Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster? That’s not my question; it was posed by TIME magazine’s website to readers soon after the death of the venerable CBS anchor at 92. And the winner of TIME.com’s utterly unscientific survey is…Jon Stewart, whose 44 percent of the vote placed him far ahead of NBC’s Brian Williams (29 percent), ABC’s Charles Gibson (19 percent), and CBS’ Katie Couric (7 percent).
These results should surprise nobody. Stewart, now in his 11th year of hosting The Daily Show, has not only held his job longer than his network ”competitors” have held theirs, but younger adult viewers have often said his series is their primary news source. Because Stewart is too canny ever to risk sounding like the self-important windbags he has built his career mocking, he usually dismisses reports of his preeminent trustworthiness with mock horror. His show, he insists, is ”fake news”! He’s not a ”journalist”! This is all silly!
Yeah, yeah, whatever. The only time I don’t trust Jon Stewart is when he claims he’s merely a meek little court jester. He knows better.
My own trust in Stewart doesn’t stem from his liberal politics (which I share) or from the fact that he’s really funny. It’s simpler: I trust him because I know where he’s coming from. Anyone who watches The Daily Show quickly grasps Stewart’s progressive beliefs as well as his pet peeves — elected officials who say hypocritical, stupid, or self-contradictory things and journalists who let them get away with it. Politically, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s not weepy like Glenn Beck or a rageaholic like Bill O’Reilly or…well, feel free to supply your own unflattering adjective for Lou Dobbs. He’s just up-front about what he thinks. The Daily Show isn’t ”fake news”; it’s nightly commentary and media criticism. If you’re watching, you get that — and so you probably trust him.
In contrast, I wonder why anybody is expected to believe network anchors — not because they’re particularly weaselly but because they all go on TV every night pretending to have no thoughts about anything. Having watched them for years, I still know little about them except that they’ve all perfected a demeanor of earnest concern. Brian Williams offers earnest friendly-dad concern and creases his brow empathetically whenever ”our friends” in some unfortunate region endure a hurricane or a forest fire. Charles Gibson does earnest grumpy-uncle concern and generally looks like he fears we haven’t heard the worst of it yet, although he perks up considerably for medical-breakthrough stories. And Katie Couric pours forth earnest sincere-mom concern, as if she’s perplexed that there is even more bad news but willing to believe that things will be better tomorrow.
Sure, they radiate Cronkite-like unflappability. But their determination to appear nonideological results in a kind of false neutrality that journalists too often pretend equals balance. On network news, every political story always has two sides, neither side is ever better — fairer, more decent, more commonsensical, more provable — than the other, and the MO is to maintain the pretense that perfect objectivity lies exactly halfway between any two positions you’re covering.
The problem is that real people, no matter what their political stances, don’t think that way, and I don’t believe Couric, Williams, or Gibson does either. Trust them? Why would you trust someone who pretends everybody has a good point? Why would you trust someone who never comes down for or against anything — someone hell-bent on remaining unknowable?
Nobody wants the dumbed-down demagoguery that has infected cable news to colonize the networks. But it’s worth noting that one of the greatest moments of Cronkite’s career was when he transcended the masklike inscrutability that newscasters still try to maintain. In 1968, he went to Vietnam. And after days of on-the-ground reporting, he came back to CBS’ anchor desk and delivered an editorial in which he spoke to (and for) middle America when he said the war was ”mired in stalemate,” and that our government’s promises of victory lacked credibility. That night, Cronkite knew that telling a hard truth — even if it sparked accusations of bias — was more important than withholding his opinion. In the clutch, can we count on today’s anchors to do the same? If not, Mr. Stewart, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.