When America Actually Trusted the Media
When America Actually Trusted the Media

When America Actually Trusted the Media

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2022

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst dressed as the popular cartoon character the Yellow Kid. Wikimedia

11. Newspapers were a growth industry in the decades following the American Civil War

Following the Civil War and throughout the period of Reconstruction newspapers became a major growth industry, often fueled through government and party patronage. Newspapers became an early business in western boom towns, often supported by the mines, cattle barons, lumber camps, or other businesses which gave the towns their main source of income. Though they typically reported national news, copied from other newspapers, they also served as mouthpieces for the leading businessmen of the community. Smaller towns generally supported weekly newspapers, though in the larger cities and communities the growth of dailies continued unabated. By the end of the 19th century, the United States produced more than half of all newspapers published in the world. Most had loyal subscriber bases which turned to them for their information of world events. Competition for readers was fierce.

Major publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst shifted their publications to a less partisan middle-of-the-road political position, in order to attract more readers rather than alienate those of differing political persuasion. Instead, the newspapers began to focus on sensationalism. Reporting of hard news displaced editorials as the main focus of most publishers. Newspapers began to focus on the public interest in terms of societal ills; hazardous working conditions, child labor, adulterated food and beverage products, dangerous patent medicines, political machines, and more. The labor movement became a major focus of newspapers during the latter part of the 19th century. Americans came to trust the descriptions of their factories, railroads, bankers, meatpackers, steel mills, mines, and other industries as they were described in the newspapers of the day.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
USS Maine depicted the evening before it exploded in Havana Harbor, an event exploited by yellow journalists. Wikimedia

12. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer changed American newspapers forever

In 1887 William Randolph Hearst was given control of the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a wealthy miner and US Senator. Hearst hired considerable talent for his newspaper, including Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, but knew his dream of a chain of powerful newspapers could not be realized without an anchor in New York City. When he learned of the New York Morning Journal’s dire financial condition he purchased the paper, entering the New York market then dominated by Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World. The New York market was a crowded one, but Hearst’s primary target was Pulitzer, and the two newspapers engaged in a circulation war. Increasingly lurid headlines, sensationalist reporting, often based more on rumor than fact, and the use of art and cartoons soon marked both newspapers. Their war gave rise to the term “yellow journalism” as the papers struggled for readers.

The late 1890s featured the struggle of Cuba against Spanish oppression, and both Pulitzer and Hearst used the events on the island to drive their coverage. When USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Hearst led the charge for reprisals against Spain, blaming them for destroying the American battle cruiser. There was no evidence the Spanish had attacked the vessel and even less motive for them to have done so. But Hearst’s papers demanded its readers “Remember the Maine” and Americans widely accepted the false accounts of Spanish complicity. Both Hearst and Pulitzer tolerated journalism with little or no evidence of facts in their papers, driven by the need to increase circulation (and thus advertising dollars). Both published multiple editions daily, Sunday editions, news magazines, and foreign language editions. Though outright falsehood was not tolerated, speculation presented as factual was. Their readers didn’t know the difference.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Muckraker Upton Sinclair exposed the outrageous practices of the meatpacking industry in his seminal work, The Jungle. Wikimedia

13. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt warned the press against printing falsehoods

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt both attacked and praised a group of journalists who had emerged in the Progressive Era. These journalists and writers focused on the perceived ills of American society perpetrated by unregulated big businesses and their political cronies, the political machines of the day, and the corruption of the anti-labor movement. The President coined a term for them. He likened them to the muckraker in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Roosevelt described them as roiling the muck on the bottom of an otherwise placid pond. While he acknowledged that many of the ills described by the muckrakers did in fact exist, as did many others, Roosevelt had a warning for those practicing the new journalistic trend. He agreed corrupt practices and abuses should be attacked, but with limits on the attacker.

