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Eric Foner on Presidential Powers

Question: Was Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus an abuse of executive power?

Foner:    Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus a number of times during the Civil War.  And at first in 1861, he suspended it first along the railroad line between New York, Philadelphia and Washington because there were riots going on in Maryland, people trying to block troops coming down to protect Washington.  So, in a sense, at first, it was in a military district and, you know, it was part of a war, you know.  Later, the writ of habeas corpus is suspended for the whole country, and, certainly, there were abuses of civil liberties under Lincoln.  No questions about it.  People arrested who just for giving speeches criticizing the war.  There were newspapers temporarily suspended.  Now, we should not think that Lincoln was a dictator, a tyrant.  There was great criticism all through the war of him and the elections went on.  Nobody said let’s suspend the election because, you know, the war is on.  But, certainly, I think Lincoln established a dangerous precedent that the Constitution doesn’t really apply in war time.  And now, unlike our recent president, Lincoln directly addressed this question.  He went to Congress.  He said, “I may have stepped over the line here.  Here is my problem.  Here is my situation.  I was faced with this thing.  Do I abide by the law and let the whole country fall apart or do I violate this one law and therefore save the whole country?”  Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, you know, and there was no simple answer, but at least Lincoln put it on the agenda.  He said, “This is a serious problem.”  President Bush has never even admitted there’s any kind of problem.  He just [blithely] goes his own way acting as if there is no Constitution.  Now, the other thing is in the Civil War, the United States face the greatest crisis in its history and the greatest threat to its existence as a nation.  The attack of 9/11 was a tragic thing but it didn’t threaten the existence of the United States and there was no thought that Al Qaeda today is actually going to overthrow the government of the United States.  They can commit, you know, heinous acts but they are not going to take over the government.  I don’t think Osama Bin Laden will be president anytime soon.  So, we don’t face the kind of threat to our national existence that Lincoln faced.  On the other hand, history shows that almost any government conducting a war will find the Constitution an inconvenience and will try to get around it, and this has happened during World War I with the suppression of freedom of speech.  It happened in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans.  So, you know, what is the lesson?  It simply that we have to be very vigilant about our liberties and that, you know, to realize you can conduct a war and still respect civil liberties.

Question: Would Lincoln endorse Bush’s use of his executive mandate?

Foner:    Lincoln is saying and this is a Democratic view, if people think I have abused my power or I have not conducted the war properly or intelligently, they’ll vote me out of power.  That’s what democracy is.  It gives you a chance to [boot] the guys out.  And Lincoln ran for president, reelection in 1864, and even though he won a very large majority, we should not forget that in August, not long before the election, Lincoln and most politicians thought he was going to lose, that the war was at a stalemate.  There was a great deal of discontent.  Lincoln and the Republican Party thought he was going to lose.  In fact, there were people who came to him and said, “You’ve got to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation.”  People think that it is prolonging the war.  That if you tell the South come back and you can keep slavery, they’ll come back now.  But if you say come back and you’ve got to get rid of slavery, that is just making them fight longer.  So, rescind the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln said, “I cannot do that, I would be damned in time and eternity,” or something like that.  In other words, you know, he wasn’t willing to do “anything that might be done to get reelected.”  The problem with Lincoln’s quote though is that in the midst of a war, it often is quite popular to trample on civil liberties.  You know, many of the things that President Bush has done that have popular support rounding up people with Muslim names, [chucking] them into jail with no charge, throwing away the key, holding people at Guantanamo.  You know, when people are frightened, they are willing to support serious infringements on other people’s civil liberties.  Civil liberties are not supposed to be subject to popular vote.  They are in the Constitution.  They are the protection of minorities.  The person who holds popular views, his freedom of speech is never in question.  It’s the person who is the [center] who has unpopular views.  So, you don’t put that up to unpopular vote to say, well, should this guy be able to give a speech criticizing the war.  A lot of people will say no, you shouldn’t.  So, you know, Lincoln’s view of democracy in a certain sense is right, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really reflect the fact that civil liberties are the protection of minorities against majorities, and, therefore, they can’t be just subjected to majority vote.

The author characterizes Lincoln as a president who was unafraid to


suspend some basic rights for the betterment of the union

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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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