You have to go back a few decades to remember when Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America.”
The venerable Cronkite anchored the “CBS Evening News” for 19 years before retiring in 1981.
His kind but authoritative baritone guided viewers through some of the most traumatic and dramatic events of the 20th century, including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; the civil rights movement in the South; the first man to walk on the moon; the Vietnam War and Watergate.
In 1972, prominent pollster Oliver Quayle wanted to determine the level of trust people had for those running for public office that year, including Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Inexplicably, the CBS anchorman who ruled the network news ratings was added to the list.
Cronkite won out, though the survey didn’t ask about his rivals John Chancellor of NBC or Harry Reasoner of ABC.
That was enough for CBS to brand its news anchor “the most trusted man in America.”
Deserved or not — media critic Jack Shafer wrote in a column after Cronkite’s death in 2009 that his trust index score “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him” — the label stuck.
An Obama administration statement on Cronkite’s passing read in part: “He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family. He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.”
Is there such a person in America today?
Do Americans even trust each other any more in this climate of bitter partisan politics, opinionated news outlets, cheating sports stars and unscrupulous business moguls?
When Cronkite ended the evening news with his signature tagline, “And that’s the way it is,” that was how it was.
Not so anymore.
Of course, there were only three major TV networks and PBS in the country doing news broadcasts when Cronkite was on the air. Daily newspapers were more local or regional than national, limiting readers’ exposure to different voices.
The internet and social media brought access to seemingly unlimited sources of information — and misinformation — competing for people’s attention. Many news outlets have aligned themselves with one political philosophy or another. Americans trust voices they agree with and disparage those they don’t.
Former President Barack Obama recently told The Atlantic that when he finished his memoir, “A Promised Land,” he worried about the degree to which the country does not have a common baseline of fact and a common story.
“We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough,” he said.
Millennials see the world differently than Baby Boomers who see the world differently than the dwindling Greatest Generation.
In querying many people from various walks of life about who might be America’s trusted voice today, a wide collection of names came up: Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, David McCullough, Oprah Winfrey, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Is it really weird that the only person I can think of is Dolly Parton?” said Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.
The 74-year-old country star reemerged on Netflix, was the subject of an NPR podcast, donated $1 million toward coronavirus vaccine research, dropped a new song — “When Life is Good Again” — and has 5.1 million followers on Twitter, where she posted a reassuring message of hope amid the pandemic.
But like many others, Parton appeals to a limited audience, not the masses. And some of them also generate a lot of strong negative feelings.
So after a little head scratching, the answer often was no one fits the bill.
“Unfortunately and even a bit ominously, we do not have a most trusted voice in America right now. Each of us, in our own lives, can point to people we trust because they have earned it — whether certain family members, local civic or church leaders, teachers or coaches — but not a voice for all of us,” said Kael Weston, a Utah author and military instructor who spent seven years with the State Department in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Says Florida-based independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, who co-founded ESPN earlier in his professional career, “I do not believe there is any trusted person or resource remotely close to Cronkite in today’s world.”
Rasmussen asked people in a recent survey to identify which of the following news sources they considered unbiased: the New York Times, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post. None topped 30%. “None of the above” was the choice for 36%.
Natalie Gochnour, an economist and associate dean at the University of Utah business school, settled on a thing rather than a person. (Swift was her second choice — “aged well” as an artist, terrific albums this year, spoken out on important social matters.)
Her choice: National Public Radio.
Her reasoning: The most important factor to me in this decision was to look at America’s next and rising generation. I asked myself the question who is a trusted voice for millennials, the largest generational group in America with over 72 million people?
Gochnour said in her experience, millennials frustrated with the “alarming and sensationalized” voices of cable and network news turn to NPR as a trusted source of information during a period when trusted sources are needed.
All things considered, that might never be more true than during a tumultuous 2020.
Certainly Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, would be at the top of some lists. Fauci has calmly guided the nation through the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis with understandable explanations and straight talk.
Former Democratic senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said the most popular broadcasters now are trusted mostly by those who agree with their political opinions.
“That is very different from Cronkite because we didn’t know what his political opinions were,” Lieberman told the Deseret News.
Lieberman, who also identified as an independent Democrat, said it’s hard to find a broadly trusted leader in government or even religion today.
“So, the name that comes to my mind is Bill Gates — successful, smart to the point of being wise, nonpartisan, and an enormously generous and strategic philanthropist and global problem solver,” he said.
A new Gallup poll in an open-ended question found Americans are most likely to name President Donald Trump and Michelle Obama as the most admired man and woman in 2020.
But that’s not the same as most trusted.
When you Google “Who is the most trusted person in America?” Tom Hanks tops the list of results. That’s because Reader’s Digest in 2013 compiled a list of 200 American opinion shapers, leaders and headline makers from 15 professions, including entertainment, politics, media and business, for a nationwide public opinion poll.
Hanks emerged atop the magazine’s “100 Most Trusted People in America” list as a result of the survey. Sandra Bullock finished as runner-up.
That was more than seven years ago. It doesn’t appear that there have been many attempts since to identify the country’s most trusted voice. And maybe there isn’t one.
Cronkite himself didn’t seem to put too much stock into the title, telling USA Today in 2002, “Trust is such an individual thing. I don’t think it’s definable.”
After Cronkite died, New York magazine put together a list of the “new” most trusted person in America: Winfrey, Hanks, Colin Powell, Gen. David Patraeus, Jay Leno, Warren Buffett, Jon Stewart, Michelle Obama, Suze Orman and Tom Brokaw.
Some of them might make the list today.
Buffett, the 90-year-old investor, business tycoon, philanthropist and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is the choice of former Health and Human Services secretary and GOP Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt after some thoughtful consideration.
Leavitt described Buffett as a widely known icon who is respected as among the best in the world at what he does. Buffett, he said, is essentially nonpolitical and leads by giving much of his fortune away.
And perhaps a characteristic most critical to being a trusted voice, Leavitt said Buffett is able to speak truth to power.
In 2008, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?”
When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Stewart, the entertainer/fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN.
Last year, the American Conservative posted a story with a more definitive take.
“Joe Rogan: The Most Trusted Man in America,” read the headline. A comedian, television host and UFC color commentator, his podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience” is one of the most popular in the country and tops the Apple Podcast charts.
But is he really the most trusted person in America? Is Hanks? Is Oprah? Is Gates?
RIP Walter Cronkite.