A quick google search for ‘the most influential news anchor of all time’ will quickly lead one to Ranker @ ranker.com. The person that fills the top slot on this list is Walter Cronkite, who served as the CBS evening news anchor from 1962 to 1981. For those old enough to remember, he always finished his news broadcast with “… and that’s the way it is.” A quick look at the list on Ranker will leave one with the impression that there are no credible news casters still practicing their craft in 2021. The youngest of the ‘credible’ group listed is Jane Pauley and the majority are deceased. Instead we’ve migrated to a point where Lester Holt, on several rankings, leads that pack of credibility with only 32% of respondents stating that they ‘trust him a lot.’
Author’s note - As a personal rule I don’t watch televised news sources as I’ve found them to be more theater and entertainment than I do factual. I go out of my way to avoid anything related to FOX News and/or MSNBC. If someone uses peripheral news sources, such as MSNBC and / or FOX or something even more extreme like the Palmer Report or Newsmax, then I discredit their claim almost immediately and question their general paradigm of how the world functions. If someone tells me that a news agency in the general middle is either liberal or conservative, then that statement tells me more about them and their thinking than any other point they’ve brought up.
So, what has caused this decline in the perceived trustworthiness of our news anchors and ergo our news industry? Why do we place such poor confidence in those in whom we turn for information? Isn’t information the life line of solid understanding and awareness? Isn’t understanding and awareness required to maintain a correct paradigm of how our society works and functions? This shift from having trustworthy news sources that told it ‘the way it is’ towards what we have now isn’t accidental and wasn’t at random. There have been systemic changes in our laws coupled with proliferation of information that has contributed to our situation.
In 1927 Congress enacted the Radio Act, which laid groundwork in the playing field of public news. Section 18 of the Radio Act was the precursor to the ‘equal time rule’ and mandated that each news station give equal opportunities to political candidates. This 1927 Radio Act was reinforced in 1949 with the passing of the Federal Communications Commissions Act which contained a clause called the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine required that holders of a broadcast license to do a couple of things. Firstly, it required that holders of broadcast licenses present controversial topics of public importance through their broadcasting and secondly it also required the broadcasters to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. This balanced approach remained in place for the next 38 years up until 1987 when the law was repealed.
In 1985 when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Conservative Radio Shows were flexing their might, the 1949 FCC Act came under scrutiny. Claims that the FCC Act hindered each broadcaster’s First Amendment rights of free speech were the instrumental driver in this scrutiny. In a 4 – 0 vote the FCC Board abolished the act. As a direct result of this legislation, conservative talk radio became more unfiltered, more divisive, and more vicious. The most notable of these radio talk show hosts was Rush Limbaugh who started using verbiage that was previously banned. There is no liberal talk show host that fits this description during the 1980s simply because liberal / progressive programs have never been as popular as conservative ones and few liberal talk show hosts had national exposure at that time.
In 1987 Congress tried to pre-empt the commission’s vote with legislation but Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill. In 1991 another attempt by Congress to reimpose the FCC Act lost steam with then President George H. W. Bush. Two other rules were eventually dismantled as well: the ‘political attack rule’ and the ‘political editorial’ rule. Both of these corollary rules being revoked also lead to further extremism in broadcasting. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications act which removed the ‘conflict of interest restrictions on all major media outlets.
As broadcasters were no longer held to ‘truth’ and ‘balance’ in their news broadcasts they then started to seek the news stories that provided financial gain and political dominance.6 The advent of the internet and internet advertising facilitated this shift away from truth also. Citizens started to look for information sources that reinforced their natural biases and thoughts and then rated whether something was ‘truth’ based upon on how well it met their own personal world paradigm regardless of facts. A feedback loop was then created, citizens sought sources that validated their world view and broadcaster provided that source to get more advertising dollars. A report from Yale University titled ‘Fighting Fake News’ states that the most salient danger associated with ‘fake news’ is the fact that it devalues and delegitimizes voices of expertise, authoritative instructions, and the concept of objective data – all of which undermines society’s ability to engage in rational discourse based upon shared facts.
We can see evidence of this today, with the rise of conspiracy theories that are driven by speculation and anecdotal evidence only. In 2020 we saw rise to many conspiracy theories about the Corona Virus such as it was just like the flu and that masks provide no protection; the rise of QAnon; and a rigged presidential election; anti-vaxxers; vapor trails, etc. Claims of Fake News have been common catch phrases of leaders in politics to include our former POTUS. These claims echo from nearly a century ago when Adolf Hitler adopted and proliferated the term Lügenpresse or lying press. The term fake news is now used to attack factual news sources to further discredit them. These factual news sources have been delegitimized as was spoken about by Yale University.
Several organizations have been created to combat fake news and provide a source where one can go to fact check. Sites such as Politifact, Ad Fontes Media, Truth-O-Meter, and Snopes have risen in popularity to combat fake news. While not 100% accurate, these sources do provide a mechanism for one to seek truth, but these too have fallen under attack as they do not fit the confirmation bias of many citizens which is reason enough, in their mind, to label fact checkers as fake news also.
In 2021 listening to news is not a spectator sport that is safe. It is a treacherous arena that is difficult to navigate and requires careful thought and research. Media bias charts are beneficial for helping to filter out bad news sources. It is generally safe to say that if a news source uses inflammatory or leading language to debase the opposition, always supports one side, and causes emotional responses then it is likely not a good source for receiving news. If the news broadcaster is controversial and wildly popular then he / she is not likely a good source for receiving news. All of this is unfortunate and as Walker Cronkite would say – ‘and that’s the way it is.’
About The Author: Lee S. Phillips currently resides in Chicagoland after having been raised in Washington state and having lived in 10 other states. He is a progressive Republican (a RINO), a reforming bigot, a liberal Mormon, a husband of one, a father of two, an honorably discharged Army Veteran, and a graduate from Utah State University who needed more student loans so also earned an MBA in finance.