It takes one to know one. Those born in the late forties, when World War II was finally over and America decided things were going to be just fine after all – you know, before the Korean War and the subsequent long Cold War where the nuclear annihilation of the earth was a daily possibility and folks built fallout shelters in the back yard – will always be known as the Baby Boomers. The boom had to do with a national feeling of relief – we’d won, and unlike most of Europe and Japan, escaped unscathed. Yep, all the bridges and buildings were still standing, and the industrial might of the nation could be turned to pumping out large, bloated automobiles that floated uneasily down the relatively smooth roads in a posh and comfortable way, and to producing small but pleasant tract homes with avocado-colored kitchen appliances and a treeless back yard with a metal swing-set.
Things were back to normal – although that now seems silly, as war is the default state for mankind. It always has been. The brief periods when America, or any other nation, was not at war were always the exception. War is what people do, as a species.
You’re just not supposed to say that – it’s gauche and offensive. Everyone loves peace. That’s what we expect. But the Korean War bled into the Vietnam War and then into that business in the Balkans in the nineties and then into the Gulf Wars – along with smaller wars, regional conflicts as they say, in between. What was the business with the Falkland Islands all about anyway, all those guys dying in a dispute between the UK and Argentina? You expect the Israelis and the Palestinians to be at war, low-level or all-out, all the time – it goes with the territory. But the UK and Argentina, in spite of the geographic absurdity, did find something to argue about and had their war. But then we invaded Granada, and had something like a war in Panama. It’s what we do. It’s what everyone does. And you’ve studied history – they make you do that in school. You’ve probably noticed that’s a connect-the-dots exercise. You connect the wars, the conquests and defeats, from ancient Troy to Baghdad this week, and you’re graded on getting the sequence right, and on being able to explain, as best you can understand, how this one led to that one and why. Then you hear some politician, or your minister on Sunday, say that no one wants war – people just want to live in peace and prosperity. They do? The evidence against that is overwhelming and you can become quite a cynic if you think about it even a little. Or you can shrug and just go about your business – people say lots of things.
But there were those few years that produced the Baby Boomers, when history took a break – when it was all true. Americans started families, with great enthusiasm. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it was an odd time.
Maybe you had to have been there, born as Vaughn Monroe was singing “Ballerina” on the radio and growing up playing Cowboys and Indians in the woods beyond the endless rows of tract houses, then later delivering the afternoon newspaper on your bicycle, tossing the news at each front step along the way. And then, somehow, the family got one of those new television things – the big cabinet and the small black and white screen – and there was Howdy Doody and later Ozzie and Harriet (and other families that showed how life was supposed to be lived), then Ed Sullivan – and life was good. What with a morning and evening newspaper, and that television, you got to know how the world worked – and what was funny and what not – and what was normal.
In short, you learned who to trust, and what normal people thought, and how they acted. And by the fifties, with the avuncular Dwight Eisenhower now in charge of the world, as far as you could tell, you understood that pleasant, even-tempered and kind uncles were at the center of things as they should be. By the time your parents let you go see The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) you got it – Michael Rennie was the pleasant, even-tempered and kind uncle from outer space, leading little Bobby around and explaining things, and Sam Jaffe was the pleasant, even-tempered and kind uncle who also happened to be a brilliant scientist, like Albert Einstein, also carefully avuncular in real life.
But the two uncles who dominated that odd time were the two Uncle Walters – Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite. One gave us, in 1956, the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland. The other gave us the news. We trusted both implicitly. You could say it was the Age of Trustworthy Uncles. Sometimes they even smoked pipes. Nothing seems as reasonable as a thoughtful man with a pipe – you know he’ll be fair.
And now, along with the evening paper and all the rest, we’ve lost Walter Cronkite – who was often called the most trusted man in America. And here he is, smoking a pipe of course.
But as those boom years of the late forties were a bit of a cosmic joke – people not making war, of all things – so too the most trusted man in America may have been a bit of a pose and not the real thing.
That’s what Jack Shafer argues in Slate, in Why I Didn’t Trust Walter Cronkite – “the CBS News veteran’s furry baritone, the consistency of his demeanor, the steady gaze of his eye – not to mention the news scripts he read to his audience five nights a week – all inspired deep confidence” – but that was all manufactured:
Cronkite first became synonymous with trust in 1972, when the Oliver Quayle and Co. poll included his name in a list of public figures to determine a “trust index.” Cronkite topped the rankings with 73 percent, which seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him. The “average senator” scored 67 percent in the survey, and President Richard Nixon – easily the least trustworthy animal ever to walk on two legs – received 57 percent, as did Hubert Humphrey.
That’s a bit of a joke, and Shafer cites Martin Plissner in his 2000 book The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections:
In surveys done for candidates in eighteen states, Quayle included a “thermometer” question regarding the level of public trust for candidates for the Senate and governor in those states as well as most of the men running for President. For reasons not entirely clear, Quayle added Cronkite’s name to the list.
Quayle tossed in Cronkite’s name on a whim, and Shafer wonders how NBC News (John Chancellor) and ABC News (Harry Reasoner) would have ranked had Quayle tossed their names in there too, as they were Cronkite’s competitors at the time.
The data Shafer cites are not encouraging:
As much as the public may have trusted Cronkite, he didn’t top all surveys. In 1974, before the Cronkite-equals-trust cliché took root, the Phillips-Sindlinger organization conducted a nationwide poll to determine viewers’ attitudes toward the top TV newscasters. Cronkite won the “best-known” category, but John Chancellor took the honors for “best-liked” and “most-watched” TV newsperson. Cronkite finished fourth in “best-liked,” behind Harry Reasoner, who placed second, and Howard K. Smith (ABC News), who placed third.
