Walter Cronkite, legendary news anchor for the CBS Evening News, died July 17. There will never be a figure in American journalism like him again. For 19 years, from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite was the news.
Since the rise of the Internet and cable news networks, the ability of one news network program to capture the attention of the majority of Americans has faltered. The Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that as a source of presidential campaign news in the 2004 election, nightly network news was down 10 percent from 2000. Meanwhile, cable and Internet news were each up 4 percent, and comedy TV shows up 2 percent, and with people ages 18-25 this decline in traditional news usage was much more dramatic.
Pew Research hasn’t done a massive survey on media usage in the 2008 election, but I speculate that these trends have continued through the last election cycle. Considering the success of President Barack Obama’s online social networking campaign and fund raising strategy, I would say the flight to online information sources is staggering.
The trend toward fragmentation is not the only factor in the de-Cronkite-ization of the American news landscape. There is also the issue of a partisan press—a sea change in media behavior, as compared to the Cronkite ideal.
Cronkite was an authority on the news of the day, and he was a distinctly neutral one. There’s no way any news anchor on television today, regardless of network or show format, could sign off with, “And that’s the way it is.” Because cable news and blogs are much more likely to be supported by a political standpoint, their conclusions are much more likely to be biased.
In the 2004 Pew survey, 39 percent of Americans said, “news organizations are biased in favor of one of the two parties.” In 1987, only six years after Cronkite left the CBS Evening News, 62 percent of people surveyed found media coverage to be unbiased.
America is not unfamiliar with a politically biased press. Indeed, the first newspapers after the Revolution were sponsored by political parties and were considered mouthpieces. By 1789, the Federalist Party, the party of George Washington, had the Gazette of the United States on its side. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of the Democratic-Republican Party urged the formation of the National Gazette, to counter the Gazette of the United States' political influence.
But by the mid-1900s, Americans were no longer familiar with a deeply partisan media. The expectation of an unbiased media is deeply ingrained and is taught without question to young journalists. But Cronkite and his unbiased,trustworthy delivery of the news have not been maintained in the popular media landscape. Cronkite has given way to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, who champions a point of view like no other. And then there are the political leanings of Fox News and MSNBC, both cable news networks who decided to wear their respective biased political leanings on their sleeve and were rewarded with higher ratings.
Sure, CBS, ABC and NBC all have their daily national newscasts, and they’re admirable, but they are not the behemoth of journalistic influence that Cronkite was. The current newscasts lack the monolithic audience, the glow of public trust, which Cronkite enjoyed. Walter Cronkite was an emblem of integrity and honesty that will be missed in journalism.
Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.