Walter Cronkite was one of the most famous news anchors in U.S. history. Many people regard him as unbiased and the ‘gold standard’ for how a news anchorman and a station, in general, should be. He is still widely known as “the most trusted man in America” after he was named so in a poll of the American public in the 1970s. But the concrete trust held in anchormen and women in the American public has waned since the 1970s, and now many news anchors are blamed for spreading misinformation and “fake news” to boost the ratings and viewership of the news program they anchor. But, why has this happened? And what are “ratings” anyway? I will attempt to use this article to explain the history of the news anchor and the leadup to the modern distrust of anchors and large news companies. As well as to also expose the economically focused mindset of modern news corporations, to the detriment of their credibility.
Section 1: History and Technology
Image of Walter Cronkite before a CBS Nightly News broadcast. (CBS Photo Archives/Getty Images/Newsweek)
While individuals like Cronkite are lauded for their achievements, we must look further into the history of American news to better understand what it takes to be a “Cronkite.” In the colonial era, news was often delivered via a man in the central square of a colonial town shouting the daily news to the citizens who would listen. This type of news was often behind schedule by weeks, due to the months-long voyage to the Americas from Europe in sailboats and large-masted ships of the royal navy. This meant that the news was a relatively minor aspect of the information sphere of colonial settlements. But as the American colonies gained independence, new inventions allowed for the increase in the importance of the daily news cycle. The best example of this was the invention of the printing press, which allowed for the mass (and cheap) production of newspapers, which led to so-called ‘daily newspapers’ being published (like the Daily Bugle). Due to this rise in prominence, fact-checking became an important aspect of newspaper publishing. However, this also inversely led to the rise of the War Correspondent during the late 1800s. The earliest example is Sir William Howard Russel, an Irish reporter with The Times. He is considered the earliest example of a modern war correspondent, doing weekly reports from the battlefield of Crimea and Sevastopol while attached to the British army. He utilized the recently invented technology of telegraphs (which usually took a day to transmit information back to London) to provide relatively accurate accounts and descriptions of battles in Crimea. With the invention of the telegraph came a boom in industrial technology which made it possible to provide nearly instantaneous news reports from highly developed areas like Europe. Around the end of WWII, television became a much more accessible commodity to the average American, but before then, it was the radio. Radio news reports are still present today, but most news is now reported either online or on TV (Interestingly enough, Walter Cronkite started his career as a radio announcer for WKY Kansas City). The rise of television and radio also led to the rise of the 24-hour reporter, with the pioneering news channel for this new concept being the Cable News Network (CNN).
This image, captured by a CNN Camera from the center of Baghdad, was famously being watched by the US President and his generals during the bombing of Baghdad. When the CNN footage cut, it was a sign that the telecommunications center in Baghdad had been disabled. (CNN)
Section 2: CNN and the ‘24/7 News Cycle’
But with the rise of the 24-hour channel came the rise of news anchors. Already prominent since the 1950s (Walter Cronkite being the most famous), anchors took on an even more vital role in the spread of news throughout America. But this had some consequences, such as anchors using their unprecedented influence to spread misinformation or biased news. The ‘24/7 Cycle’ has also been criticized for making stories out of nothing to create viewership and maintain the cycle of revenue generation already in place. In fact, even before the 21st century, CNN faced some criticism for its 24/7 model, which many critics said made up stories so it retained CNN’s viewer base. Despite this criticism from the general public, the 24/7 cycle has remained in place across many major broadcasters in American media like CNN, Fox, NBC, etc. One notable exception includes the National Public Radio (NPR), a news organization funded by the US government. One side effect of the cycle is that major news broadcasters now mainly focus on the shock and emotional hits of stories to draw in ‘ratings’ to keep themselves paid. But what are ‘ratings’, and why do they matter so much?
Snapshot of a CNN broadcast during the Colorado Senate race. (CNN)
Section 3: Ratings and “Breaking News”
“Breaking News” is one of the most commonly seen phrases in current American media, although most “breaking news” is of an insignificant nature, or so lately reported that most already know about it. This has drawn criticism from the general public and has even grown some skepticism among the companies that often use the moniker. “Breaking News” ties directly to the concept of ratings. Ratings are a combination of several numbers and figures, such as the daily viewership of a program and viewer retention. An example is the record-high number of viewers of Fox News (more specifically the program that Tucker Carlson anchors), which reached 3 million viewers at a concurrent moment. This also coincided with CNN experiencing its worst amount of viewership and ratings in over 10 years, a record-low number for any organization. Desperate for ratings, many news companies have started diversifying the way they deliver news and content to their viewers (similar to the rise of mobile streaming apps like Disney+ and Netflix). CNN+ is the most infamous example of this mobile streaming app concept, and it was canceled within weeks of being launched due to poor ratings. This is because of the shrinking trust Americans have in their news organizations, with a Gallup poll in 2022 revealing that only 34% of Americans had “a great deal or fair amount of trust in news media”. This was only two points ahead of the all-time low of 32% during the 2016 Presidential election, which shows that trust has not rebounded over the 7 years it has been since 2016. Lowering attention spans, declining trust in media, and the overall spread of misinformation by news organizations has led to a decline in news ratings and the rise of independent journalism. (Note, this article was made before the Fox News/Dominion Voting Systems $787 Million lawsuit settlement).