CNN Boss Eschews ‘Big Lie’ Branding

The new honcho at the original 24 hour news network wants to be more subtle and less alarmest.

MEDIAite (“Scoop: New CNN Boss Chris Licht Wants Staff to Stop Calling Trump’s Election Claims ‘The Big Lie’“)

New CNN president Chris Licht discouraged staff from using “the big lie” to refer to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, Mediaite has learned.

On a Tuesday conference call with management and show executive producers, Licht was asked for his thoughts on “the big lie,” and said he preferred that staff avoid the term. He made clear this was a preference, not a mandate, but staffers have taken it as a clear directive from the new boss.

He encouraged producers to instead use the terms “Trump election lie” or “election lies” in banners and graphics.

According to a source, Licht argued that using “the big lie” makes the mistake of adopting branding used by the Democratic Party, thereby weakening the objectivity of the network.

The term, which was first coined by Adolf Hitler and later used to describe Nazi propaganda efforts, was recently adopted by critics of Trump in response to his relentless promotion of the false claim he won the 2020 election.

The term has become ubiquitous on CNN. “Big lie” has been mentioned on the network 168 times this month, according to media monitoring service TVEyes.

The guidance, which comes as a House select committee holds hearings investigating Trump’s election lies and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol they inspired, has rankled some at the network.

“It’s worrisome that we’re being told how to talk about one of the worst things that ever happened to American democracy,” a CNN insider told Mediaite. “We have to call lies, lies, whether they’re small lies or big lies. Is there any lie bigger than that lie?”

They speculated that the directive could be coming from Warner Bros. Discovery board member John Malone, who has criticized CNN’s approach to news under former boss Zucker.

“It seems to indicate where things are headed,” they added. “We didn’t have this problem until John Malone was sitting on the board of this company.”

A veteran television producer with a resume that includes a well-regarded stint with MSNBC’s Morning Joe and most recently at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Licht was tapped to take the helm at CNN after the ouster of Jeff Zucker during the tumultuous months before the merger of CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia with Discovery.

Licht’s “big lie” guidance came a few weeks after he told CNN staff to cut back on their use of the (long-abused) “breaking news” banner, signaling the Licht era would take a more subtle approach to coverage.

“Its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht wrote in a memo urging staff to be more judicious in declaring “breaking” news. “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.”

Licht is exactly right here. To the extent CNN wishes to brand itself as serious, fairminded news network in contrast with my infotainment-oriented, partisan rivals, being scrupulous on these things is important.

The hyping as “breaking news” stories that are either of negligible import or not particularly “breaking” has been a longstanding joke. I understand the incentives to grab viewer attention but it’s simply unserious.

As to “the Big Lie,” note that Licht isn’t saying the network shouldn’t identify it s a falsehood. Indeed, his preferred alternatives all contain the word “lie.” He’s simply saying that “the Big Lie” is terminology pushed by the Democratic Party and CNN shouldn’t adopt it. The fact that it deliberately links Trump to Adolf Hitler is also a red flag.

Note that I’ve long been using “the Big Lie” here at OTB. But this is an opinion-focused site and I find that terminology a succinct way to communicate a point of view. One presumes Licht’s suggestion applies only to the straight news side of the house and its headline writers, chyron writers, and the like and not to the numerous Democratic operatives it has on staff to express their opinions.

I would extend Licht’s advice to pretty much all of these branding efforts. When news outlets refer to, to take one recent and widespread example, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law by that terminology, they’re acting as surrogates for Democrats and pro-LGBTQ activists. Yes, it’s a catchy and efficient shorthand. But it’s propaganda, not news.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. KM says:

    Branding does matter and centrist/moderate doesn’t mean “sensible middle of the road and thus correct ideology”. It means taking the side of the status quo and that inevitable favors conservative thought….. which in this case is the damn problem.

    By explicitly rejecting a term that the GOP has declared “alarmist” and associated with liberals (even if some conservatives are using it), Licht’s advice is to accept GOP framing and do what they want. Using a variation of the term to be “less offensive” and “more serious” demands an answer of who exactly is making that determination and who it’s supposed to appease. Since when do criminals get to pick the terminology that applies to their crime? Why is “Trump election lie” serious and not “Big Lie” when it’s not just Trump lying about it and it’s expanded far beyond it’s original boundaries to the point it’s being applied to GOP primary losses? The whole point is it refers to the conspiracy QAnon and the GOP themselves believe but uses a term they associate with Dems – it’s accurate in referring to what it is rather then the generic “Trump lie” which honestly could be anything at this point.

