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The "most trusted man in America" reconsidered

By Michael M. Bates
web posted July 20, 2009

Just as the media – with the exception of Larry King – were finally getting over the passing of Michael Jackson came the news that former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite died.  Cronkite was an iconic figure amongst his brethren and media encomia were suitably lavish.

Walter CronkiteCronkite was recognized, we've been told over and over again, as the most trusted man in America.  According to USA Today:

"How did he become 'the most trusted man in America?' It was a Roper survey for U.S. News & World Report, Cronkite once said, and he won 'because they didn't poll my wife.'"

Ever the skeptic, I tried to find that poll.  The Roper Center's Web site includes a link to data gathered for a 1974 "Virginia Slims American Women's Opinion Poll."  Cronkite did indeed do better than any other male in that sampling.  But note how the question was worded:

"And now here is a list of prominent men.  (HAND RESPONDENT CARD)  For each man on the list, tell me if you respect him a great deal, somewhat, or not at all."

Cronkite's name was on the list.  So were those of 16 other men, including Marlon Brando, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Joe Namath and Frank Sinatra.  Yet another contender was Richard Nixon, who that year became the only president to resign.

Respondents were limited to the names provided.  The question didn't center on trust, but on respect.  A year earlier, a Sindlinger and Company survey asked a couple of thousand people to rate network newsmen for "trust and accuracy."  NBC's John Chancellor narrowly edged out Cronkite in that poll.  What I find interesting is winner Chancellor scored only 55.8 percent for trust and accuracy, suggesting that even back then a good number of people questioned what they were being told by the media.

And with good reason.  USA Today's article noted:

"Cronkite's influence was such that after he ended a 1968 broadcast following a trip to South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive telling viewers that the war could not be won, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told his aides, 'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.'"

Mona Charen set the record straight in her book Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First:

"Johnson misread the situation.  Cronkite did not speak for middle America, but instead for the liberal intelligentsia and for a growing segment of the Democratic Party."

Charen also quotes Cronkite on what he saw as an overreaction to Soviet threats: "Fear of the Soviet Union taking over the world just seemed as likely to me as invaders from Mars."  That's a remarkable statement from a newsman who had personally witnessed another form of totalitarianism attempt world domination.

The media Cronkite love fest is understandable to a degree.  They are honoring their own and, in so doing, honoring themselves.  But is it warranted?

In his 1984 The Liberal Crack Up, R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. reflected on "the weird reverence" accorded Uncle Walter, as he's now called on CNN:

"Here was a man who in all his public years never passed on more than a hint of intellectual substance.  He just sat there in front of that infernal microphone! Yet he was esteemed as an authority on world politics and a moral paragon.  He left no substantial books, no essays, no memorable epigrams. . . He dwelt in the land of bromides and wholesome attitudes.  He was amiable, but he was unexceptional too."

Walter Cronkite's death is sad in the same way most deaths are.  But let's keep a little perspective here.  He simply read the news, usually as written by other people.  He came across as warm and friendly and didn't blatantly parade his liberalism until after his retirement.

But was he "most trusted man in America"?  Not likely. ESR


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