Longing for a trusted face

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” Walter Cronkite announced in February 1968.

After visiting the war zone, he’d become convinced that negotiation — not fighting — was America’s best way out.

After this declaration, America became convinced too.

President Lyndon Johnson didn’t run for re-election. He reportedly told associates that without support from Cronkite, he’d lack support from “Middle America.” And ground forces were withdrawn from Vietnam within months.

Subsequent opinion polls named Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.” In one poll, 81 percent of respondents said Cronkite was “someone they could really trust.” And in another, 60 percent of those polled said they could trust him “a great deal.”

After Cronkite’s death in 2009, an online Time magazine poll sought to determine who would fill that void. Forty-four percent of respondents named the winner, Jon Stewart, as America’s most trusted newscaster.

Hold up. Jon Stewart? His satire might radiate charm, wit and authenticity. It also might deal with current events. But it hardly seems like legitimate news.

The fact that Americans chose a comedian as the most trusted newscaster in America says a lot about our attitudes toward today’s media. Has the news really become such a joke that actual jokes seem more reliable?

A national poll conducted by the Sacred Heart Polling Institute in 2009 revealed that nearly 84 percent of Americans think news organizations are “very or somewhat biased.”

To say that no anchors have quite lived up to Cronkite’s legacy is to put it politely. Warnings, denunciation and urgency litter the news landscape. Sensationalism is a familiar part of morning papers and nightly broadcasts.

America’s news media have become the boys who cried wolf.

Health news is a chief offender. Medical stories grab the attention of viewers with exaggeration all too often.

A 2009 CNN dialogue between anchor Heidi Collins and chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta told viewers the alert level was “enough to rattle some nerves” and “scary no matter how you look at it.”

And just weeks ago, a Fox show met with criticism when Dr. Mehmet Oz issued alarmist statements about popular brands of apple juice.

According to an Associated Press article, Oz claimed popular brands of apple juice contained arsenic, and thus posed a danger.

Oz was right. The juice does contain arsenic.

However, he failed to note the difference between inorganic arsenic — which increases cancer risk — and organic arsenic — which is harmless and naturally present in air, water and apple juice.

But the fear-mongering is not limited to health news.

According to a Huffington Post article, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity told viewers in 2009 that the Taliban were closing in on Pakistani nuclear sites and asked, “How scary is that?”

Meanwhile, President Obama reported that the nuclear sites were actually in safe hands.

Reporters can — and clearly do — announce left and right that we’re on the verge of disaster.

But only after years’ worth of truth and neutrality will we heed their warnings like we did Cronkite’s.

Building trust is far from instantaneous. It takes time, effort and commitment—and maybe a spot on Comedy Central.

Reach the columnist at algrego1@asu.edu.

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