked to MSNBC, which has become a must-stop for White House aspirants eager to reach a progressive audience. CNN, by contrast, has positioned itself as more of a neutral arbiter in the primary. And because of that, its editorial decisions tend to be more scrutinized.
But they aren’t the only network facing criticism. Many Democrats and media observers believe Trump has continued to take advantage of the willingness of all networks to hand over free airtime to him, which he uses to make false statements that are not fact-checked in real time. In January, for instance, the networks debated whether or not to give Trump a primetime slot to deliver an Oval Office address about the government shutdown. Ultimately, every major broadcast network and cable news channel chose to air the speech, even though it was largely a reprisal of past addresses.
Some prominent media critics share the fears of a 2016 repeat, in which cable networks, CNN included, turned their airwaves over to often-uncritical and unending coverage of the Donald Trump spectacle only to help facilitate his rise to the GOP nomination and presidency. New York University professor Jay Rosen, who has argued that political journalism does not appropriately reflect the information voters need to make informed voting choices, said the town hall with Schultz is just another example of how political journalists and television producers remain driven by ratings and the desire to chase shiny objects.
“There is no vision,” Rosen said.
“People in the political system are asking themselves ‘What is the logic of these decisions?’ Because these decisions can have a big effect on a candidacy. And they're trying to understand them in some rational way, because these decisions are a mix of things. But there's no coherent logic to them.”