CNN tweeted out quotes from notable Americans for the Fourth of July. Here was one of the quotes they tweeted from Abraham Lincoln:
The quote, which is also displayed at the Newseum, was interpreted as yet another attack from the media giant against the president. The Independent ran a story about it headlined, “CNN taunts Trump on July 4 with Abraham Lincoln quote on facts: The post did not mention the President, but it was obvious who it was directed at.”
Critic and playwright Terry Teachout had a funny feeling about the quote. He asked Quote Investigator, the research operation headed by Garson O’Toole, to look into it: “This quote, though familiar, looks suspicious to me. Any thoughts?”
Three hours later, Quote Investigator had found a quote with some similarities, and some differences, to the one being put out by CNN:
Yoni Appelbaum, Washington bureau chief of The Atlantic, found a story with the somewhat similar quote a few days earlier:
CNN/Newseum’s version: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”
Report from contemporaneous individual: “Let them know the truth, and the country is safe.”
Insofar as a hearsay quote should ever be tweeted out or inscribed in walls, at least it should be accurate. Particularly when it’s about “truth” and “facts.” We’ll leave aside discussions of how the great Abraham Lincoln’s record on press freedoms affects how he should be honored at the Newseum. The quote, in context, is about public opinion being so against the Civil War, due to what Lincoln said was people being misled, that they would have accepted disunion over a continued fight.
The conflation of “facts” and “truth” is perfect. Facts can be manipulated. Truth is much more difficult to attain. It might be factual that intelligence chiefs briefed President-elect Trump about a Russian dossier, for instance. But whether that fact is used to spin a Russian conspiracy hoax is where truthfulness is important.
Appelbaum found another similar quote that was attributed, somewhat sketchily, to Lincoln. It comes from James Edward Murdoch, an actor who published a patriotic book of poetry and prose:
So if this account is to be trusted, Lincoln would be advising elected officials. But note what he says about creating a panic: “Let the people know the facts, let them see the danger; but let every effort be made to allay public fears, to inspire the masses with confidence and hope, and, above all, to frown down every attempt to create a panic.”
So probably not an advisement to spin a Russian conspiracy story out of thin gruel for months on end, rather than to come to terms with the fact that someone you didn’t like was elected president. Either way, as Lincoln himself said:
UPDATE: In the same Twitter thread, CNN also misattributed a quote to Benjamin Franklin that actually came from British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of Cato’s Letters.