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.

5 thoughts on “THE MOST TRUSTED MAN”

  • You raise two questions that boil down to asking, is it still/was it really feasible to have a single newsperson with so much collective trust bestowed upon them? I'd add a third one: is it even desirable? First, it is often a feature of unfree societies to speak with one voice. In most of them, the official discourse is ultimately traceable to a dear leader, a political redeemer, a pater patriae. To have a single newsman spout off the conventional wisdom is not that much different, it seems to me. Second, healthy democracies are cacophonous, raucous, and noisy. But it's the inevitable price of true freedom of speech and of (moderate) equality of access to a soapbox. I, a transplanted ex-Commie, rather like it.

    I like one thing about the post-Cronkite era, and I'm somewhat disturbed by another. The blog explosion has now made it a lot harder for the molders of official opinion to be lazy, dim-witted, prejudiced or obviously self-interested. Left-wing blogs, in particular, have been doing a great job holding op-ed writers and spokespeople accountable or correcting them when they fuck up. On the other hand, the neo-fascist Right's rejection of Cronkite and the media infrastructure of which he was a symbol has led to the creation of a communications machinery that doesn't just take commonly accepted facts and puts a right-wing spin on them. It often creates its own fantastic world, sometimes deeply at odds with reality. For some of these wackos, facts themselves have a "liberal bias."

  • I think you're spot on, but I would add one thing. As with all things in the US, when generalizations such as "Americans trusted Cronkite" are asserted we have to ask, 'which Americans?' The 'Americans' category usually refers to white, middle class Americans. In relation to Cronkite, we're talking about white, middle class Americans during a very specific historical moment. Of course, the level of trust was not monolithic within that group, but the level of trust Cronkite possessed was significant enough with the right social groupings to have wide spread political influence.

  • Cronkite was a corporate, insider newsman. Not a liberal, not a conservative. The right's seething hatred of him seems to have misled a lot of younger liberals into believing he was one of them. He wasn't. His reporting in WW II – while brave (he really was on the front line part of the time) was pure Army propaganda. I'm not sure I'd "blame" him for that – it was the only acceptable format for the time. Still, I ain't gonna laud him for it.
    Tet was his come-to-Jesus moment in Vietnam, and frankly, it sums up everything that was wrong with him. All his hand-wringing about being misled by the Army brass while true, certainly begs the question "wft was he reporting up until then?" He was corporate. He accepted Army PAO at face value. He didn't turn on the war because of the horrible cost extracted on the Vietnamese people and America's young; he turned on it because he was shocked that anyone had had the nerve to lie to him. It was about him; not Agent Orange; not carpet bombing; not any of the human waste. Were he half the journalist those lauding him today seem to think he was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution would have been the tipping point for him. But then Walter couldn’t take that huge lie personally so all was copacetic until Tet.

  • To follow up on my previous comment here’s a real journalist writing two weeks after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution:
    Now it’s not a 100% accurate by what we know today accounting of what actually took place. Still, note how a real journalist digs in and asks questions, refusing to accept the official version of what happened. This was available for all to peruse – note the cost – 15 cents. For 15 freakin’ cents Cronkite could have been spoon-fed the lies being pushed on the American public. Yet not until Tet – 3 ½ years later – did it dawn on Cronkite that there might be something a tad amiss vis-à-vis our little war in Vietnam.
    The useless old gas bag is gone. Good riddance.

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