When I was growing up, the big three networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — had news anchors who were among the most respected and trusted individuals in the country. Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor, David Brinkley — all were names you associated with responsible, unbiased and fair reporting.
That was the standard of the day, in part because that was good journalism, and in part because there was (and still is, although many of the laws have changed) FCC oversight of network news. That’s due to the limited airwaves, which limits the number of broadcast (as opposed to cable, satellite and similar) networks. There was a fear the networks could unduly influence, for example, the outcome of an election by the way they presented the news.
The networks were required to present opposing sides of controversial issues, as well as offer political candidates equal time on the air. If the candidates declined the offer, that was their choice, but the networks still generally attempted to provide balanced coverage.
Journalists believed in their responsibility to provide the public with accurate information. Yes, there were those who gave biased reports, and frankly, it’s virtually impossible not to let your own beliefs creep into your writing in sometimes subtle ways. Still, the standard was high, and the networks, for the most part, met it.
Of all the anchors on the three major networks, Walter Cronkite was the most revered, having been named the “most trusted man in America” in numerous polls. He earned that title. Rarely would he let his own feelings show in even the most emotional, or for that matter, mundane stories, always maintaining a professional distance, yet fully recognizing and respecting the impact his stories would have on his audience.
Yes, he choked up when he told the world President Kennedy had died, and his efforts to maintain his composure were visible. The world was a different place then, and it changed when the President of the United States was assassinated. Today, it is hard to imagine such a loss transforming the country in the same way.
His almost child-like excitement when a man first walked on the moon was one of the only other times he stepped away from his professional demeanor. We’ll forgive him for that.
Today’s blatant partisanship by so many of the news outlets weakens their credibility and contributes to the divisiveness between those of differing political beliefs. It’s hardly the only factor, but it’s a significant one.
The increase in communication outlets via cable television and the Internet (particularly social media) has also helped to erode a sense of unity. It’s now acceptable, and profitable, to be outrageous as a journalist or self-proclaimed expert in any area of law or politics.
Freedom of speech, in particular freedom of the press, was designed to benefit the American public. Any such freedom stands the chance of being abused, and that’s the price we pay. Yet we all have a responsibility to respect each other and treat these freedoms in a mature, equitable manner, remembering their purpose.
I’m not suggesting legal action be taken against those who behave like fools in the name of First Amendment freedom. Rather, I believe, as citizens and the audiences of the various news outlets, we use discretion in our selection of news sources, and by changing the channel, cast our vote for honorable journalism.
Image Credits: (television) © Gino Santa Maria — Fotolia; (Reporter Gear) © James Steidl — Adobe Stock; (woman gossiping) © alessia.malatini — Fotolia