The Most Trusted Man in America

The passing of Walter Cronkite offers an opportunity for reflection.  Cronkite bestrode American television news for a generation.  He led coverage on the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the moon landings, Watergate and other events that shaped a generation of Americans in the days before cable and 24 hour news.

In Cronkite’s time the overwhelming majority of Americans tuned in to nightly news from NBC, ABC or Cronkite’s own CBS network.  News was a shared experience.  People would watch the same reports and discuss them the following day.

Cronkite not only anchored his programme but described himself as its managing editor.  His authority was in part founded on the fact that the news he delivered was the news that his instincts told him mattered.  He owned his words.

When Watergate broke there was no second guessing the other networks or worrying about ratings.  The decks were cleared and CBS devoted a virtually unprecedented 14 minutes to the story and next day followed up in similarly serious fashion.

Cronkite was dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’  One might argue that in his day the race was not first and foremost for ratings but for trust.  His fellow CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow garnered similar respect for the reporting that led to the fall of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Was there a British equivalent?  Perhaps Murrow’s close contemporary Richard Dimbleby who made his reputation by broadcasting from El Alamein, the D Day beaches and Belsen on its day of liberation.

These days no news presenter has the degree of editorial control of a Murrow, Dimbleby or Cronkite.  Gnarled and knowledgable newsmen have been replaced by attractive young women picked for their looks rather than the soundness of their judgement or their experience reporting from the field.

Inevitably editorial decisions are taken elsewhere and the anchors just mouth the words struggling hopelessly to lend them the weight with which Cronkite and Murrow endowed theirs.

Instead of striving to return to the days when real journalists engendered real trust news executives rush to the defence of their anchor totty and explain how they can speak Mandarin or went to Oxford.

Sheer disingenuousness.  The average age of female correspondents is significantly lower than that of male correspondents.  Female news anchors are almost to a woman strikingly attractive.  Television news organisations are full of smarter, more experienced, more talented and more authoritative female journalists who are passed over because of their age or their appearance.

It’s part of a culture of the trivialisation of news that must have distressed Cronkite.  That culture is also at the heart of the recent scandal where dozens of News of the World journalists allegedly hired private investigators to spy illegally on hundreds of public figures and celebrities.

That we have reached a pass where the news media create celebrities, feed on them and then break the law to intrude into their private lives in order to destroy them is a terrible indictment of the state of journalism today.

That Cronkite could be both a journalist and the most trusted man in America is telling.  These days American and British journalists tend to be held roundly in contempt by their audiences and not without justification.

It took a Cronkite to shepherd America through the turmoil of the sixties and seventies by sharing his understanding and by being the eyes, ears and conscience of his viewers.  With Cronkite’s death ushering out an honourable journalistic tradition who will do that for us now.

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