Yeah, yeah, but we all knew that Uncle Walter was fair and thus astoundingly trustworthy. We’d grown up knowing that.
Shafer begs to differ:
Accepting for the moment the argument the public trusted Cronkite because he practiced trustworthy journalism, it’s worth mentioning that between 1949 and 1987 – which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career – news broadcasters were governed by the federal “Fairness Doctrine.” The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion. One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy, which all three networks often did. The times that Cronkite directly engaged controversy can be counted on one hand – his 1968 special, in which he called the Vietnam War a stalemate and called for negotiations, and a pair of 1972 broadcasts about the Watergate scandal, both of which are cited in his New York Times obituary.
The rest of the time he was just reading the wire copy, or something. And Shafer also cites Adrian Monck and Mike Hanley in their 2008 book, Can You Trust the Media? They say it wasn’t just regulation that made Cronkite report only what he was supposed to report, it’s that “high public trust for a person or institution can also be accidental.” Their argument is that consumers shifted consumption of news from newsprint to television in the sixties and consumers simply shifted whom and what they trusted, so Cronkite simply lucked out – “Quite simply, people trusted what they used, not vice versa.”
And Shafer doubts that people would trust Cronkite now. There’s been another shift in what people use:
The news business has both expanded and fragmented in the post-Cronkite, post-Fairness Doctrine era. The news monopoly the three broadcast networks enjoyed for two decades has been shattered by the three cable news networks, all of which embrace (and thrive on) the controversy that Cronkite eschewed. The Web, which can make the cable news channels look positively Cronkitian, has only re-shattered the shards.
Shafer says the proof of that is PBS’s News Hour. That’s a Cronkite kind of news show and it is sinking:
The program was, as its co-founder Robert MacNeil just testified, one that Cronkite adored. Alas, the News Hour’s Cronkite-lite approach has failed to attract much of an audience. In fact, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism informs us that the News Hour is losing numbers, not gaining them: “For the 2007-08 season, the number of different people watching each week was 5.5 million, down from the previous season’s 6.1 million.” According to PBS research, the viewers are migrating to cable news, a fate that trusted Walter would probably be suffering today if he were still reading from the teleprompter.
Shafer says Monck and Hanley had it right – “Trust is a shoddy yardstick. It doesn’t gauge truth, it gauges what looks close to the truth: verisimilitude.”
Gee, that’s how some of us think about 1947 through 1956 – that was a time when we mistook what looked close to the truth for the real thing. But then we grew up.
As for the other source of news from those days, morning newspapers and evening newspapers, two or three of each to a city, those too have mostly gone under – and that raises the question of whether we trust what we use, or use what we trust, as many use the web these days to get a sense of what’s up in the world, or down.
Michael Kinsley explores that in Slate, in News Junkie Smackdown – “Who is better informed, newspaper readers or web surfers?”
The question is whether we need newspapers at all:
What if there were no newspapers anymore? Some people, mainly newspaper reporters and publishers, are warning that this is where we’re heading. And they declare, as with a single loud voice, “You’ll be sorry!” To save ourselves 50 cents or a buck, they say, we will be denying ourselves crucial knowledge that we need to be well-informed citizens of a democracy.
Even in the good old days when newspapers were hugely profitable, readers weren’t paying for what they read in newspapers. That 50 cents or a buck barely paid for the paper and ink, let alone the delivery – and never mind the cost of the content. More customers than ever are eager to read newspapers, and they demonstrate that every day by going to newspaper web sites. By foregoing paper and ink, the readers are saving newspaper publishers more money than it would cost to produce and deliver the paper the old-fashioned way. Newspapers’ financial troubles cannot be blamed on the readers. Nevertheless, publishers – almost as disenchanted with advertisers as the advertisers are disenchanted with newspapers – look to readers for their salvation.
But they aren’t there, or at least they’re not buying the paper – they’re reading the newspapers’ websites. The publishers have lost the battle:
The war over the physical medium is just about over. The economics of Web publishing are just too advantageous. Newspapers of the future, whatever their content or ownership, will be read on a screen of some sort, be it a computer monitor, a Kindle, an iPhone, or other “platforms” yet to be developed.
But who is better informed – those who still buy a newspaper, or two, or those who surf the web?
The rest is a bit of an experiment:
Starting Tuesday, Slate will be conducting a highly unscientific experiment. For three days, two (mostly) newspaper journalists will return to the time (now 15 years ago) when if you wanted to read the news (as opposed to watching it on television), you had to buy a physical object called a newspaper. They will each spend no more than an hour every day reading whatever English-language papers are available where they live. …
For the same three days, another team of two (mostly) Web journalists… will get all their news from the Web. The trick, of course, will be to exclude Web sites that are primarily shovelware (newspaper material dumped unchanged onto a Web site) or aggregation (sites or site features that strain the limits of fair use in order to summarize what’s in newspapers). …
On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons this week, we will post a discussion of the day’s news in which our guinea pigs’ knowledge and understanding – or ignorance and misunderstanding – of the news will be informally tested.
So you can check that out if you wish.
But that, as interesting as it is, is just one more indication that for those of us who grew up in that odd cul-de-sac that was one of those rare outside-of-history times – peace and prosperity – lived through something extraordinary, that Age of Trustworthy Uncles. None of it was true. But you tend to miss all of it anyway.