In Search of the Most Trusted Person in America

After Walter Cronkite passed away last week, I started wondering who would succeed the former CBS Evening News anchor as the most trusted man in America – a label that evolved from a 1980 magazine poll and stuck with him until his death.

In today’s environment, it is hard to imagine that any journalist would be regarded as the most trusted person in America. We live in a polarized nation: The left criticizes the right, the right criticizes the left, and both sides blame the press as often as possible. This hit home for me on Sunday when MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann was introduced at Yankee Stadium to provide play-by-play for the Old Timers’ Day game and drew a round of boos and hisses usually reserved for elected officials who show up at the ballpark to toss out the ceremonial first pitch.

Lest there be any doubt that the reaction of the Yankee faithful was an anomaly, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its 2009 State of the Media report, offered some hard facts and data about today’s attitudes toward the media, concluding:

“The public retained a deep skepticism about what they see, hear and read in the media. No major news outlet – broadcast or cable, print or online – stood out as particularly credible. There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on.”

If the Pew study’s assessment of public opinion about the media is accurate, then the most trusted person in America today is not likely to be found in the world of journalism. Where then will we find him or her?

Politicians, entertainers, athletes, even clergy members all have had their images tarnished in recent years. Just yesterday, federal law enforcement officials arrested dozens of people in New Jersey on money laundering and corruption charges. The group included elected officials, rabbis and civic leaders. “The list of names and titles of those arrested today sounds like a roster for a community leaders meeting,” said Weysan Dun, special agent in charge of the FBI in Newark.

New York Magazine took a crack at finding the nation’s new most trusted person and assembled a list that includes (among others) Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and David Petraeus.

At first glance, a magazine poll may not seem like a suitable way to bestow the title of most trusted person America, but that’s how Cronkite first received that description. True, he earned our trust over the years with his reporting on historic events ranging from President Kennedy’s assassination to the moon landing, but it was a small, unscientific poll of 1,000 women conducted in 1980 by Ladies Home Journal that led to Cronkite being labeled the most trusted man in America.

The poll itself, however, did not actually give Cronkite that label. The poll was divided into categories. The women voted Cronkite the nation’s most trusted newscaster. There were separate categories for most trusted political leader and religious leader.  Cronkite was named the nation’s most trusted newscaster by 40 percent of the respondents. Perhaps since this was a higher percentage than the most trusted political leader (Gerald Ford with 11 percent) and religious leader (Pope John Paul II with 36 percent), Cronkite became known not just as the nation’s most trusted newscaster, but also as its most trusted person.

As for today, in the wake of Cronkite’s passing, Time Magazine conducted a poll to determine America’s most trusted newscaster. Katie Couric, the current host of the CBS Evening News, was nowhere near the top. She received just seven percent of the vote. Anchors at the other major networks fared better, but still fell far short of the 40 percent Cronkite received in 1980. ABC World News anchor Charlie Gibson finished with 19 percent, and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams garnered 29 percent.

The winner, the man whom the respondents deemed best suited to succeed Walter Cronkite as the most trusted newscaster in America, was a comedian. New Jersey’s own Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable television channel, received 44 percent of the votes. That’s even more than Cronkite amassed in 1980 – and the label stayed with him for nearly three decades until the end of his life.

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