Why the World Trusted Walter

Walter Cronkite was as much a performer as today’s cable-news anchors. The difference, writes Lee Siegel, is this era of Olbermann and O’Reilly taught audiences to doubt the news.

07.19.09 1:17 PM ET

Read the Daily Beast's coverage of Walter Cronkite's life, plus VIEW PHOTOS and WATCH VIDEO of the legendary newsman.

We cynically reject any attempt at sincerity nowadays, but when it comes to the past we are as credulous as little children. You would never know from all the reverential commentary on Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at the age of 92, that this “legendary” and “iconic” news anchor was not naturally “avuncular,” “reassuring,” and “authoritative” in front of the camera.

In the last few days we have heard, like a mantra, that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” The implication is that there has been a terrible falling-off, that the news has let us down and we will never be able to trust anyone like that again.

Rather, Cronkite was a consummate performer who night after night put these qualities over on an audience yearning to be authoritatively and avuncularly reassured.

Did Cronkite fiddle with his earpiece or get up and take a look at news as it came in from the wire services spontaneously? Put anyone in front of a camera and they stop being themselves and start being what the camera requires of them. Show someone what they look like in front of the camera and they will never present themselves in the same way again. Did Cronkite really break down for a moment as he reported President Kennedy’s assassination? Maybe. Maybe not.

The difference between print journalism and TV, or what you might call screen journalism, is that the former hides the physical person while the latter reveals it. Once you introduce the element of watching someone else, you are in the realm of entertainment. The person you are Skyping with on your computer screen is no longer merely communicating with you. He or she is entertaining you. The advent of the TV anchor is the advent of the journalist as actor.

This is not to say that because Cronkite was performing his delivery of the news rather than “being himself” as he delivered it, he was some type of fraud. On the contrary. He was some kind of wonder.

Proust had his madeleine, millions of people have the memory of Cronkite’s voice—his gravelly imperturbable tone is bound up with the illusion that the past is a golden country, that before Kennedy’s murder, Vietnam, and Watergate, America was a stable, innocent, harmonious place.

But America was always mad in its innocence, conspiracy-fraught, conflict-driven, ebullient, boisterous and bad. What has changed between Cronkite’s heyday and the disappearance of his type is our perception of authority. America and Cronkite both shared the illusion that public life did not consist of a series of masks that had to be ripped away. If Cronkite said that’s the way it was, then his audience happily believed that’s the way it was. We accepted his performance of sincere authority because we wanted to.

Now the Olbermanns, O’Reillys, Stewarts et al. sign off after assuring us that nothing is as it seems. Their job is to puncture anyone who in the previous 24 hours told us, with any kind of authority, that this is the way it was. And we happily accept their performance of ironic, sarcastic anti-sincerity because we want to.

Yet all we’ve done is exchange Cronkite’s illusion of knowledge acquired (all that’s worth knowing is what he told us) for the current illusion of knowingness achieved (all that’s worth knowing is that every claim to knowledge is a sham).

The question is, which is more dangerous? A situation in which we feel that news authority is to be taken at its word—thus making us vulnerable to deception? Or a situation in which we feel that the function of the news is to keep stripping away the illusion of its own authority—thus making us vulnerable to the deception that, well, we are now invulnerable to deception? Is it better to have the wool pulled over our eyes, or to be blinded with the illusion of transparency? Better to be deceived as gullible fools, or as knowing fools? Either way, we still keep getting deceived. 

It really all comes down to which style of anchor-acting we prefer. Cronkite performed aloofness, detachment. The lachrymose moment in his reporting of Kennedy’s killing was so affecting because he rarely displayed any type of emotion.

But even today’s network anchors are casual emoters, striving for a kitchen-table intimacy with viewers. As for the cable anchors, their faces are the upper body equivalent of a failed sphincter nerve. To watch Campbell Brown mimic happiness, sorrow, anger, compassion, indignation, earnestness in the space of a few minutes—the only element of her that stays jarringly the same is her shiny, bouncy hair and her shiny, dewy eyes—is to experience what the French poet Rimbaud called a “derangement of the senses.” Though transformed by the camera, Cronkite performed for an audience. Brown et al. perform for the camera.

The change from Cronkite’s stage acting to today’s anchors’ film acting is irreversible. And despite all the laments for the bygone time of reliable news that have attended Cronkite’s death, we wouldn’t have it any other way. In the last few days we have heard, like a mantra, that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” The implication is that there has been a terrible falling-off, that the news has let us down and we will never be able to trust anyone like that again.

This, however, is nostalgic nonsense, similar to the way we once exterminated Native Americans, drove them into reservations, and then began to sentimentalize them as noble savages. We prefer to flatter ourselves by feeling that we can see through the performance of trust, through the claims of authority, and that’s just the way we—or, at least, the mainstream media—like it.

For we are told over and over again—like a mantra—that although 20 million people still watch the news on the three networks, “trust” will never return because between 1 and 1.5 million people watch Jon Stewart’s skewering of the news on The Daily Show. We are told by the very same mainstream media—with peculiar masochism—that college students no longer get their news from newspapers or serious TV news shows, when at no time in modern history did the majority of college students ever show much interest in serious anything, let alone the boring news. Reading the paper or watching the news is part of a routine, and routine comes with age.

If trust ever did return to the news on a Cronkite scale, the media themselves would run it out of town.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.