Those of us of a certain age remember Walter Cronkite anchoring the CBS Evening News.
The one-time wire service news reporter for United Press International was among the pioneers of TV news, alongside people like Edward R. Morrow, Harry Reasoner, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and others.
His deep-throated, avuncular presentation and his famous “And that’s the way it is,” program ending helped make him an iconic figure.
I suspect many of you have seen the video or even remember Cronkite interrupting “As the World Turns,” (my mother’s favorite soap opera at the time) to break the news in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. His powerful, emotional delivery was unforgettable.
Almost 10 years later, an opinion poll came out that anointed Cronkite “The Most Trusted Man in America.” That title stuck with him the rest of his life, and when he died in 2009, there probably wasn’t an obituary written that didn’t mention it.
I did a little online research about Cronkite when I was preparing a Zoom talk on media trust that I did for the League of Women Voters last month. I knew Cronkite had built audience trust like few others, and as a newspaper editor, audience trust is a huge issue.
Obviously, innumerable things have changed since Cronkite did his final evening news broadcast almost 40 years ago — March 6, 1981. CNN had only recently made its debut as the first 24-hour news channel on June 1, 1980. The internet, though it had been in development for years, didn’t become a true commercial entity until the 1990s.
Would Cronkite be as trusted now as he was then? The way the nation, as well as the audience for news, is splintered these days, the answer is clearly no.
Don’t get me wrong. Cronkite merited much of the respect he got from the public. He was a seasoned reporter who came to the anchor desk knowing how to report a story — a skill too many of today’s anchors don’t possess. He earned our trust.
Ironically though, the poll giving Cronkite the “Most Trusted Man” title was not quite as trustworthy.
My web search unearthed a survey conducted in 1972 of 8,780 respondents in 18 states. The pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company, sought to rank public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. For reasons nobody seems to really explain, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew. No other news reporters or anchors of the time were included.
I suspect many of you reading this might have won out as Most Trusted against that field.
I also found a column media critic Jack Shafer wrote shortly after Cronkite’s death. In it, he opined the anchorman’s score “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”
What did Cronkite have to say about this “Most Trusted Man” stuff?
He was quoted in USA TODAY in 2002 sort of downplaying it all.
“Trust is such an individual thing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s definable.”
I agree with that. Trust is a very individual thing and difficult to define.
I know we work hard here to make our news report straightforward and credible. We know not everyone will see our reporting that way, no matter how hard we try. But we seek to build reader trust with every edition and website update.
We want you to trust that that’s the way it is.
Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.