Walter Cronkite, the great CBS anchorman from 1962 to 1981, was called “the most trusted man in America” — and polling supported that claim. He’d conclude his CBS Evening News broadcasts with the phrase “And that’s the way it is.” And it was, too — or, more precisely, Uncle Walter defined for most Americans what was news: what was important, and why.
How different is the world today? Polls now show the media’s credibility sinking to historic lows, with only 23 percent of Americans expressing confidence in television news and newspapers.
At the same time, there are more media outlets than ever — print, broadcast, online, social media. New York Times columnist Bill Keller enthuses that “for the curious reader with a sense of direction, this is a time of unprecedented bounty.” His habit, he noted in a column last month, is to follow the news in the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Al Jazeera English, and many other outlets.
Most news consumers — however curious they may be — are unlikely to have Keller’s “sense of direction,” his ability to separate fact from opinion and to recognize misrepresentations, propaganda, and blatant lies. Nor can most readers spend as much time as does a professional newsman gathering information from a long and diverse menu.
I’m writing here for an elite and highly educated audience. But how many of you, I wonder, could speak with authority about the credibility of Ozy Media, Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker, Reddit, and UpWorthy?
A former senior federal law-enforcement official recently e-mailed me and others an article from a publication called Diversity Chronicle about an 18-year-old West German woman who was attacked while sunbathing and subsequently found guilty of “raping” eight Muslim men “in the first case of its kind in Europe.” The story was a hoax — but it was slick enough to fool this sophisticated individual and perhaps others on his list.