When America Actually Trusted the Media

When America Actually Trusted the Media

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2022

American trust in the news media coincided with a brief period of time during which most Americans trusted their government as well. There’s little wonder it was short-lived. Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans have expressed distrust of the media, which in the early days was limited to newspapers and magazines. Then, as now, those relied on advertising revenues, rather than subscription fees, for their income.

The earliest newspapers were usually produced by printers, a sideline which generated publicity for their services, as well as expressed their opinions regarding the events of the day. Benjamin Franklin was among the most successful. He lobbied for the 1792 Postal Act, in which the fledgling US government in effect subsidized newspapers by mandating delivery fees to be charged. At that time a vigorous press was deemed essential to democratic government.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous early publishers in America. Wikimedia

A first-class letter delivered by the Post Office cost anywhere from six cents to 25 cents, depending on the distance it traveled. A newspaper traveled the same distance for less than two cents. The recipient paid the postal charges. In colonial America, newspapers thrived by publishing attacks on the governments of the colonies, and suppression of the press became commonplace prior to the Revolution.

As a result, the Founders ensured the protection of the free press in the Bill of Rights, in the new state constitutions, and in local laws. Succeeding politicians soon learned to regret their position. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper”, Thomas Jefferson wrote in exasperation in 1807. Yet much of the public did believe them. Here is the story of when Americans trusted the media, and how that trust eroded over time.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Thomas Paine used the medium of pamphlets to urge Americans to support the Patriot’s cause during the Revolution. Wikimedia

1. Prior to the Constitution, pamphlets served as the chief source of political discourse

Before and during the American Revolution, printers and political leaders seldom used the newspapers to express their views on politics. One reason is that both the Royal governments in the colonies, and the rapidly growing patriotic movement, took action against newspapers which expressed views contrary to their own. Newspapers focused on the news received from other papers, rather than local affairs. Shipping and mercantile news dominated the papers of the eastern cities. Reports of local crimes, social affairs, and other community news were relegated to the back page, if covered at all. Advertising and business news dominated the newspapers, including shipping news, auctions, the arrival of special goods from overseas, and so on. Political discourse was present but to a lesser amount. Political views were instead presented in pamphlets, prepared and distributed to shape public opinion.

One of the most famous such pamphlets, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, argued the logic of independence for the United States before it had become a major subject of debate in the Continental Congress. Another, The Crisis, rallied the public during the disastrous (for the Patriots) year of 1776. Following the Revolution, pamphlets led to the cry for a more effective form of national government. Yet the three American founders who shaped the arguments supportive of ratification of the new Constitution chose to present their vision in newspapers. The Federalist Papers, as they came to be called, appeared in American newspapers in 1787, written under the pseudonym Publius, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The debate over the Constitution shifted American newspapers to standing as primarily partisan political outlets. They remained as such for much of the first eighty years of United States history.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Alexander Hamilton helped found and used Treasury funds to support a partisan newspaper while serving as Secretary of the Treasury. Wikimedia

2. The first American presidential administration founded its own newspaper

America’s Constitutional Convention and subsequent ratification debate occurred against the backdrop of a bloody revolution in France. American views over the French Revolution were divided along largely regional lines. New England and New York supported, for the most part, the Royalists in France, and agreed with the emerging Federalists in the United States calling for a strong central government. In the agricultural south and gradually expanding west, support for the revolutionaries, as well as the Republican viewpoint in American politics, called for more power to be centered in the governed, rather than the government. Though George Washington was elected to the presidency unanimously in the Electoral College, it was to preside over a government already riven by the divisiveness of partisan politics. His leading political allies, especially Alexander Hamilton, recognized the need to express their views directly to the people.

In April 1789, John Fenno, working with Alexander Hamilton and others of the Washington Administration, published the first edition of the Gazette of the United States in New York City. When the government moved to Philadelphia, the Gazette moved with it. The newspaper received supportive funding from leading Federalists, and through Hamilton from the government itself. Its sole purpose was to present the administration in a favorable light, support its policies and positions, and praise its actions to the people. Opponents to the Federalists came under heavy fire, in articles, essays, and even poetry. The paper became widely read outside of Philadelphia, and eventually Washington City, especially in the Federalist strongholds of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. It eventually moved Jefferson and other opponents to the Federalists to start Democratic-Republican newspapers to counter its influence.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Jefferson countered Hamilton by using State Department funds to help fund a newspaper offering an opposing point of view. Wikimedia

3. One of America’s earliest political scandals involved a newspaper’s links to the government

In 1791, Thomas Jefferson attempted to publish a refutation of the Federalists’ positions advocating a constitutional monarchy in the Gazette. Fenno denied him the space in the newspaper. Jefferson, with James Madison and other leading opponents of the Federalists, turned to Philip Freneau. Jefferson, as Secretary of State, offered Freneau a job as a translator in the State Department. The job was little more than a sinecure. Instead, Freneau took the reins as editor of the new National Gazette, a newspaper which presented the views of the Democratic-Republicans, criticized the Federalists (including Washington), and supported the revolutionaries in France. Personal attacks on leading Federalists, including Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, were common in the National Gazette. Attacks on Democratic-Republicans featured in the rival Gazette of the United States. Both became national newspapers.