“I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful”. Roosevelt thus tasked the muckrakers with following a standard of integrity ignored by the yellow journalists, often employed by the same publisher. Muckraking stories led to changes of public opinion and the development of regulations concerning pure food, control of patent medicines, safer working conditions, increased wages and reduced working hours, and other areas. All were opposed by big business, but enough of the general public believed what they read in the papers to induce their government to act on their behalf. Muckrakers represented what the Founders intended when they insisted upon a free and uncensored press.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Ronald Reagan announced baseball games by reading ticker tape and creating the action for his audience, complete with sound effects. Wikimedia

14. Newspapers began to consolidate in the early 20th century

Beginning with E. W. Scripps in the early 20th century, as well other chains including Hearst’s, newspapers consolidated, with large corporations owning multiple newspapers in several different cities. Scripps also formed the United Press Associations, which later became United Press International (UPI) to compete with the by then almost monopolistic Associated Press. National news coverage began to change, with local news coverage remaining in the hands of local editors. Nearly all major cities published both morning and evening papers, often in competition with each other. National chains began to purchase both, often owning all the newspapers in a given area. At the same time, newspapers found a competitor for the dissemination of information. Radio broadcasts included news programs, some of which were little more than opinion pieces, while others used the news wires of the AP. UPI, Mutual, and others to broadcast national news.

By the 1930s radio had supplanted the evening newspaper as a source of information and entertainment. Americans listened to radio broadcasts which told them of events in Washington, in Europe, and in their local community. Lindbergh’s historic flight, the loss of the Hindenburg, the opening of Hoover Dam, and other events of national significance were all covered live by radio. So were baseball and football games, and the morning newspapers were no longer required to learn the score of the preceding day’s athletic contests. The new medium of radio quickly became a trusted source of news, with the added advantage of being available immediately, described by an eyewitness, or so most Americans believed. In actuality, many events, including sporting events, were described on radio by an announcer in a studio. He read the results of individual plays from a ticker tape.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
John Cameron Swayze, later famous for advertising Timex watches, on a 1955 broadcast of the Camel New Caravan. NBC

15. Television was slow to emerge as a leading news source

American society changed in many ways following the end of World War II. Americans, driven by the GI Bill and the expansion of housing in the suburbs, began to move outside of the major cities. Smaller, outlying towns found themselves absorbed into metropolitan areas. The automobile became the primary means of getting to and from work. Evening newspapers lost circulation, as they could not be read on a rail commute home at the end of the workday. Nor were many read once home was reached, where the radio and the new medium of television occupied the attention of their owners. Television, in its earliest days, did not have large news staffs, nor the means to transmit pictures other than by film. Film had to be shot on site, developed and printed and delivered to the transmission facility for broadcast. Still, television stations quickly developed news staff.

To support them they hired, for the most part, experienced journalists. Among them were Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC, Walter Cronkite and Eric Severeid at CBS. They wrote their own stories, for the most part, introduced other reporters and their stories, and managed the news broadcasts from a single location, which became known as the anchor. Evening newscasts began as brief broadcasts, fifteen minutes, barely enough for a summary of the day’s events. With only two national networks, soon joined by a third as ABC expanded nationwide, they were often sponsored by tobacco companies. In 1956 NBC’s Camel News Caravan, hosted by John Cameron Swayze and featuring David Brinkley, was replaced on the network with the Huntley-Brinkley Report. At least one American was unhappy with the change. President Eisenhower notified the network of his displeasure, though the change remained in effect.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
David Brinkley (onscreen from Washinton) and Chet Huntley in New York during a 1963 broadcast of the Huntley-Brinkley Report. NBC

16. Television changed America’s perception of the news

When reading a newspaper, if one lost interest in a story, one could simply look for another, more enticing article. Not so with television news. The only options were to change the channel, though there were few to choose from, turn off the television, or wait for the next story. The emerging networks decided what was and wasn’t newsworthy, and how much of the broadcast to dedicate to the story. By the early 1960s, fifteen minutes was no longer deemed sufficient for the day’s news. CBS expanded its nightly news broadcasts to 30 minutes in 1963. NBC, its main rival at the time, did the same just a few days later. Together, the two broadcasts presented the bulk of the televised national news when the 1960s began, ABC consistently lagged behind them in the ratings. All of the network broadcasts featured accomplished journalists.

