Lordy, Walter Cronkite is gone. Nearly thirty years after he retired as anchorman for the CBS Evening News, the most trusted man in America has regrettably gone to meet his maker at age 92. What amazed me is that even though Cronkite had been largely off camera for thirty years, his passing has inspired genuine grief from millions of Americans. It seems like more people are mourning Cronkite’s passing than Ronald Reagan’s. Cronkite should have faded from our memories by now but for many of us he looms large and singular all these years later. One thing you hear repeatedly is that America will never trust anyone again as they trusted Walter Cronkite.
If you want to be the most trusted person in America, it helps if you have little competition. Cronkite thrived in television news in an age when you had three networks and thus only three choices for your evening news. Cable was just emerging in the 1970s and cable news did not appear until CNN was born around 1980. Today with so many ways to acquire our news, many of them new, it is hard for any individual today to stand out they way Cronkite did. Few of us even bother to watch network news these days. The whole idea of TV network news is almost obsolete.
Cronkite seemed singular but in reality, he followed in the footsteps of the late Edward R. Murrow, who spotted him as a war correspondent in London during World War II. Murrow made it possible for us to place our trust in Cronkite because like Cronkite, America trusted Murrow. I was not old enough to watch Murrow live on television, but I was certainly aware of his legendary influence growing up. I suspect that even those under thirty who never saw Walter Cronkite behind his desk at the CBS Evening News felt his presence.
We trusted Cronkite not only because he looked trustworthy, but he was born in an age when journalism was a highly ethical career, where facts mattered and where professional duty required impartiality. In our new media age, some of us now place this level of trust in certain news bloggers. In fact, few bloggers are impartial, but many are voracious consumers of the news. A talented few have minds like Sherlock Holmes and can sift through vast amounts of information to discern the truth. A couple of bloggers that I deeply respect include Marcy Wheeler and Andrew Sullivan. Neither Marcy nor Andrew though would qualify as traditional journalists but rather interpreters of the news gathered by others. Cronkite, like all journalists, was a person with his own biases that only occasionally leaked out in the form of editorials. Cronkite though was not afraid to investigate an issue, although while anchorman he delegated most of this work to his staff. He was an imperfect perfectionist, always striving to provide America with the best-informed information available on a particular news day. It was reflexive in him and we could tell. That is why America trusted him. We never got that sense about his replacement Dan Rather. At least Cronkite could tell us, “That’s the way it is,” while all Rather could come up with was a pithy “Courage.”
Cronkite proved that trust must be earned in order for it to be placed. Cronkite earned the trust of millions of Americans through his fanatical devotion to objectivity and insistence on quality shoe-leather journalism. What was neat about Cronkite is you never got the sense that he had a bloated ego. On camera at least, he came across like someone out of a cold shower: relentlessly measured and sober. During the scary years of The Cold War where the stakes were often life itself, you could not trust much, but you could trust Uncle Walter.
Who should we place our trust in now, if anyone? It is unlikely that we will ever see that level of trust again in a television journalist, simply because to have it you have to have both a very large audience and be a journalist at your core. Technology has made the former very hard to acquire, and journalism as I studied it in the 1970s is almost gone. More of us are comfortable having our news served to us with spin, be it from the obviously right-wing Fox News or the obviously left-wing MSNBC. CNN claims to hold the middle ground yet populates its shows with cast of characters paid to show their biases. The closest I can find to high quality journalist on CNN is Campbell Brown. She is much nicer to look at than Uncle Walter, but even she is no Uncle Walter. On the radio, National Public Radio has some terrific hosts, but they are faceless. Hosts like Robert Siegel sound terrific but are faceless. You cannot stare them in the eye and get a sense of their soul, like you could with Walter Cronkite. Nor is it clear how much of what they present on the air they direct. Uncle Walter was in charge of the CBS Evening News. On NPR, it appears the producers direct the work.
The Washington Post asked prominent and not so prominent Washingtonians who they think should inherit Cronkite’s mantle of trust. The results were pretty disturbing and included Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart (please!) I like Barack Obama too but before I put Cronkite levels of trust in him, I would like to see how he did with four years as president. Oprah is energetic, empathetic and certainly filthy rich. Do I trust her to provide the insight and informed judgment needed in the 21st century? Not a chance, even if she did do much to make Obama our first African American president.
I can think of some non-journalists who I think can rise to Cronkite’s level of trust. These are typically people who tell us uncomfortable but true things about ourselves and our world that we do not necessarily want to hear or take to heart, but which we know in our heart are nonetheless true. And they have also earned a level of trust through actual deeds.
My number one choice is Nelson Mandela. He spent twenty-eight years in prison for his convictions and has a moral authority probably second to none in the world. Mandela, 91, while a great moral authority, does not claim to have any special understanding of the United States and our particular situation. Yet he is probably the most singular, inspiring and trustworthy living worldwide figure since Mohandas Gandhi. In many ways, I think he surpasses Gandhi, who himself was a very peculiar man. As I learned, in the process of trying to make things better Gandhi often made things worse. Mandela is a gentle and compassionate soul whose moral leadership moved the toxic Apartheid state of South Africa into a modern pluralistic state. In the process, he has inspired and revered by billions worldwide.
My number two choice would be the Dalai Lama. Popes come and go, some better than others and some worse, but the Dalia Lama (whoever he is in his latest incarnation) is consistently compassionate and demonstrates a saner and more sustainable way for human to live and the world to thrive. Buddhists though rarely get much respect because they are so unnoticed. Yet Buddhists are often full of great insight and wisdom. To my knowledge, Buddhists have never caused any wars and have always strived to live simply and compassionately. Like Mandela, the Dalai Lama has little to say to America that we want to hear, nor is he vested in the issues of our day.
My number three choice is actually my number one choice because he lives among us. He is a surprising choice because during the years that Americans got to know him best, he was not terribly popular. His name is Jimmy Carter. He is often telling America things that we do not want to hear, but he speaks with great moral authority, is grounded in our culture and our values and has the humbleness that Cronkite manifested on camera as well as a compassion for all suffering people.
What is truly great about Jimmy Carter though is that when he speaks we know in our hearts that he is right. He is right, for example, when he told us that Israel is engaged in a slow genocide on the Gaza Strip. President Carter is now 84 years old. Given the actuarial tables he will probably not to be with us much longer. For those of us who find it hard to trust in a nebulous god we can neither see nor feel, we look for examples among us of the best that we can be. For myself, I can think of no better person to place my trust in now that Uncle Walter is gone than in Jimmy Carter.
May Jimmy, like Uncle Walter, live a long life. May we Americans learn much from him in the time we are fortunate to have him with us among the living. Like Walter Cronkite, we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.