So the Most Trusted Man in America, legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite, died on Saturday. That moniker is not hyperbole. There actually was a survey done in which Cronkite was found to be the most trusted public figure. Anyone else get the sinking, nauseating feeling that a similar survey done today would pronounce Glenn Beck the winner? The idea raises two interesting questions. First, to what extent was the enormous level of trust and influence attributed to Cronkite a fact rather than an artifact of nostalgia? Second, is it even possible that any individual in the media could be so esteemed in the eyes of the public today?
Nostalgia is simply the interpretation of history through rose-colored glasses. Cronkite is a symbol of the pervasive American yearning for a simpler time, as we almost universally buy into the notion as a society that everything has been going downhill since 1960. We remember Cronkite and the idea that we could believe what our newsmen told us Back in the Day, which we subsequently contrast with today's media who are liars one and all. I suspect that we remember both Cronkite and his Simpler Time a little too sentimentally. Conservatives always mistrusted Cronkite, at least after 1968. In the Nixon years, years so influential to the modern right-wing movement, conservatives began insisting ever more urgently that if the mainstream media's reporting of reality failed to confirm their worldview then liberal bias was to blame. The idea of the cranky conservative who didn't trust the librul media was so widely recognized that legendary fictional alpha-reactionary Archie Bunker used to call him "Pinko Cronkite" on All in the Family. So the idea that "everyone" or even any reasonable approximation of "everyone" trusted Cronkite is probably bunk. The only difference is that the conservatives who distrusted the mainstream media didn't have a media outlet of their own to rally around and make visible their numbers. The percentage of people who would follow braying jackasses like today's Talk Radio stars was, if anything, higher in Cronkite's day than today. They simply didn't have the option to do so.
On the second point, I find it inconceivable that any news outlet or news person could capture such widespread public trust. There is little doubt that among people who did not reject the mainstream media out of hand as an insidious liberal mouthpiece Cronkite was widely watched and respected. But the right has invested so much time and energy into getting its adherents to reflexively reject the media that I doubt they could declare trust in any newsperson who wasn't agreeing with the GOP at least 90% of the time. And on the left, the media's pathetic performance through Iran-Contra, two Iraq Wars, the 2000 Election, and the Clinton impeachment has led most to conclude that the mainstream media are either timid stenographers or motivated shills for corporate interests. So today's star anchors (Can people even name the major network anchors these days? And does anyone even watch the ABC/NBC/CBS nightly news anymore?) garner little to no respect among the vast majority of the population.
Media bias and social attitudes toward the media are rarely discussed in context. Compare a modern newspaper to one from 1910 and you will find that biases were far more egregious in the past than they are today. Furthermore, the individuals have always rejected media which attempted to disconfirm his or her worldview. The source of the Cronkite legend is the simple fact that the three major networks, which were once the alpha and omega of televised news programming, now compete against cable networks which have the ability to coordinate, unify, and amplify the voices of people who didn't trust Pinko Cronkite.