Jessell | Confronting The Big Lie, Television Broadcasters Can Do More

It’s time to stop fueling President Trump’s lie that the election was rigged, and broadcast needs to play an important role in doing so. The NAB must cut off support to the lie’s congressional enablers, talk radio must sever ties with hosts fueling the lie and TV stations need unequivocal language to characterize it for what it is.

I was done with Trump in 2015 when he smeared Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and portrayed Muslins as enemies of the state by suggesting thousands had celebrated 9/11 in the streets of Jersey City, right across the Hudson from the towers.

Many, many more lies would follow over the next four-and-a-half years, but the biggest one of all came after Nov. 3 when he began making the baseless claim that the Democrats had rigged the voting and stolen the election.

On cue, Trump’s Big Lie was immediately picked up by his enablers in Congress and in state houses across the country and further amplified by his tens of millions of followers on social media, by conservative TV and radio talk show hosts and bogus news outlets like Newsmax and One America News Network.

The Big Lie, as all demagogues know, is irresistible to some people, especially when they hear all the media confirm it (Nazi Germany) or when they can cherry pick from a wide variety of media so all they get is confirmation (today’s America).

This particular Big Lie cuts to the very core of our democracy. If the people don’t trust election results, there can be no peaceful transition and violence becomes inevitable. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and oath to the Constitution,” said House Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

We all saw what happened on Jan. 6 when Trump repeated the lie and turned a political rally into boisterous protest and then an ugly and violent mob that trashed the Capitol and caused five deaths, including that of a Capitol Police officer.


Broadcasters have been doing their jobs, bringing us the sights and sounds of the rioting and reporting on the fallout, sometimes at personal risk.

But they can do more.

First, the NAB and individual broadcasters should follow the lead of some other trade groups and corporations and cut off support for the 147 Republican lawmakers who failed to certify Biden’s election just hours after the Capitol was sacked — no campaign contributions.

Let it be known that it will be no thank you to their endless invitations to breakfasts, luncheons and receptions that are no more than fundraisers until they publicly and unequivocally accept the fact that Biden won the election of 2020 and is the legitimate president.

Frankly, the NAB should have begun tossing the invitations of Trump’s more feverish backers on the Hill after he called the broadcast networks the “enemy of the people” as part of his nonstop assault on traditional media.

Yes, such a move would be bad politics. Every so often, legislation affecting the broadcasting business does move, and when it does, every vote counts. The contributions guarantee access to the lawmakers.  However, NAB may take some comfort in that the newly-Democratic FCC may look more favorably on an industry that doesn’t tolerate the undermining of a Democratic president.

NAB would be in good company. The list of those refusing to supply oxygen to the Trump lie include AT&T, Marriott, Dow, Airbnb and Morgan Stanley. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also threatening to cut off the deniers. “There are some members who by their actions will have forfeited the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” policy chief Neil Bradley told the AP.

Second, social media has caught most of the backlash for spreading election disinformation, and they have responded by trying to scrub their platforms of it, starting with Twitter’s ban of Trump himself.

But conservative talk radio has been equally culpable. Many of the colorful legion of hosts — but certainly not all — have been beating the drum of fraud as loudly as they can ever since Trump started squawking about it.

It’s got to stop. I applaud Cumulus for stepping up and, in no uncertain terms, clamping down on the fraud talk within its ranks. Cumulus is the parent of Westwood One, whose stable of talent includes Trump mouthpieces Mark Levin and Dan Bongino.

“We need to help induce national calm now,” Brian Philips, EVP of content for Cumulus, said in a memo to employees, first reported by Jerry Del Collianno’s Inside Music Media.

[The company] “will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended. The election has been resolved and there are no alternate acceptable paths…. If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately.”

I now await — as I know others do — a similar pronouncement from the other big distributors, iHeart Communications Premiere Networks (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck) and Salem Media Networks.

And I encourage every station owner to think again about who they are putting on the air. They are personally and morally responsible for every utterance. If they are OK with those who give credence to the Big Lie, they need do nothing. But if they aren’t, they must insist it stop or pull the plug.

