Media Matters: The Relevance of Walter Cronkite

You know the mainstream media is on the defensive when The Globe and Mail, with a host of issues to comment on, devotes a year-end editorial to defending and praising the media.  Maybe it’s not surprising, when we’ve come through a year full of fake news, outrageously biased opinions masquerading as news, and widespread criticism of reputable news providers for even reporting the news accurately.   When anyone with a laptop can now broadcast “news” to a potential audience of millions without any regard for journalistic integrity or even truthfulness, maybe it’s appropriate to throw a bit of praise to those who do maintain some standards.

Many say that the rise of fake news during the recent US election campaign was due to a lack of trust in mainstream news providers.   In a recent New York Times editorial decrying the fake news and the incessant Trump lies, a fellow from North Carolina was quoted as saying that he missed the days when Walter Cronkite delivered the news to the nation.  The thrust of the Times’ argument, it seems, was that in the time of a president (elect) who spouts bold statements with little or no regard for their truthfulness, the media needs a respected figure like Mr. Cronkite to report fact without regard for partisanship.   After all, Cronkite was once “the most trusted man in America.”

Let’s be honest – as a frontman of television news in 2017, Walter Cronkite would be pilloried by a large segment of the population.  He would be dismissed by conservatives as a radical, left-wing journalist, and included by Trump in his ever-expanding pool of “dishonest, biased, unfair” media representatives.   In fact, all of the American news anchors during the age I grew up in are now denounced as liberals.  John Chancellor, Harry Reasonor, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather – they’re all now included by right-wing pundits as Exhibit A for the mainstream media having a long-standing liberal bias.  Are the pundits right?

Cronkite was a liberal

Here’s what Walter Cronkite said about his colleagues and liberal thinking:

“I think being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause – but examining each case on its merits. Being left of center is another thing; it’s a political position. I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.”

Walter Cronkite valued the intellectual curiosity that leads to an in-depth analysis of issues, and a willingness to explore different sides of an issue.   Trained journalists are, as a whole, highly-educated, and have been schooled in critical thinking and open-mindedness.  Journalism as a profession is likely biased toward liberal thinking because it employs….journalists.

Cronkite used his position not to advance liberal causes, but to question and challenge those in power.   For example, rather than act as cheerleader or even a mouthpiece for LBJ’s Vietnam War policies, he highlighted the problems with the campaign and questioned the US continuation of the war.  Rather than dismiss Watergate as a third-rate burglary, he reminded Americans of the scandal on a daily basis, and presided over its unveiling from “just a burglary” to a systematic abuse of power emanating from the president himself.  Liberal thinking?  Maybe.  Good honest reporting and journalism?  Definitely.  Worthy of trust?  Absolutely.

You can`t please everyone

Cronkite’s populist appeal could not happen now.  The media is just too fragmented, and too narrowly focused.  Even outlets that were once respected across the political spectrum are under attack.

In a 2014 survey of American media and levels of trust (Pew Research), The Wall Street Journal was the only one of a broad selection of media to rank as “trusted” across the spectrum – it was trusted by the “consistently liberal” as well as the “consistently conservative.”   One might think, therefore, that the WSJ would be able to comment freely on the prospects for a Trump presidency.  However, even “America’s Most Trusted Newspaper” has attracted the wrath of the Donald and his supporters.    The paper published an editorial which stated that “If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.”  Trump’s response to the WSJ (through Twitter) was to call the WSJ’s editorial board “dummies,” and to label the paper as “failing.” Recently, in response to a WSJ criticism of his financial policies and positions, Trump complained that the paper, a mainstay of American business journalism for over 120 years, “doesn’t understand business.”

At a time when the “most trusted man in America” is denounced as a radical leftist (by people like Ben Carson, soon to be part of Trump’s cabinet) and “America’s Most Trusted Newspaper” is criticized as having a liberal bent, what hope is there to bridge the gap between mainstream media and conservatives?  Probably very little.  Conservatives now have their own exclusive sources of information and opinion, and they are not coming back.