    The “breaking news” bit I agree with. That gets abused by everybody for clicks and eyeballs.

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  2. Mu Yixiao says:

    Agreed.

    Writing headlines is difficult (I’ve written enough of them), and the temptation to use pithy catch phrases and shorthand is significant. But it’s also almost always biased–which is something that journalists and editors should strive to avoid.

    I cringe every time I go to CNN.com to read a story (which is very rarely). It’s a blank page when I have my ad-blockers and script blockers running, and a hot mess of in-your-face banners and video when I look at it without them. I just can’t take the site seriously when it’s screaming at me like a check-out line tabloid.

    Hopefully this new guidance will rein that in a bit and make them more readable and respectable.

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  3. KM says:

    @KM:
    To my point: GOP commission refuses to certify New Mexico primary vote. The Board is citing discredited Dominion voting machine conspiracy theories and one of them is a 1/6er that was actually convicted. How does CNN refer to this, hmmm? “Trump lies” isn’t really true since Trump himself has nothing to do with this, only the fallout from his temper tantrum. “Election lies” might suit but misses the overall concern and connection between the GOP efforts to suppress votes and the QAnon insanity that Trump promoted spilling over to the county level. It might make it sound like this is an isolated incident, not connected to a broader problem they are causing and harbinger of what’s to come.

    “Big Lie” however, shows the connection between the original source of contention, the paranoia and madness it created in true believers and how it’s infiltrating down to the most basic level of government we have. It gets to the heart of the contention – that conservatives can’t lose to liberals *ever* legitimately, especially if they’re associated with MAGA or Trump. It refers to the whole shebang and thus makes it easy for a listener to grasp the nuances rather then have the writer or speaker waste time making the already established connections. Biased wording? Perhaps but more accurate and concise then the newly preferred options.

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  4. drj says:

    So if Democrats describe something accurately, a news network can’t repeat it?

    How aren’t Trump’s claims about massive, coordinated election fraud not part of a Big Lie? (In the sense of being colossal, made for political gain, and the justification for a whole bunch of associated lies.)

    If (hopefully not “when”) US democracy ends in any menaingful way, it will be to a large extent because of people like you, James.

    I am specifically referring to people who somehow can’t bear to acknowledge the reality of what is happening and therefore take refuge in platitudes about objectivity and neutrality. How does looking away help?

    Remember when Trump was “just blowing off steam” (your words) after his election loss and we shouldn’t get too concerned because it was all pretty harmless?

    I do.

    You were wrong then and you are wrong now – both factually and morally.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Oh dear. I think that news media generally are to much into entertainment at the expense of news. I look at FOX “News” online most mornings and observe that there’s no news there, the stories tend to be trivia selected to attack Dems. Then I look at WAPO and you know what, there’s damn little news there either. Not so much attacking Rs, although reality tends to push them that way, but a very low ratio of information to entertainment. My peeve this morning is a long article on public reaction to the 1/6 hearings quoting a long list of seemingly random voters, but without a shred of data. So I’d be happier with a “Just the facts, Ma’am.” attitude from the press generally. Just write up who, what, when, where without burnishing your brand.

    On the other hand A) “Big lie” is hardly D messaging the way, say “Democrat Party” was Kochtopus funded, focus group tested, GOP messaging. If it harks back to Hitler, Goebbels actually, because it looks so much like what Nazis did, how is that not fair? And B) I fear it’s a sign CNN is looking to FOX as a model of success. You’ll argue Licht wants CNN to be seen as serious and fair minded. “We report, you decide.”?

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  6. Kathy says:

    Yeah, and you can’t call the trend of price increases inflation, because that corresponds to Republican terminology.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    Oh dear. I do feel that the news media are generally too much into entertainment. I look at the FOX website in the morning and I see little news. They generally lead with trivia selected to feed anger and resentment against Dems. And any real news is carefully spun the same way. It’s never “Biden did this”, it’s “GOP criticizes Biden for doing this”. Then I look at WAPO and you know what? There’s damn little news there either. It’s not selected to attack GOPs, although reality pushes them that way. But there’s a very low ratio of information to entertainment. My peeve this morning is a long story on reaction to the 1/6 hearings. Quotes from a long list of apparently random voters, without a shred of data. I’d like to see more who, what, when, where and a deal less reporter brand burnishing.

