Walter Cronkite, who as long-time anchor of the CBS Evening News, was known as “the most trusted man in America”. He and Edward R Murrow were seen as the epitome of honesty and integrity in journalism. Those two and many others set the standards for televised journalism, sifting through the nonsense to give Americans a clear, concise understanding of the events and people around us.
That was then. This is now.
NBC anchorman Brian Williams embellished his experiences during the first Gulf War and has lost practically all journalistic credibility. Williams claimed that he was riding in a helicopter that took on enemy fire when it turns out his aircraft was not in harm’s way. His recent retelling of the false story has resulted in a six-month suspension though it’s unlikely that he will be allowed to return to his job.
Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly has twisted the facts of events in his career, both on his television show and in his bestselling books. He has claimed to have reported from a war zone when he was actually over a thousand miles away… and he told various tales of witnessing violence, including suicides and murder, though there are recordings that prove that he did not experience those events in person.
Now, I’m not here to rip on Williams or O’Reilly. They’re big boys who will weather these storms. Both are financially secure and will continue to be well-compensated. O’Reilly, for one, seems to be thriving from the publicity as his TV ratings have inched upward in the wake of this controversy. And while Williams will not be a network news anchor ever again, it is quite possible that he will succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show later this year.
No, there’s no need to shed tears for either.
The thing is… we the viewing audience are expected to believe what we’re told by the people in front of the camera. Somehow, we believe that the person on television has credibility simply because of their stature… that certainly they are trustworthy or else they wouldn’t have been given such a prestigious post from which to report. Often, such as in the case of Williams and O’Reilly, we are misled. Our trust is broken. In some cases, we demand justice in the form of dismissal.
But perhaps we are too eager to be trusting. Just because people are made famous because of their position doesn’t automatically grant them some form of trustworthiness. I want someone to earn my trust. I have no intention of flipping the channel to some talking head on the news and granting that person my undying loyalty simply because he looks like someone who is telling the truth. I expect more, and so should you. Listen to what a person says, but do your own research. Don’t be so willing to be spoon-fed a few headlines when you should hunger for the details… so you can piece together your own informed opinion.
Now, before you think that I am too cynical for my own good, let’s pause. Yes, I do grant unilateral trust in people I barely know… and, to be honest, in people I will never know. And so do you.
You trust that the driver of the car coming in the opposite lane will maintain control. You trust that your doctor and pharmacist are knowledgeable and will do their best for your good health. You trust that the person who made your sandwich washed his hands first. All these mundane, routine occurrences of life… we trust others in part because we just don’t focus on those details.
(If, by mentioning these few things, I’ve made you feel a little bit paranoid… I apologize. Rest assured. Odds are the other driver IS in control, the doctor and pharmacist ARE using absolute care with your health, your sandwich IS free of contamination. Probably.)
By now, I’m starting to sound like I’m on some “good old days” kick, harkening back to a time when we didn’t have to worry about such things, a time when your neighbor was as good as his word. Sorry to burst your nostalgic bubble, but those days never existed. Mayberry USA is a figment of your imagination. People have been lying and cheating and conniving since the dawn of civilization. No one era was more innocent than any other, not is the modern generation more corrupt than those of the past. We’re just more aware of it now… with more options to be informed, even if those options are misleading.
I’ve gone down this rant pathway before, but it’s worth repeating: just because someone rich or famous or pretty says something, don’t allow yourself to believe it unconditionally. Invest some time and effort and look into the facts yourself.
And don’t just take my word for it. After all, I’m just some guy sitting in front of a computer.
(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on March 5, 2015.)