In a recent speaking engagement, former president Donald Trump told some small falsehoods about how CNN these days is handling “the big lie.”
That’s right, in talking about “the big lie,” Trump spread even more distortions.
- Recently installed CNN Chairman and Chief Executive Chris Licht expressed a “preference” that CNN anchors stop using the term “big lie” when referring to Trump’s efforts to steal the 2020 presidential election, which Joe Biden won in a clean electoral college victory. There is, however, no prohibition on the usage, as Trump claimed.
- By saying that “the big lie” is the “big lie in reverse,” Trump appeared to suggest that his claims of a stolen election have been validated. In fact, no evidence has emerged to support his position after a year and a half.
- Contrary to Trump’s assertion about “great liability,” there is no legal exposure for CNN or other news organizations when they characterize Trump’s efforts to subvert the election results as “the big lie.” Those efforts, after all, were a bundle of falsehoods assembled to overturn U.S. democracy. Truthful information disseminated by the news media about matters of public importance carry the highest legal of protection under the First Amendment.
The only thing remotely accurate about Trump’s remarks was that CNN is making some changes to how it presents the news. Licht, who previously was executive producer of Stephen Colbert’s late-night show on CBS, took over the network reins in May following completion of the merger between Discovery and Warner Media. He has taken steps to curb CNN’s fast-twitch impulses under former president Jeff Zucker, who tried to squeeze every possible second of airtime out of every national controversy to come along.
As Axios puts it, the new leadership team (Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav) wants to curb “partisan programming” in favor of “traditional journalism.” Part of the formula involves more sparing use of “breaking news” banners on the TV screen, the better to avoid tricking viewers into thinking that something dramatic has happened every 15 minutes.
Curtailing recitations of “the big lie” on CNN air makes some sense. For one thing, the term has been traced to Hitler, who wrote that people were more apt to “fall victims to the big lie than the small lie.” One of Hitler’s own big lies argued that the Jews “exposed the loyal and true German population to catastrophic collapse,” as Zachary Jonathan Jacobson wrote in The Post in 2018.
In light of that provenance, perhaps a less loaded term would be more appropriate for a CNN that’s trying to steer right down the middle of the American political divide? As Mediaite reported last week, Licht fielded a question on that matter at a recent meeting. The new CNN boss said he preferred an approach that didn’t sound like Democratic Party “branding,” according to a source. He also said a more precise formulation would be helpful, though he made clear that this wasn’t a fiat. “Trump’s election lie” or “election lies,” he said, would be good alternatives, according to the source.
But neither of those formulations is a suitable replacement. If you’ll recall, Trump lied about the popular vote outcome in the 2016 presidential election, which he won via the electoral college. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump proclaimed on Twitter in November 2016, alleging voter fraud for which there also is zero evidence.
The point being, “Trump election lies” could well apply to 2016 or 2020 — or both. That’s why “the big lie” does so much work: It’s short, elegant and descriptive, encompassing the disinformation campaign surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Maybe that’s why CNN has used the term “big lie” so frequently since the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. It has been mentioned in nearly 3,500 pieces of content, according to Nexis — that is, in televised segments and written pieces on CNN.com. It is sometimes mentioned several times in the same segment. As FoxNews.com’s Joseph A. Wulfsohn and Nikolas Lanum pointed out, CNN anchors continued using “big lie” even after Licht’s preference spilled into the public realm earlier this month.
Good thing! Honesty and clarity demand that they keep it up.
Last November, John Malone — a Discovery board member and mentor to Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive Zaslav — said of the network, “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” That assessment is doubtless linked to CNN’s coverage of the Trump years, which was a flood-the-zone extravaganza that highlighted every baffling suggestion and eructation of the 45th president. The Zuckerian approach did occasionally misfire, with live coverage of Trump rallies, credulous reporting on the Steele dossier, other embarrassments, and a general surfeit of commentary and analysis.
Give it this much, however: The CNN all-hands presentation was premised on the idea that Trump posed a “truth emergency,” a novel threat to American democracy. And know what? He did.