W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite ‘the most-trusted’? Where’s the evidence?

In Debunking, Media myths on June 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

The notion that Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” has received fresh stimulus from the recently published biography about the avuncular CBS News anchorman.

‘Most trusted’? How so?

Author Douglas David Brinkley refers often in the book, titled Cronkite, to the anchorman’s “most trusted” status. But Cronkite contains no searching assessment about whether the epithet was justified or based on much empirical evidence.

It’s really a dubious characterization that has  morphed into a tiresome cliché. It was not credibly supported by public opinion polling: It was propelled by CBS advertising.

The “most trusted” epithet can be traced to a survey conducted in 1972 of 8,780 respondents in 18 states. The pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company, sought to assess and compare public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians.

Inexplicably, Cronkite was included in the Quayle poll, which meant he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61%.

The results were not much of a surprise. As the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer wrote in a column shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s score “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Brinkley mentions the poll in Cronkite and says it was strange that the anchorman was included.

But he raises no challenge to the odd methodology (the survey was highly unrepresentative) or to the unsurprising result. Instead, he writes:

“The poll confirmed overnight what had long been apparent: Cronkite was the ultimate reliable source.”

Confirmed? Including Cronkite’s name with those of mostly uninspiring politicians was scarcely a precision measure of “trust.” It was a dubious basis on which to build the claim of “most trusted.”

But the claim was enthusiastically embraced, and propelled, by CBS advertising.

On Election Day in November 1972, CBS published prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads carried this headline:

Re-elect the Most Trusted Man in America.”

In what seems a quaint reference to the limited broadcast news options of the early 1970s, the ad copy read:

“You’ll have three viewing choices on Election Night. … A good reason for watching us is because we’ve got a man on our slate who was recently voted the most trusted American in public life” — an allusion to the Quayle poll.

In italics, the ad copy referred to Cronkite as “The most trusted American in public life.”

CBS later modified the sweeping claim, characterizing Cronkite in an ad in the Washington Post in 1976 as “one of the most trusted men in America” (emphasis added).

Interestingly, Cronkite in the 1970s wasn’t always regarded as the most trusted television newsman, let alone “the most trusted” person in America.

A Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite that year came in fourth.

The following year, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So what did Cronkite have to say about this “trust” stuff? He was quoted in USA Today in 2002 as sort of pooh-poohing it all:

“Trust is such an individual thing. I don’t think it’s definable.”

Then what accounts for the enduring inclination to characterize Cronkite as having been the “most trusted man in America”?

One reason is that the epithet isn’t entirely outlandish.  Like many media myths, the “most trusted” claim rests on the cusp of plausibility. Cronkite was an esteemed anchorman. He cut an unthreatening-yet-authoritative presence on TV. His voice — what Shafer called a “furry baritone” — was as engaging as it was unmistakable.

But it’s the “golden age” fallacy that best accounts for the tenacity of the “most trusted” cliché.

As I describe in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, the “golden age” fallacy is that “flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring.” Such as the 1960s and 1970s, when Cronkite became a dominant figure in American broadcast journalism.

Writer Andrew Ferguson deftly identified this dynamic in an essay in the Weekly Standard in 2008.

Cronkite, Ferguson wrote, “is a kind of synecdoche for American journalism. … From the 1960s onward Cronkite was transformed by some mysterious process into a … spiritual force as imposing and weightless as a dirigible. He was an oracle, a teller of truths, the conscience of a nation, ‘the most trusted man in America.’

“American journalism followed the same trajectory into self-importance, borne aloft on the same draft of hot air and vanity.”

Voilá. The “golden age” fallacy, in full flight.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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