Why We Trust Who We Trust

We’ve lost Walter Cronkite, and the world has thus become a somewhat less reasonable place.  Cronkite was a classy, diligent journalist–not just some telegenic personage who read the news, but a journalist–and he will be missed.  As has so often been said, Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.”  When he spoke, people listened, because they knew that he probably had something insightful (or, at the very least, useful) to say.  He tried to be thorough and objective, because he respected his audience, and they in turn respected him.

Nonetheless, the “most trusted man” moniker is an odd beast.  Some claim that the phrase originated in a viewer opinion poll, and that in said poll, Betty Crocker came in second.  This would obviously strike a blow against the creditability of the “most trusted” title, since Betty Crocker is clearly beholden to the whims of her corporate overlords, the Washburn Crosby Company, for whom Marjorie Child Husted created her in 1921.  Also, it probably bears mentioning that Betty Crocker is not a real person.

As far as I can tell, the poll in question is this one:

In 1989, Marketing Week published news of a survey among people ages 50 to 64 to identify ”celebrities whose endorsement would influence purchases.” Results: 1. Betty Crocker; 2. Walter Cronkite; 3. Bob Hope; 4. James Garner; 5. Bill Cosby; 6. Alan Alda; 7. George Burns; 8. Cliff Robertson; 9. Mary Tyler Moore; 10. Chuck Yeager.

Betty Crocker, who beat them all, including Walter Cronkite, was a long-established creation of advertising imagination.

Assuming that Ryan is correct here, we’ve just learned two interesting things.  First, that being a celebrity “whose endorsement would influence purchases” has gradually mutated into a general measure of trustworthiness.  Second, that Betty Crocker–who, at the risk of pressing the issue, is a fictional character–was actually deemed more trustworthy than Walter Cronkite.  And if being trusted means nothing more than convincing people to buy certain products, then indeed: In Crocker we trust.

Let’s keep all of that in mind while contemplating that Jon Stewart is “the most trusted newscaster in America ‘now that Walter Cronkite has passed on.'” This revelation, as I’m sure Jon Stewart would be the first to point out, is fairly depressing.

Fairly depressing, but also undeniably accurate.  CNN and Fox News and NBC and CBS are doing a considerably worse job of informing us than is Comedy Central.  If the 24-hour news networks or the local evening news were to disappear tomorrow, we would lose nothing but a whole lot of shrill, partisan noise.  If The Daily Show or The Colbert Report were to disappear tomorrow, we would lose something as truthful and indispensable as the best reporting of Walter Cronkite.

It is a mark of our culture’s deep cynicism, but also of its emerging self-awareness, that our most trusted newsman is a satirist.  Walter Cronkite allowed us to believe that the truth is something dignified and cathartic.  Jon Stewart shows us that the truth is just as often profane and absurd.  These two contributions, in many ways, could not be more different from one another.  But they are both incalculably important–certainly more so than the contributions, such as they are, of Katie Couric, or Charlie Gibson, or Betty Crocker.

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