In our digital-centric media age, it’s hard for some to believe that AM and FM hosts are still highly influential. But they are. “Talk radio may face an aging audience, a decline in ad revenue and competition from new mass media forms like podcasts,” said Paul Matzko in a New York Times op-ed, “but there are still millions of Americans whose politics are shaped by what they listen to on talk radio all day, every day.” (Matzko is author of The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.)

There is something TV stations can do, too. Every news director, producer, anchor and reporter must go to the dictionary and learn all the synonyms for “unsubstantiated.” Here are a few: groundless, unfounded, baseless and unproven. And every time the charges of election fraud come up in connection with a news story, they should be sure to plug in one of the words.

As so: “An armed mob of Trump faithful surrounded the state house today, shouting baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.”

If you are concerned that if you use adjectives you are taking sides, don’t be. You are simply affirming a well-established fact — Biden won the election fair and square.

Jessell: Click To Tweet

In the immediate wake of the attack on the Capitol, I thought that it would be a catharsis and that Trump supporters would see that things have gone too far. But, no. His popular support seems just as it was on Jan. 5 and, if anything, strengthened. The second impeachment and other renewed attacks on Trump, especially by some on the GOP leadership, has only served to further anger and energize his movement.

Fearing more unrest at Biden’s inauguration, law enforcement has turned the Capitol into a fortress.

All the more reason for the broadcasting industry to punish Trump’s congressional sycophants and opportunists, discipline radio voices that spread the Big Lie and double down on the truth at every opportunity.

Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted here. You can read earlier columns here.

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tvn-member-6053120 says:

January 18, 2021 at 10:18 am

Well said Harry..Raising the same concerns, I sent this note to industry colleagues and both of my State Senators on Jan 7, 2021:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
I do not intend to take any side of the political aisle in this email. It is primarily focused on the subject matter in the opinion article I pasted below regarding the cable and broadcast television networks’ culpability at this moment in history.

Working for major television broadcast networks for the majority of my career, my colleagues and I followed the strict FCC and corporate rules and restrictions regarding the content we produced and broadcasted. These rules were designed to ‘protect’ American viewers from personal or radical opinions, dis-information, conspiracy theories, and of course nudity and foul language. If you recall, networks were required to put up on the screen “Editorial Opinion” if any one of our commentators were sharing their personal opinions and they were limited to no more than 1 minute of time.

Throughout the 1980’s Cable TV channels grew exponentially, under the radar and without the same regulations of the FCC, (remember the Fairness Doctrine) allowing well financed media moguls to launch so called ‘cable news’ programming channels with the ‘freedom’ to produce and distribute programming regardless of whether their news stories and reporting were factual or based solely on personal opinions.

Over the past several years, it’s sad to see how the FCC and so many of our over-ambitious congressional leaders have allowed the broadcast industry to erode and succumb to what has become, a tragedy in real-time, well beyond “freedom of the press” or “free speech”..One could ague what several news outlets continue to broadcast is treasonous.

Much of the blame began (and continues) with the unregulated Digital and Social Media platforms, but the more powerful distributors and broadcasters are as complicit in allowing lies and anti-democratic conspiracy theories to feed the vulnerable and in many cases, racist, radical white supremacy groups throughout our country. Despite not being a surprise to anyone, what took place on January 6th, 2021 was clearly a result of years of cult-manufactured fear of the changing demographics throughout our country, with Georgia’s recent run-off election a clear and obvious example. Although the opinion below is focused on the distribution companies responsibilities, I strongly believe it starts with the networks and content producers who provide those distributors with the unregulated rhetoric.

Something must be done to ensure that our media broadcasters are held accountable for the damage they have caused over the past decade, the hatred and discrimination they have resurrected, all while ignoring facts and truth. If nothing is done to stop them, what we all witnessed on January 6th, is only the beginning of many more attempts to come to overthrow our democracy. Hitler’s failed attempted coup in 1923 in Munich didn’t stop him or the Nazi party. Despite being convicted of high treason, he served less than a year in prison and 8 years later he took over Germany.
Analysis: TV providers should not escape scrutiny for distributing disinformation
(CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

