The year was 1968. Newspapers and nightly news broadcasts were filled with stories about college students — my age and younger — who were protesting our nation’s military action in Vietnam. Students were marching on campuses and in Washington D.C. They carried signs admonishing the rest of us to “Make Peace, Not War!”
I was an 18-year-old college student who was self focused. My major concern was wrapping up my four-year-college program and graduating that May.
Thus, even though I was raised in a family that valued and closely followed the news, I missed the pivotal moment when a news reporter took an extraordinary step. On Feb. 27, 1968, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite concluded the evening broadcast with an editorial in which he explained to his viewers what he had seen on his recent trip to visit U.S. military forces in Vietnam.
Cronkite, who had steadfastly supported our government’s actions in Vietnam, stunned his audience with his prepared script. He read, “...it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.”
Cronkite concluded, “...it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
“Uncle Walter” or — more informally — “Uncle Walty” as he was nicknamed, did hold the trust of the American people. In fact, he was the most trusted anchor among many trusted news reporters of that era. And, his forthright, honest, even-handed assessment of our nation’s failing efforts in Vietnam helped set us on a path out of that military conflict. For finally, on March 29, 1973, President Richard Nixon was able to withdraw our troops from Vietnam.
Besides reporting on Vietnam, Cronkite had experience in reporting on the bombings of World War II and the Nuremburg trials that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Following his effective work as a wartime correspondent, Cronkite earned the nation’s trust as an anchor providing even-keeled nightly news reports. Later in his career, he covered Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis.
It was Cronkite’s persistence. He insisted on immediate, yet accurate, reporting. His calm demeanor helped a stunned nation proceed through and process the agony of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963. Cronkite was on hand, again, to help when civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Cronkite’s ability to relay the details of the assassinations, coupled with his capacity to help us face the reality of those critical moments contributed substantially to our nation’s trust in him as our news source. Likely, his reporting on President Kennedy’s death rendered Cronkite’s words in 1968 about our failing action in Vietnam more believable.
Cronkite, who became famed for wrapping up each nightly news report with the words “And that’s the way it is…” followed by that day’s date, was believed; was trusted to be accurate!
Joshua Johnson — who, until recently, served as the host of PBS’s program called “1-A” — aptly summarized the news industry:
“Journalists are not in the information business; we’re in the trust business.” -Meet the Press, Dec. 29.
Indeed! Over the history of our nation, our media has had both its shining moments and, also, its less than stellar moments.
It is critical that the media are reliable. It is incumbent on those in the media to build trust.
Developing and maintaining the trust of readers/viewers is a full-time job for journalists. In today’s world, social media platforms — such as Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and YouTube — add to the noise. Those platforms frequently masquerade as news and thus add to the chaotic scene. Social media now serves as a kicked-up backyard fence — a place where gossip thrives. Backyard-fence gossip did cause confusion and damage, but those spoken words tended to evaporate relatively quickly, at least compared to today’s gossip. Today’s tech-supported chatter appears more authentic because it is written; it also has the advantage of being visual — as in video form. Those videos can be either original or altered — fake. Verifying or discrediting those videos is a monumental task even for professional journalists.
Unfortunately, social media’s “news” often gets lumped in with articles from “main-stream” — or — as I think of it — reliable media,
Fortunately, there are many among the media who work strenuously to retain their audience’s trust.
Top among the many print newspapers and the radio/TV broadcasts who work assiduously to earn trust is National Public Radio.
Visit https://www.npr.org/ethics to catch a glimpse of NPR’s commitment to developing and to retaining our trust.
NPR directs its staff to continuously focus on accuracy, fairness, thoroughness, clarity, and honesty.
Excerpt from website:
“Journalists who conduct themselves honestly prove themselves worthy of trust. In the course of our work, we are genuine and candid. We attribute information we receive from others, making perfectly clear to our audience what information comes from which source. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture. We may sometimes construct hypotheticals to help explain issues and events, but we reveal any fabrication, and do not otherwise mix fiction with our news reporting. We edit and present information honestly, without deception, and we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we report. Only in the rarest of instances — such as when public safety is at issue, or when lives are at stake — might we disguise our identity or intent when reporting. Before we take such a step, we engage in rigorous deliberation and consider all alternatives. Then, when we tell the story, we fully disclose what we did and why.”
In fact,”honesty” appears to be NPR’s mantra. Not a shabby mantra to maintain. (Having listened to NPR for nearly 40 years, I can say that Public Radio adheres to its truth-in-reporting standard. Also, having worked in the newsroom of the Gettysburg Times for 20-plus years, I can vouch for the paper’s devotion to accuracy.)
Always, we must fight the self-honesty struggle. Journalists are no different. In fact, seeing beyond our own biases is perhaps the most challenging part of finding truth.
In today’s noise-plagued world, it is imperative that our governmental representatives set aside their prejudices and be honest with themselves. In fact, we — the voters — should make certain that our elected officials know that we want facts, not “alternative facts.”
It would be beneficial if we all committed ourselves to honesty and to building trust among each other.
Joshua Johnson, on NBC’s Meet the Press interview, pointed to the Bible as a guideline.
“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” -John 8-32.
In an era when we are busily accusing each other of falsehoods and when we are struggling to discern truth, the Biblical phrase seems very apt.
Finding and seeing truth has always been painful. In today’s world it is even more difficult. Thus, we must set ourselves to the task of unrelentingly seeking the truth.