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
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:

“American newspapers during ratification, 1787-1788”. Article, Center for the Study of the American Constitution. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Online

“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

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