“Fox and Newsmax, both delivered to my home by your company, are complicit,” NJ state Assemblyman Paul Moriarty texted a Comcast executive on Thursday. “What are you going to do???”
“You feed this garbage, lies and all,” Moriarty added to the executive, according to a screen grab of the texts he provided me. Moriarty was referring to the fact that Comcast’s cable brand, Xfinity, provides a platform to right-wing cable networks that have for weeks been disseminating disinformation about the November election results to audiences of millions.
Moriarty has a point. We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News?
Somehow, these companies have escaped scrutiny and entirely dodged this conversation. That should not be the case anymore. After Wednesday’s incident of domestic terrorism on Capitol Hill, it is time TV carriers face questions for lending their platforms to dishonest companies that profit off of disinformation and conspiracy theories. After all, it was the very lies that Fox, Newsmax, and OAN spread that helped prime President Trump’s supporters into not believing the truth: that he lost an honest and fair election.
Yes, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin and others are responsible for the lies they peddle to their audiences. But the TV companies that beam them into millions of homes around the country also bear some responsibility. And yet we rarely, if ever, talk about them.
Are there any rules?
Tech companies have community guidelines governing the content posted on their platforms. Do cable carriers? If so, what are they? Surely, these companies — many of which boast about their social and civic responsibilities — have limits to the content they disseminate. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine they’d carry a fringe and conspiratorial network like InfoWars.
So why do AT&T (which I should note is CNN’s parent company), CenturyLink, and Verizon carry OAN? Why do AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish carry Newsmax? And why do they all carry Fox — which is, frankly, at times just as irresponsible and dangerous with its platform as its smaller competitor networks?
Dodging questions
I asked all of these companies for comment on Thursday. I asked them if they have any guidelines governing the content that they carry on their platforms. I asked them if they have any regret over carrying right-wing channels that were in many ways partly responsible for what took place in our nation’s capital this week.
Only CenturyLink provided a comment, saying it was committed to providing “a variety of broadcast channels covering thousands of topics” and that as a company it does not “endorse specific media or outlets.” CenturyLink didn’t respond to a follow up email, but at least it responded in some way. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish did not. They chose to simply ignore the questions.
At least Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others have acknowledged they have some responsibility for the content they host and they have very clearly posted community guidelines on their websites for all to see. Why do we expect any less of TV companies?

[email protected] says:

January 18, 2021 at 10:22 am

Really good column, Harry. I wish journalism would have confronted the Big Lie before the Big Insurrection.

It’s true. Where WAS the NAB? And where were the journalists who were asking that question, forcefully?

And Harry, I’d say radio is perfect for right wing hate mongers. It’s for a sliver of a crowd. It’s like the Gangsters Hideout. And it’s crazy enough that it’s talk mongers get press for saying stupid, seditious stuff. Good for Cumulus cooling those hosts down, but umm, didn’t they notice most of them busted the “You’ve Gone Way Too Far-o-meter” long, long ago? Is the lesson that it takes a president and a political party threatening free elections, a crowd of goons threatening legislators, and a public thoroughly confused about everything?

Where are the networks? People are confused. In prime time the networks could/should really lay out the real case. “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is what QAnon believes in…..” And “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is all the evidence the Trump people have about the election being stolen….” The most millions of people still watch network TV. Maybe the revolution won’t be televised but who would have thought that it was because it’s been crowded out by “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune”?

SurlyBoy says:

January 18, 2021 at 11:36 am

Nicely done. I will pass this along as well.

AIMTV says:

January 18, 2021 at 11:44 am

Could not agree more. I’m starting to see a disturbing trend of some local broadcasters “taking political sides” and throwing off all pretense of being objective (ala Fox News Channel in the early 2000s). For years, local TV news has been the most trusted source of news as national news has slid more and more into untrusted territory (even broadcast network news). If local tv stations begin broadcasting political ideology and echoing propaganda, be it from the left or the right, I’m afraid we are toast. We must be the last line of defense in defending objective, truth-telling news. The pursuit of truth is the noblest profession I know. Many journalists across the world sacrifice freedom, their livelihood and their very lives to tell the truth and speak truth to power. How sad that in the United States, the beacon of democracy and free speech (without inciting violence – or yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre) some would abuse this privilege by spinning lies, half-truths and misleading the American people all in the name of making a buck while dividing our country.

hummingbird says:

January 18, 2021 at 12:28 pm

Most excellent column, Harry.