    But. A) “Big lie” is hardly D messaging the same way, say, “Democrat Party” was Koch funded, focus group tested, GOP messaging. I agree that it seems to hearken back to Hitler. Well, Goebbels early. But that’s because what they are doing really is what Nazis did. And B), I fear this means CNN is looking at FOX as a model of success. But, you say, Licht just wants CNN “to brand itself as serious, fairminded news network”. FOX used to say, “We report. You decide.”

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    Apologies for the duplicate @gVOR08: , which, James, you may remove. I posted it, noticed a typo. I refreshed hoping to get Edit and my 9:46 comment was gone. I left the post and re-entered. I left the site and re-entered. And my comment was still gone. I refreshed here and there and it was still gone. So I wrote it again. Apparently it took Kathy’s comment to get my first one back.

  9. Scott F. says:

    With what we’ve been learning from the Select Committee investigating January 6th, a call for news reporting to be less alarmist strikes me as wholly inappropriate. Americans are insufficiently alarmed about the dire straits our democracy is in.

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  10. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    That’s happened to me twice in the past few days.

  11. KM says:

    @Kathy:
    Or pro-life since that’s clearly a propaganda choice. They’re anti-Roe at best, pro-birth against carrier’s will at worst. Serious impartial reporting would reflect the fact that they are against a medical choice staying between patient and doctor and that their religious beliefs should be enforced by the government in defiance of 1A. Pro-life is propaganda to make them sound good, not reflect the accuracy of the action or non-bias true journalism must strive for.

    Odd how the terms Suggest Not To Be Said are ones the GOP doesn’t like, hmm? It’s almost like when liberals managed to get a piece of messaging that works or resonates, it needs to be shot down as “woke” – whoops, can’t use those now as that’s a GOP slur! Must be serious so….. “term other party finds too liberal?” “Term that makes people uncomfortable?”

    Licht been pretty clear he thinks CNN is too liberal and wants to bring it in line with his belief set. Masking it as a return to serious journalism misses the point that he is trying to pull the network rightwards while acting like he’s re-centering it. Wanna get rid of constant crisis mode? Fine – we don’t need forever breaking news. However it’s obvious he’s trying to change what he thinks is extremist language and behavior….. and it’s not, it’s just not-conservative bubble friendly.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve observed over the years that in some circles, particularly country club types and business people, saying someone is an asshat is a huge faux pas, but being an asshat is acceptable. The new owners of CNN are likely country club businessmen. Using a Nazi style Big Lie is OK. Saying someone is using a Nazi style Big Lie is beyond the pale.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @drj:

    So if Democrats describe something accurately, a news network can’t repeat it?

    I think that the news network can do that–provided that said network, and you, don’t object to it being thought of as a house organ. Large numbers of voters stay largely uninvolved in political questions until elections–the once every four year kind, not those pesky yearly ones–are about to happen. A smaller number of that large number are politically malleable and provide the margin that elects whichever septuagenarian or octogenarian that the segment of the population that votes elects to office. An even smaller number will react to CNN by saying “I don’t want to hear the Democratic Party line; I’ll go to the guys who say they are fair and balanced and only report–letting ME decide.”

    Granted, that segment are all idiots, but they may be the margin that makes the difference between electing an orange-colored guy or a human-colored one. I don’t expect my observations to change your mind. I’m writing this for the lurkers.

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  14. Moosebreath says:

    @KM:

    “Serious impartial reporting would reflect the fact that they are against a medical choice staying between patient and doctor and that their religious beliefs should be enforced by the government in defiance of 1A. ”

    Serious impartial reporting would also note that the overlap between the group of people who proclaim themselves to be pro-life and the group of people who are violently opposed to any gun control legislation whatsoever is nearly total. As is the overlap with people who have been doing everything in their power to maximize the spread of a disease which has killed over 1 million Americans in the past 2+ years.

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  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    I kind of get how they might not want to pick sides. And yet, their side has been picked for them.