Network and local newscasts adopted the practice of clearing identifying when a report was editorial in nature, rather than a report of hard news. They also developed the means of providing the same amount of time for the presentation of an alternative viewpoint, as required by FCC regulations. Trust in the network news was considerable. NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley became national celebrities. Their fame, and the trust of the public in their reporting, made the NBC news division profitable, able to charge higher rates for advertising. By 1965 advertising revenue from Huntley-Brinkley exceeded all other programs on television. As newspaper ad revenues slipped, and more and more evening newspapers declined in circulation, ratings for the network evening news broadcasts soared. Americans trusted what they saw on their television screens, as well as the men who produced it.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Walter Cronkite reporting from Hue, South Vietnam, in February 1968. CBS

17. Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America in the 1960s

Walter Cronkite presented his first edition of what became the CBS Evening News, a fifteen-minute broadcast, on April 16, 1962. Acknowledging the short broadcast could not possibly provide a detailed report of events, he closed it by telling his audience, “That’s the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all of the details on the headlines we’re delivering to you”. His admonition to Americans to become better informed did not sit well with his superiors at CBS, who wasn’t pleased with his sending the audience to view what they considered a competitor. But it indicated the complete dedication to the news, rather than the newsreader, which permeated the earliest television news broadcasts. Throughout the decade of the 1960s Cronkite, and his contemporaries took American viewers on a wild ride through events.

They included the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and the steadily expanding War in Vietnam. The Space Race, the anti-war movement, Martin Luther King’s murder, followed by Bobby Kennedy’s, and the attempted murder of George Wallace all played out on television, presented by Cronkite’s calming but factual voice. Cronkite went to Vietnam, interviewed generals and privates, soldiers and marines, and came to the conclusion the war was unwinnable. When he came home he said so, leading President Johnson to lament that having lost Cronkite he had lost middle America. There were no cries that Cronkite was biased, nor that what he presented was false. By the end of the 1960s, he was often called the most trusted man in America. Americans lost faith in their government but trusted the messengers who told of its transgressions.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, and Lyndon Johnson, at the latter’s Texas ranch in August, 1968. Wikimedia

18. Much of the turmoil of the 1960s was blamed on the media

In the late 1960s, war protests, the hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement, protests against the draft, and other nation-shaking events came to be blamed on the old American bugaboo, communism. Conservatives came to label those who opposed the war on Vietnam as anti-American. Civil rights protestors and their leaders were against law and order and American values. A growing movement in American politics, driven by the conservative right, considered the overwhelming majority of the news media to be supportive of the anti-American movement, with communist sympathies. Nightly news broadcasts which presented protest marches, draft-card burnings, Civil Rights demonstrations, and American troops beleaguered in Vietnam, were labeled as supportive of Communists in American politics. The messengers came under attack because the message was unwelcome.

Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by calling upon what he deemed the “silent majority” to support law and order in America. By inference, those who protested against government actions and positions were contemptuous of the law. A large fraction of conservatives labeled distrust of the government as supportive of the communists then attempting to take over Southeast Asia. After entering office in January 1969, Nixon and his administrations stepped up attacks on the American news media. Until Nixon, the news organizations were collectively referred to as the press. Nixon and his minions changed that, calling them the media. He also called them the enemy, to his staff, on multiple occasions. Vice-president Spiro Agnew, a former governor of Maryland, was tasked with attacking the media, explaining its enmity to the American people. Agnew took on the job with a vengeance.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and John Mitchell in the Oval Office in 1971. National Archives

19. Agnew led a direct attack on the American media during the first Nixon Administration

Under Agnew, and with the support of senior Nixon Administration officials, the American news media came under attack as it never had before. Agnew referred to the media as a “small and unelected elite”. According to the Vice-president, it was up to the media moguls to decide, “…what forty-to fifty million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world”. In Agnew’s estimation, what they chose to present in their printed pages and televised broadcasts was decidedly un-American. Agnew defined what he called a “credibility gap” opening between the “the national news media and the American people”. The Nixon Administration did far more than just deride the media in speeches and press essays. Journalists had their White House press credentials pulled in response to what the President felt was negative coverage.