Conservatives, it has been shown, are more comfortable with one-sided news sources (Pew Research).  They are more apt to seek out information that confirms their existing views on issues, and to avoid the critical, reflective thinking involved in processing new or divergent opinions.   It’s been suggested that that’s why the fake news that appeared during the campaign was overwhelmingly targeted toward Trump voters – because they were more likely to believe the falsehoods.  One news creator was quoted as saying “we’ve tried to do [fake news with] liberals.  It just never worked.  It never takes off.  You’ll get debunked within the first few comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.”

As the most conservative are most comfortable with bias, they become very satisfied with Fox News, Limbaugh and Breitbart, and the host of right-wing sites that have popped up to feed their sense of outrage.  Who needs mainstream sources that present alternative viewpoints when you have a readily available confirmation of your world views and your preferred leader(s)?   Since the truth doesn’t really matter anymore (per Corey Lewandowski, Trump surrogate), why even bother trying to find it?  For mainstream media, why even bother speaking to a segment that will not listen?

Honesty is the best policy

When mainstream media is taking a shit-kicking, then what to do?  Should the media try to attract the conservatives back, by balancing their coverage between liberal and conservative viewpoints?  No, that won’t work – any perceived imbalance in the issues covered, the aggressiveness of questioning, or the conclusions suggested, would drive conservatives back to the comfort of Fox News and Breitbart.    Should the media emulate the right wing sites and channels, refocusing on a liberal base to counteract the conservative outrage?  No, that won’t work either.  An increasingly polarized media would just create more anger, and leave a hole in the middle where intelligent discourse and comment once resided.

The only acceptable route for mainstream media is to stay the course, and to remain an honest broker of news and opinion.  Maintain the standards of journalism and reporting.  Act like Walter Cronkite.

The fundamentals of this route are:

  1. Report on the issues, not the partisan commentary

When DJT started characterizing the media as “dishonest” during his run to the presidency, his message was broadcast to a far wider audience because the news media repeated his comments as news, not, as they should have been, brushed off as the tendentious bluster of a thin-skinned megalomaniac.  The result?  DJT`s characterization of the media as “dishonest” and “biased” took hold almost as strongly as his characterization of Hillary Clinton as “crooked.”   The abuse of the media, with Trump supporters invited to join in, became the story.

  1. Good journalism sometimes takes sides

Major outlets have too often bent to a false fairness, presenting political statements as fact when they’re not, or presenting different points of view as equally valid when one is actually misguided, ill-informed, or the product of a lunatic fringe.  Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade, a lie a lie, a political policy as having no foundation, or an unqualified blowhard as being unsuitable for the leadership of a great nation.

Why does this matter?

The disrespecting of mainstream media isn’t a completely new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the U.S.  It’s happening in Canada, where the CBC is under constant attack with accusations of bias, and in Britain, where the BBC was, for example, excoriated and ridiculed for being biased toward the “remain” side of the recent Brexit campaign.  The pressure on major media outlets to become “less liberal” is increasing, with a result being that news media is becoming more defensive and less relevant.

Pointing out that the major media outlets should not give up on their journalistic integrity and standards should be obvious, but it’s necessary.  CNN, for example, seems to have responded to unending criticism by presenting a false equivalence and false balance – for example, giving Trump surrogates a platform to repeat campaign promises no matter how outrageous or misguided.  Even the Wall Street Journal is holding fire.  The editor of the WSJ stated that the paper will avoid using the word “lie” when the president-elect makes a false statement, as long as Trump believes that his statement is true.  Huh?   Is the WSJ so gun-shy that it will no longer identify any of Trump’s nose-stretchers as lies, instead relying on its readers to sort through the claims and make their own conclusions?  That’s not journalism – that’s just typing.

So, yes we need a Walter Cronkite.  Not because of his populist appeal – that day has come and gone – but because he was a journalist.  A “liberal” journalist.

And that`s the way it is, Wednesday January 11, 2017.

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