Kathy Haley says:

January 18, 2021 at 12:50 pm

As usual, terrific commentary, Harry. MVPDs should be labeling info-tainment such as OAN, NewsMax, Fox primetime, Fox & Friends, Fox Business News primetime with labels that go farther than those Twitter used to alert users to “disputed facts” in the tweets of Trump and his cronies. The labels should not equivocate. They should state that the statements have been “proven to be false in part or in whole. I wonder also if local TV stations, which enjoy a higher level of trust than other electronic media, could serve an important role by hosting virtual Town Halls in which socially distanced local officials and constituents convene for a moderated conversation about what happened to our political conversation and also how to discern fact from opinion and fact from falsehood in any kind of media. It could make compelling television and do a great deal to advance the conversation.

tvn-member-3011604 says:

January 18, 2021 at 2:50 pm

Looks like the Greek Chorus is all here. As a dissenting view, I couldn’t agree less. What you’re suggesting is a curtailment of the First Amendment and replacing it with a one-party approved narrative being passed off as news. In other words, the Chinese model of the press. The founding fathers wanted a marketplace of diverse and dissenting viewpoints and would have been horrified by the censorship you and others in the media/social media are demanding. As for the election, there were enough anomalies and inconsistencies during the process to call into question the legitimacy of the results and prompt an investigation. Simply squashing that debate isn’t going to stop many of the public from wondering what happened or doubting the honesty of the American electoral process going forward. (Fortunately, the press and Democrats can’t stop freedom of thought). Suppressing debate may, in fact, cause further unrest as doubters see their concerns ridiculed and dismissed. Plus there has been enough proven lying by the Democrats, especially Biden, Pelosi and Kamala “fweedom” Harris and the Democrat-led media (most notably the major networks) to question anything they brand as truth. Frankly, we should all be glad there is a Fox News and Newsmax providing an alternative to the one-party, highly manicured narrative. I highly doubt Fox WH correspondent Peter Doocy will be throwing puffball questions at Biden and members of his administration. He hasn’t so far. And that’s as it should be.

weneedhelpnow says:

January 18, 2021 at 6:26 pm

You all are living in a broadcast bubble and have no idea what Americans are thinking..Really sad

[email protected] says:

January 19, 2021 at 1:07 am

What happened in DC on Jan 6 was very wrong which was sore losers and sour grapes take the L to admit defeat it was shameful and disgusting as well. I don’t believe in the fairness Doctrine no need for it to return which would be a form of censorship as well. I strongly disagree with Kathy VMVP’s shouldn’t label content on Fox News, NewsMax which is low budget and I doubt those that watch anything on those news networks don’t want labels on them, why didn’t you call out CNN or MSNBC out Kathy you like those news channels since you didn’t name them. News Nation & Newsy is pretty good for news as they don’t have pundits giving their opinion and letting the viewers decide if they agree or disagree. I don’t believe in censorship which is wrong on all levels.

Hopeyoumakeit says:

January 19, 2021 at 12:31 pm

to member 3011,
you are the poster child of what happens when networks who have no interest in reporting facts are allowed to mis- identify themselves as “News programming”. The 2nd Amendment does not protect lying for profit. You referenced election anomalies ? Trump lost 60 election fraud lawsuits across multiple states. A number of those cases were argued in front of judges trump appointed. ( I wonder if Fox News ever reported that little tidbit ? Of course they did not). So saying that there is enough evidence to warrant a n investigation is a myth. Where were you during Bush V Gore, when there was enough evidence to question the results in Florida. ? You know, evidence like: Gore actually won Florida.?
Re-instate the FAIRNESS DOCTRINE before it is too late.