Some journalists found themselves suddenly the target of continuing Internal Revenue Service audits and investigations. The White House tapped phone lines, including for calls not made to the offices of the administration. Agnew’s attacks rang a bell with conservatives, especially those who continued to support the war in Vietnam and opposed the changes over Civil Rights and desegregation. In 1973, after Nixon and Agnew had won a second term in a landslide, Agnew was revealed to have accepted bribes and kickbacks from contractors while in office as governor of Maryland. He also evaded federal taxes on the money. By then, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate Scandal. Agnew resigned as Vice-president and pleaded guilty to tax evasion in a plea deal. Nixon later claimed that Agnew had been hounded from office by a vengeance-driven media. In a 1980 memoir, Agnew claimed the White House “coerced” him into resigning.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Since the resignation of Richard Nixon, attacks on the media by political partisans have increased steadily. Wikimedia

20. Americans’ trust or distrust of the media depends on their political views

Since the scandals of the Nixon Administration, many others have plagued the federal government. There were the Abscam Scandal, the arms for hostages scandal (Iran-Contra), the 1980s Savings and Loans crisis, the Whitewater Investigation, and many more. The media covered them all, and since the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1980s in great detail. Still, whether that coverage has been trusted by the people has depended in large part on individual political orientation. Just as it has since the first press attacks during the Washington Administration, a large body of Americans trusts the media when they are told what they want to hear. When they are not, the media is labeled as biased, likely to provide slanted, or even blatantly false information, based on their own political positions and beliefs.

To firm conservatives, the American media is hopelessly biased towards liberals and socialism. To far-left supporters, the media is conservative and supportive of authoritarianism. Neither side trusts the media outlets they have determined are aligned with the other. Americans no longer obtain their news from trusted sources such as Walter Cronkite, or professional journalists. Instead, the bulk of their “knowledge” comes from entertainers, trained in fields other than journalism. Or, it comes from social media, repetition of unverified claims which gain momentum through internet sites. Yet the media still fares better than Congress when it comes to public trust. In a 2016 Pew Research poll, about 24% of respondents said they trusted national news organizations either “not too much” or “not at all”. In the same poll, 69% expressed distrust of Congress.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“About Gazette of the United States”. Article, Chronicling America. Library of Congress, Online

“National Gazette”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“American Newspapers, 1800-1860. An Introduction”. Article, Illinois Library. Online

“America’s Manifest Destiny”. Exhibit, Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Online

“John Brown’s Day of Reckoning”. Fergus M. Bordewich, Smithsonian Magazine. October, 2009

“Our Story”. Article, Associated Press. Media Online

“Horace Greeley: American Journalist”. Article, Britannica Media Online

“The New York Times”. Article, New World Encyclopedia. Media Online

“Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper”. Article, American Antiquarian Society. Media Online

“William Lloyd Garrison”. Article, National Park Service. Media Online

“Joseph Pulitzer: American Newspaper Publisher”. Article, Britannica Online

“US Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895-98”. Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Media Online

“Remember the Maine”. Tom Miller, Smithsonian Magazine. February, 1998

“Muckrakers of the Progressive Era”. Article, Students of History. Media Online

“History of Commercial Radio”. Article, Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Media Online

“Beginnings. Excerpt from ‘That’s the Way It Is'”. Charles L. Ponce de Leon, University of Chicago Press Media. Media Online

“The Huntley – Brinkley Report”. Article, Treasure State Lifestyles (Montana). Online

“The most trusted man in America”. Richard Galant, CNN. June 5, 2012. Online

“When the Revolution was Televised”. Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic. April 1, 2018

“Attacks on press recall Agnew’s ire”. Theo Lippman Jr, Baltimore Sun. July 9, 2006

“Spiro Agnew and the Des Moines Speech”. Charles Holden, Des Moines Register Media. November 10, 2019

“Spiro Agnew and the corruption defense”. Jonathan P. Baird, Concord Monitor. December 27, 2018

“The Iran Contra Affair 1986-1987”. Larry J. Sabato, Washington Post Special Reports. 1998. Online

“Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies, Trusted Voice of TV News”. Douglas Martin, The New York Times. July 17, 2009