Walter Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and trust

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A meaningless - and not just meaningless but bad - Time.com poll that "found" Jon Stewart is the most trusted news anchor is worrying journalist types; a heated but shallow discussion on Facebook set me off, and now it's on the Trib and HuffPo and you're just going to have to indulge me for a minute. Beyond the fact that THE POLL IS MEANINGLESS, a couple notes.

1. Seriously, the unscientific and badly structured poll is transparent link bait. I feel dirty just acknowledging that it exists. My apologies. Not going to link to it, but Steve Johnson does a good job of explaining why it's so flawed.

2. The root cause of this latest freakout about the influence of the Daily Show is the death of Walter Cronkite and the decline of the lionized, influential Big 3 news anchor.

Which is a real phenomenon, don't get me wrong; the evening network news programs have lost half their audience since 1980. But before even getting to news or content or anything like that, it's at least worth recognizing how structural changes in American society are, I think, a major cause.

The obvious change is the proliferation of cable news and the Web. Back in the day, you couldn't read the news at your desk; now, by the time 6:30 (5:30 central!) comes around, it's possible, depending on how much you actually work at work, to already be up on virtually all the news that will make up the broadcast. And if one network or another has an exclusive, you can always catch it later on their Web site.

But notice something: 5:30! Do you know anyone who's regularly home by 5:30? I don't! The decline of the evening network news has tracked not only the rise of cable and the Internet, but women's lib and a lengthening American middle- and upper-middle-class work week.

So discounting content, presentation, coverage... already network news is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

3. Content - right. Beyond the broader, more abstract problems facing network news, two of the anchors Stewart was pitted against (I'm honestly unfamiliar with any of Couric's work) have deeply and specifically embarrassed themselves in recent years, and that can't be discounted when talking about "trust."

Williams's news organization, for instance, was the target of a Pulitzer-winning 2008 New York Times investigation by David Barstow about the network's use of military contractors as seemingly disinterested and dispassionate military analysts. See if this doesn't chill your bones:

"General McCaffrey harbored significant doubts about the invasion plan. An informal participant in the war planning, he was troubled by Mr. Rumsfeld’s resistance to an invasion force of several hundred thousand, he acknowledged months and years later in interviews. Mr. Rumsfeld’s team, he said, was bent on making an 'ideological' point that wars could be fought 'on the cheap.' There were not enough tanks, artillery or troops, he would say, and the result was a 'grossly anemic” force that unnecessarily put troops at risk.

"That is not what General McCaffrey said when asked on NBC outlets to assess the risks of war. As planning for a possible invasion received intense news coverage in 2002, he repeatedly assured viewers that the war would be brief, the occupation lengthy but benign.

"'These people are going to come apart in 21 days or less,' he told Brian Williams on MSNBC.

"In the fall of 2002 General McCaffrey joined the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a group formed with White House encouragement to fan support for regime change. He also participated in private Pentagon briefings in which network military analysts were armed with talking points that made the case for war, records show."

Oh, and from The Nation, 2003:

"NBC News has yet to disclose those or other involvements that give McCaffrey a vested interest in Operation Iraqi Freedom. McCaffrey, who commanded an infantry division in the Gulf War, is now on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies—all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts. Despite that, IDT is floundering—its stock price has fallen by half since March 2002—a situation that one stock analyst says war could remedy. Since IDT is a specialist in tank upgrades, the company stands to benefit significantly from a massive ground war. McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that 'armor and artillery don't count' enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, 'Thank God for the Abrams tank and... the Bradley fighting vehicle,' and added for good measure that the 'war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker.' In March alone, IDT received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware. "

Williams's response to Barstow's story? McCaffrey's my friend, so you can trust him.

Charlie Gibson? My favorite insane media moment of 2008 was when Gibson freaked out about capital gains tax cuts during one of the Democratic presidential debates. David Sirota:

"This sickening episode was topped off by ABC's Charles Gibson, who only months ago humiliated himself by insinuating that typical middle-class families make $200,000 a year (95 percent make less). Last week, while moderating a debate, Gibson segued from the 'bitter' comment into a tirade against rescinding capital gains tax breaks, implying the proposal would hurt most Americans. This, even though the tax cuts in question delivered the vast majority of their benefits to the richest 1 percent."

The audience - I recall this vividly - laughed at him. During a nationally-televised primary debate.

And here's Gibson on the run-up to the Iraq war:

"It was just a drumbeat of support from the administration. And it is not our job to debate them; it's our job to ask the questions."

The video is fascinating, all three Big 3 anchors discussing what went wrong in the news coverage of the Iraq war. Except only Katie Couric thinks anyone did anything wrong. Notably, she mentions that journalists expressing dissent were branded as unpatriotic, which reminds me of how Williams's former NBC colleague and ex-rising-star Ashleigh Banfield got immediately disappeared after giving a stunningly critical lecture about war journalism.

Couric herself has spoken out about corporate pressure during her time at NBC, as has former MSNBC reporter Jessica Yellin.

Bringing this back around to Walter Cronkite: it's significant that, in the wake of his death, the most common reference has been to his commentary following the Tet Offensive. Perhaps the most surprising part, to contemporary ears, comes in the first paragraph: "we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective."

Plenty is said about Stewart's gifts, which are many, and his role, which is important. But if we're going to assume that he is, in fact, more trusted than his quasi-colleagues in the real-news business, it's impossible to separate that from their recent, well-publicized failures. Stewart is gaining our trust, but at the same time they've done much to lose it.


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