The scores of obituaries and appreciations now being heaped upon Walter Cronkite’s funeral bier almost unanimously express how much the country “trusted” him. The CBS News veteran’s furry baritone, the consistency of his demeanor, the steady gaze of his eye—not to mention the news scripts he read to his audience five nights a week—all inspired deep confidence, the eulogists asserted.
Cronkite first became synonymous with trust in 1972, when the Oliver Quayle and Co. poll included his name in a list of public figures to determine a “trust index.” Cronkite topped the rankings with 73 percent, which seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him. The “average senator” scored 67 percent in the survey, and President Richard Nixon—easily the least trustworthy animal ever to walk on two legs—received 57 percent, as did Hubert Humphrey.
How did Cronkite join this popularity list in the first place? In his 2000 book, The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections, CBS News veteran Martin Plissner writes:
In surveys done for candidates in eighteen states, Quayle included a “thermometer” question regarding the level of public trust for candidates for the Senate and governor in those states as well as most of the men running for President. For reasons not entirely clear, Quayle added Cronkite’s name to the list.
It’s anybody’s guess how high Cronkite’s competitors at NBC News (John Chancellor) and ABC News (Harry Reasoner) would have ranked had Quayle included their names in the poll.
As much as the public may have trusted Cronkite, he didn’t top all surveys. In 1974, before the Cronkite-equals-trust cliché took root, the Phillips-Sindlinger organization conducted a nationwide poll to determine viewers’ attitudes toward the top TV newscasters. Cronkite won the “best-known” category, but John Chancellor took the honors for “best-liked” and “most-watched” TV newsperson. Cronkite finished fourth in “best-liked,” behind Harry Reasoner, who placed second, and Howard K. Smith (ABC News), who placed third.
Accepting for the moment the argument the public trusted Cronkite because he practiced trustworthy journalism, it’s worth mentioning that between 1949 and 1987—which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career—news broadcasters were governed by the federal “Fairness Doctrine.” The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion. One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy, which all three networks often did. The times that Cronkite directly engaged controversy can be counted on one hand—his 1968 special, in which he called the Vietnam War a stalemate and called for negotiations, and a pair of 1972 broadcasts about the Watergate scandal, both of which are cited in his New York Times obituary.
Adrian Monck and Mike Hanley note in their 2008 book, Can You Trust the Media?, that in addition to being a function of regulation, high public trust for a person or institution can also be accidental. As consumers shifted consumption of news from newsprint to television in the 1960s, consumers shifted whom and what they trusted, too. “Quite simply, people trusted what they used, not vice versa,” Monck and Hanley write.
If Cronkite were working in today’s news environment, painting the news from the same palette he used when he anchored the CBSprogram, would viewers still invest their deep trust in him? (Assuming, of course, that the public did regard Cronkite as the nation’s most trustworthy man.)
I doubt it. The news business has both expanded and fragmented in the post-Cronkite, post-Fairness Doctrine era. The news monopoly the three broadcast networks enjoyed for two decades has been shattered by the three cable news networks, all of which embrace (and thrive on) the controversy that Cronkite eschewed. The Web, which can make the cable news channels look positively Cronkitian, has only reshattered the shards.
If the nostalgia for Cronkitian news values were genuine, you’d expect PBS’s soporific News Hour would be drawing huge and growing numbers of viewers. The program was, as its co-founder Robert MacNeil just testified, one that Cronkite adored. Alas, the NewsHour’s Cronkite-lite approach has failed to attract much of an audience. In fact, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism informs us that the News Hour is losing numbers, not gaining them: “For the 2007-08 season, the number of different people watching each week was 5.5 million, down from the previous season’s 6.1 million.” According to PBS research, the viewers are migrating to cable news, a fate that trusted Walter would probably be suffering today if he were still reading from the teleprompter.
Beware of those who fetishize trust, Monck and Hanley counsel. “Trust is a shoddy yardstick. It doesn’t gauge truth, it gauges what looks close to the truth: verisimilitude,” they write. It’s not just the naive and undereducated who end up trusting people and institutions that they shouldn’t. The sophisticated and the well-schooled are vulnerable, too.
Be skeptical, news consumers, especially of the journalists you trust most. It will make you smarter and keep them honest.
Other reasons we shouldn’t have trusted Cronkite. He sailed. He was avuncular. He had a beer gut. He inspired John Waters to grow a moustache (I think!). And he was way too into the space program for a grown man. Send your reasons for Cronkitian distrust to firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to my untrustworthy Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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