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Why free speech is sacred—even when it’s dangerous

The bedrock of freedom? Denying the government the power of censorship.

NADINE STROSSEN: Censorship has always been used by those in power to stifle the voices of those who are criticizing them and seeking to bring about some kind of law reform. So it's not surprising that any authoritarian regime today and throughout history has always stifled protesting voices, has always exercised censorship, including over the arts and culture as well as politics. So, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, to the Soviet Union and Turkey and a whole range of authoritarian countries—Saudi Arabia springs to mind—have all exercised censorship as a way of maintaining the power of those who hold it and of preventing reform and spreading of human rights and also thwarting the pursuit of truth in realms of science and other fields of human endeavor.

I think the flipside to the question of "What is so dangerous about censorship?" is "What is so positive about free speech?" Because we lose the positive potential of free speech through censorship, and freedom of speech is, as great Supreme Court justices in the United States have recognized, the essence of individual liberty. Freedom of thought cannot really be exercised unless you have freedom of speech, so it's a way of forming your ideas, forming your own identity, communicating with other people to forge bonds of friendship, bonds of community. Freedom of speech is used to join together with others to amplify our messages so that we can have more of an impact in bringing about whatever changes or reforms we'd like to see happen in society. Freedom of speech is essential for petitioning the government, lobbying, trying to persuade those we elect and hold accountable to us to adopt certain policies or reject certain policies. Freedom of speech is also essential for the pursuit of truth. As somebody once said: Every great truth began as a blasphemy, so if government had the power to censor, as it has in the past, it has thwarted advances in all kinds of scientific and social scientific fields. Art censorship has been used to stifle expression that has been important, not only for the individual artist herself or himself, but also for those who are deprived, then, of the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired and enlightened by creativity. I definitely agree with the Supreme Court when it said that freedom of speech really is the bedrock of every other right, and really almost everything positive in our society could not be achieved without that essential bedrock.

There is absolutely no doubt that speech can do an infinite amount of harm, as well as an infinite amount of good. The reason why censorship is bad is precisely because speech is so powerful. And with that power we human beings can exert it either to great good or to great ill. Now the question is what does more harm, trusting our fellow citizens on the whole to minimize the adverse impact, adverse potential impact of speech, or trusting government to pick and choose which potentially dangerous, harmful speech should be censored? What we've seen throughout history and around the world, not surprisingly, is whoever exercises censorship power does it in a way to perpetuate their own power and to disproportionately silence the voice of their critics.

So today we have a president who attacks fake news—a lot of my liberal friends, and I am a bleeding-heart liberal as well as a civil libertarian, a lot of my liberal friends will say: But there is such danger coming from right-wing media and the dark corners of the Internet—"Shouldn't we censor that version of fake news?" And I say, "Who exercises the lever of power today? Are we going to give to the Trump administration the power to decide which news is sufficiently 'fake', sufficiently 'dangerous', sufficiently 'harmful' that their FCC licenses should be revoked?" I think it would not be FOX News whose license would be revoked or whose voices would be suppressed, it would be CNN and so forth.

And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights. So if we're licensing the government or empowering the government to say, "This is sufficiently misleading that "it's going to be suppressed," it would just be a matter of time before there's a change in administration, a change in ideology, and it would be voices on the other end of the political spectrum that are suppressed.

And then also for the reason that censorship does more harm than good in general, which is that there is some really important benefit to confront ideas that are out there that people hold. I want to know that they have those ideas; I don't want them to hide in the dark corners of the Internet and to go underground. I want to be able to respond to them, perhaps dissuade people from holding those ideas, certainly persuade other people not to adhere to those ideas. If it's a hateful or discriminatory idea, I want to monitor the people who have those ideas to make sure that they don't actually engage in discriminatory or violent conduct. So there are all kinds of benefits from listening, even I would say especially, to ideas that we consider to be dangerous and odious.

The United States Supreme Court made an observation, which I think is really important, that freedom of speech in terms of government policies, public policies, is especially important because it is not only a matter of individual liberty and self-expression, but it is essential for our system of self-government. The way the Supreme Court put it was more or less this: That freedom of speech about policy issues is the essence of self-government.

The message to the team is keep the eyes on the prize. We have to look beyond the particular factual situation and understand that we are fighting for something larger, which encompasses the ideas that are antithetical to the ones that happened to be at issue in a particular case. So people will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis? And I always say I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending freedom of speech as an inviolable, indivisible principal that is only going to remain strong if we continue to respect that bedrock viewpoint neutrality principal denying government the power to suppress an idea merely because in one community that idea is deemed to be unpopular or hateful or hated.

Because I know that in many communities in this country, ideas that I cherish as a civil libertarian, as a human rights champion, those ideas are seen as dangerous and are subject to censorship. So I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending a principle that is especially important for those of us who want to have the freedom to raise our voices to protest the Nazis and everything they stand for.

  • Suppression of free speech dooms democracy, says law professor Nadine Strossen. We should all be open to hearing dangerous and odious ideas rather than drive them underground.
  • "[P]eople will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis?" says Strossen. She also says, "And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights."
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.


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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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