    We all know what Trump would like to do with media outlets and reporters that don’t spout the party line. We know what that rhetoric is, and it’s inimical to a free press. This is part and parcel of the exact deception that’s going on.

    CNN’s side was picked for them. We say “democracy is under threat”, and they say, “opinions differ?”

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  16. Chris says:

    After WWII we had some serious leaders in our newsrooms who had the guts and clear sightedness to tell the profiteers and political hacks to steer clear of their operations. That world has been demolished by those who sought to get rubberneckers to eyeball their sensationalist content, which was then packaged as “news”. CNN may be on the right path here, but it may seemingly be a hard path to traverse when the other guys are playing to human frailties in order to accumulate money and power.

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  17. Scott F. says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    CNN’s side was picked for them. We say “democracy is under threat”, and they say, “opinions differ?”

    This!

    Jonathan Last at The Bulwark has been ruminating recently on “how the nature of the two parties’ coalitions leaves them with different levels of vulnerability to both candidate quality and perceptions of “overreach” and “radicalism.” JVL’s asking basically why “Defund Police” will attach to the entire Democratic Party when the term is used by some activists and vocal young congresspersons, while the party’s official position and policies are not that at all. While at the same time, the Republican governor of Florida (and rising star of the GOP) can push actual policy to forcefully remove children from the homes of parents who expose their own kids to drag performers of which he he doesn’t approve and there’s no detrimental implications to the Republican Party at all from that radicalism.

    Attempts at “neutrality” when the playing field of ideas is so asymmetrical isn’t just misguided, it’s dangerous.

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  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Large numbers of voters stay largely uninvolved in political questions until elections–the once every four year kind, not those pesky yearly ones–are about to happen.

    Which is another point against Licht’s concern that the Big Lie is a Hitler reference. How many viewers even know Big Lie was a Nazi thing eighty years ago?

  19. gVOR08 says:

    Karl Rove thought GOPs had to guarantee SS or expand Medicare or something to attain a Permanent Republican Majority. He didn’t realize they could simply buy it, as they’re doing. As they attain the PRM we’ll find that there are a lot of quislings in media.

  20. Gustopher says:

    Perhaps he just assumes that there will be so many big lies coming from Republicans in the next few years that he wants to prepare. Like when the World War became World War I.

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  21. Raoul says:

    Due do the constant use of the the term “the big lie” by the media, the terminology communicates exactly a given event. Such is the nature of semantic evolution and CNN’s new edict is like closing the barn doors. That said, I have never being enamored with the term since it is loud and indefinite. I would prefer something like Trump’s continued electoral prevarications.

  22. Mister Bluster says:

    The Big Lie was a 1951 anti-communist propaganda film produced by the US Army.
    It aimed to portray the Soviet Union as an aggressive totalitarian empire much like the recently-defeated Nazi Germany, and indeed begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler: “The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one”.

  23. KM says:

    The fact that it deliberately links Trump to Adolf Hitler is also a red flag.

    Um @James? You might wanna reconsider that statement. Mark Burns is actively calling for genocide against gays, trans, liberals and people he doesn’t like and he just won 2nd place in his primary. He got 11,183 votes (23.8%), which is more then 3rd and 4th place combined. He’s pro-Big Lie and claimed antifa did 1/6 to make them look bad. He’s never stopped pushing Big Lie nonsense. This man is also associating liberals with Hitler (cuZ Hitler=bad!!!), claiming we’re the one doing all the indoctrination while he’s laying a “legal” Final Solution for the US.

    He took 2nd. Not dead last, not almost zero votes, not behind in disgrace – 2nd with ease. And he’s not the only one pushing this kind of thought as MTG recently stated that white nationalism they were cheated out of would have stopped all school shootings. Maybe, just maybe pointing out the Big Lie is very similar to Nazi-esque behaviors and tactics isn’t as far off or “alarmist” as people are comfortable accepting…..

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  24. James Joyner says:

    @KM: As noted in the OP, I find the terminology useful. But you’re using it in a way that means, roughly, “Anything any Republican says that I dislike.” The some random Black preacher who garnered some votes in a primary for a congressional seat doesn’t really have anything to do with the Big Lie.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: I think that’s a side issue to compared to it being a Democratic Party (please note that I used the correct name) thing now. YMMV.