W. Joseph Campbell

On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and ‘the most trusted man’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on October 31, 2010 at 11:37 am

Jon Stewart, the TV satirist whom the Washington Post calls a founding father of “fake news,” drew tens of thousands of fans to Washington, D.C., yesterday in an enthusiastic rally on the National Mall.

Stewart, TV comedian

Stewart of late also has invited improbable parallels to Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman who died last year. The Guardian newspaper in London the other day suggested an unlikely Stewart-Cronkite linkage, saying of the star of Comedy Central’s Daily Show:

“To some Americans he is the most trusted man in the US since the iconic news anchor, Walter Cronkite, told the country that the Vietnam war was a lost cause.”

While impressed by the turnout yesterday on the Mall, Media Myth Alert was struck even more by the over-the-top, “most trusted” claim.

For starters, the reference to Cronkite and Vietnam is exaggerated.

Cronkite, TV anchor

Cronkite, in a special report broadcast February 27, 1968, asserted that the U.S. military effort against the communist North Vietnamese was “mired in stalemate“–not that the war was lost. And as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the “mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary” by that time.

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, the New York Times reported the war was “not going well” and that victory “may be beyond reach.” The report was published on the Times’ front page in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment hardly can be interpreted as an implicit claim that war had become “a lost cause.” Indeed, it’s striking just “how hedged and cautious” Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam really were, I note in Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite, I write, “held open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam.”

But back to the Stewart-Cronkite comparisons.

The Guardian asserted that to “some Americans,” the often-sarcastic Stewart “is the most trusted man” in America since Cronkite.

Sounds impressive. But “most trusted” is  quite a dubious and slippery characterization.

Cronkite often was called the “most trusted man” in America. Supporting evidence for such a claim was very vague, however.

As the inestimable Jack Shafer pointed out in a column after Cronkite’s death, the “most trusted” epithet can be traced to an unrepresentative survey conducted in 18 states in 1972. The pollster was Oliver Quayle and Company, which sought to measure public trust among U.S. in politicians who were prominent at the time.

Cronkite was inexplicably included in the Quayle poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro Agnew.

It obviously was a shaky and imprecise measure on which to build the claim of “most trusted.”

Indeed, the following year, the pollster Sindlinger and Company reported survey results showing that John Chancellor, anchorman of NBC’s Nightly News, ran slightly ahead of Cronkite in “trust and accuracy.”

As for Stewart, what’s the evidence’s that he’s now the “most trusted” man in America?

It’s likewise pretty thin.

In August 2008, the New York Times profiled Stewart in an article that carried the headline, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?

The profile ran nearly 3,000 words–and nowhere after the headline does the phrase “most trusted” appear.

The Times article quoted Stewart as likening his job to ”throwing spitballs” from the rear of the room and as saying the mandate of his Daily Show program on cable television is to entertain, not inform.

Following Cronkite’s death in July 2009, Time magazine conducted an online poll that suggested Stewart was “trusted” more than any network anchor–easily outdistancing Katie Couric of CBS News, Charlie Gibson of ABC News, and Brian Williams of NBC News.

Time appended a disclaimer to the poll results, noting they were “not scientific and reflect the opinions of only those users who chose to participate.”

In other words, the results were useless for purposes of comparison.

But still, they attracted no small amount of attention.

Perhaps the Fresh Air program on National Public Radio has best taken the measure of Stewart and “trust.”  Fresh Air‘s characterization of the likable comedian?

The Most Trusted Name in Fake News.”


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