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Cronkite, Media, and The Way It Was…

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Just as there will never be another pop star like the late Michael Jackson, there can never be another journalist like Walter Cronkite. In ways that partly parallel the music industry, traditional broadcast journalism has changed dramatically since those quaint days of of the three-channel, black-and-white TV universe. In both industries, changing technology, demographics, and economic conditions have had a large – and largely negative – impact on the industry’s economic model and its influence.

But, there’s another important reason why Cronkite’s passing symbolizes the end of an era. Traditional media – once the ultimate authority, embodied by the television anchor – has steadily lost credibility over the past decade.  According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, in a 1998 survey, 42% of people gave CNN the highest rating for credibility on a scale of one to four. In the most recent survey, only 30% gave it the highest rating. Other television networks suffered a similar deterioration, as have key print outlets.  No matter how you read the data, it’s clear that the public feels a deep skepticism about what we read, see, and hear in the press.

Blame it on the ubiquity of “infotainment,” the blurry line between reporting and commentary, the rise of “shouting heads” TV, plagiarism scandals, or budget-cutting. Chalk it up to our ever-more-skeptical national character. The fact is that no journalist – in fact, no individual – is likely to inspire the trust that the most trusted man in America enjoyed. As Howard Kurtz suggests, maybe that’s a good thing. But, it’s also a bittersweet reminder of just how much has changed.

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