[email protected] says:

January 19, 2021 at 7:18 pm

HopeYouMakeIt Gore didn’t win the 2000 election he lost 537 votes in FL and Bush won and became president your rewriting history. Fox News did in fact report that Trump lost in court 60 times so your claim is wrong about Fox News not reporting it you’ll never admit that you’re wrong. The Fairness Doctrine isn’t needed and doesn’t need to be re-stated either since it is a form of censorship you don’t even know what the Fairness Doctrine is or was HopeYouMakeIt since it is outdated in the 1980s why Reagan got rid of it, that ship has sailed and I don’t see the Fairness Doctrine coming back if it did it would go to the court and they would decide it.

You support the outdated cross-ownership between newspapers and TV station that they can’t own both in the same market. Glad that the supreme court will finally toss those rules out as it’s outdated even both sides agree on it but Dems don’t want to ever admit it out loud and keep defending that useless outdated law.

Rexjeep says:

January 20, 2021 at 1:26 pm

I appreciate Harry raising this issue. The Big Lie goes well beyond Trump. With a consolidated media into the hands of a few and primarily based on two coast there is plenty of big lies being laid on the public. I just listen to a CBS reporter after the inauguration comment about Joe Biden on the campaign trail. Say what? He barely campaigned at all. Why embellish his lack of campaigning? While its trivial and I don’t really care I do find it as another example of how the media slants the truth at the least and outright misinforms at the worst. The capital siege as bad as it was, has been reported by the six media companies as unprecedented. This is not the case and not factual. There have been shootings in the capital before. Cuban insurgents ring a bell? If Biden was about unification why does he bait the reported 74 million people who did not vote for him. Why does the media promote AOC tracking down republicans to punish them. Why does the media keep driving racism. Why do they not report on the back grounds of the the people resisting arrest and getting them selves injured that set off the riots. (“peaceful protest”) A common man can see through the media slant and plainly see the Emperor has no clothes.

If Biden called off all this Impeachment talk he could unify the opposing view. He could reach out and put all that behind us. Living in the heart land is difficult when the Media from NY demeans rural Americans, the same ones that supply all they eat, wear, and transport. It’s clear they don’t see rural Americans as equals. I long for a unbiased media from all sides. Unless you or blind, you can see that our freedoms and rights of free speech are being taken away.

So we all need to step up and offer up facts, not opinions, and not interpret events with a lens that jumps to conclusion and presupposes the causes without the benefit of FBI investigation. Why was the message “go to the Capital and peacefully protest”. get reported as an “incitement to assault the capital”. Why not give the benefit of the doubt and just report exactly what was said. It’s this type of reporting that has put people on edge. The media underestimates the viewer and their ability to see past the bias. All this does is diminish the
craft of reporting the news. Let’s get serious about telling the truth. And above all don’t let politicians bait us into becoming so mad that we can’t be professional. We all know how good Trump is at drawing us in. Reporter after reporter got drawn in. Let your anger be visible on TV that means Trump beat you.

Finally I will say late night host on CBS, NBC, ABC, have become the most prolific in inciting decent. The things they say about people, positioning themselves as all knowing just alienated the audience. My TV career like yours transcends more than 40 years, and as its been said “Words Matter”. I always want to appeal to both sides of the aisle. I want everyone to be my viewer so my goal is don’t be offensive or bias about the public we serve.

Rexjeep says:

January 20, 2021 at 1:45 pm

“Where are the networks? People are confused. In prime time the networks could/should really lay out the real case. “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is what QAnon believes in…..” And “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is all the evidence the Trump people have about the election being stolen.

The above quote from Paul is priceless. Had the Media taken the list of claims and debunked them this would have died out. But instead they just said It didn’t happen.
Here are few of the claims. More votes than voters? Foreign intervention? Not connected or connected to internet?, Why were Poll watcher locked out? Who are these people from Italy claiming to have tapped in. There are facts out there to settle all these claims in a logical way. But refusing to even review them gave fuel to there is something hidden. Also the courts did not rule because they did not have jurisdiction. Not because the case had no merit. The state legislatures have the jurisdiction at least as I understood it. So half the country believes the big lie is with the other half. As media people we can address these things. But our anger has licensed us to just say it never happened. If we are honest there are some questions unanswered.
And by not doing the Job we have set up our new President to be considered by some to not be legit. Don’t we all need to be assured that our elections are fair and solid. By not proving it up we have failed.

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