Other newspapers across the United States reproduced the articles found in the two Gazettes, in a manner later adopted using the Associated Press, United Press International, and other agencies. Thus, leading sources of newspaper content throughout the country were subsidized by factions of the Federal government. When the links to the government, through Hamilton for the Gazette of the United States and Jefferson for the National Gazette became known, both papers were exposed as political instruments, rather than independent newspapers. Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, which ended financial support of the State Department for the National Gazette. The paper ceased publication that year, though it had by then bestowed the nickname “His Rotundity” on Vice President John Adams. The Gazette of the United States continued to publish until 1818, though under varying names and owners.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Manifest Destiny – America’s inevitable expansion to the west – saw newspapers spring up in new settlements across the country. Wikimedia

4. Daily newspapers emerged in the late 18th century

During the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, the overwhelming majority of newspapers in the United States were weeklies. The first daily newspaper appeared in Philadelphia in 1784. By 1810, 27 newspapers published daily editions, as far south as New Orleans. The emergence of the daily newspapers meant additional sources for news were needed beyond the national papers, which focused almost exclusively on politics. It became commonplace for Congressmen to write letters and essays for their local newspapers. A focus on local news emerged, as well as coverage of the affairs of settlers on the continually expanding frontier. Through the War of 1812, American newspapers remained almost exclusively partisan, vehicles for the expressing of political views of their publishers, as well as unbridled condemnation of their opponents. Politics remained the chief source of information to be found in newspapers across the country.

Until about 1840, the national newspapers in Washington continued to be the chief source of news for the growing population of newspapers in the United States. That changed slowly, as the nation expanded to the west. The industrial age took hold. Factories sprang up in cities, steamboats appeared on rivers and lakes, railroads and canals connected cities. Locally prominent businessmen and issues began to take precedence over stories of national interest. The latter focused on American involvement in foreign affairs, and the politics of Washington. Americans came to trust those newspapers which reflected their own political preferences and beliefs and look with suspicion on those which did not. Major newspaper editors began to focus their publications on issues other than national politics, though political viewpoints continued to dominate the editorial pages.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
An advertisement illustration from an 1835 issue of the Charleston Mercury, a leading sectionalise newspaper of the South. Wikimedia

5. The rise of sectionalism during the antebellum era led to distrust of the media

During the first half of the 19th century, the issue of slavery came to dominate American political discourse. The concept of manifest destiny emerged, leading all Americans to consider the entire continent as destined to become part of the United States. Southern newspapers and magazines supported slavery, as it existed in the Old South and as necessary in the emerging new territories. Northern newspapers, particularly those published by abolitionist societies and organizations, opposed the expansion of slavery and demanded its end in the existing states. Southerners placed their trust in regional papers, and condemned those of the North as spreading lies, debasing Southern society. The Southern press accused their Northern counterparts of being against the Constitution, which not only allowed slavery but provided for the counting of slaves as part of the population.

The telegraph, along with the railroads, allowed for the rapid dissemination of news from around the country. News of the conflicts in Kansas and Missouri were transmitted to eastern newspapers in near real-time and were reported in the daily papers of the large cities. The same event led to men like John Brown being acclaimed a heroic patriot in the South, a murderous traitor in the North. Individual citizens made their assessments based on the information they read in their local newspapers. Human nature dictated that readers trusted a newspaper sympathetic with their personally held views. Sensationalism, especially in headlines and subheaders served the same purpose relegated to clickbait over a century later. Competing newspapers frequently questioned the accuracy of each other as they vied for sales and subscribers.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Steamboats along the St. Louis levee in 1850 attest to its importance as an inland port. Wikimedia

6. The telegraph led to the formation of the press services during the antebellum era

By 1850, America’s inland cities had grown to rival many of those of the east. In the 1850 census, Cincinnati, Ohio, was the 6th largest city in America. St. Louis, in the slave state of Missouri, was 8th. Other western cities were just beginning to experience the growth which would eventually rank them among the world’s great cities, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco. Newspapers appeared which catered to the growing immigrant populations. Newspapers written in German, Italian, Hebrew, Irish, and, in New Orleans, French and Spanish were common. These newspapers relied on communication with each other, via telegraph, for the dissemination of news of national importance. Eventually, several joined together to form the Associated Press, with one newspaper per community linking with others in distant cities. AP dispatches allowed the western newspapers to report the news without relying on New York or Washington for information.

Once freed from the eastern newspapers, and their inevitable bias in reporting news events, western newspapers became more objective in their reporting. Their editorial pages remained slanted in the direction of their owners, but their news reporting appeared more straightforward. This contrasted them with the bulk of the eastern newspapers, which being closer to the political and business centers of the nation remained openly biased in their reporting. During the 1820s to the onset of the American Civil War, newspapers enjoyed immense influence and popularity, from the penny press (equivalent to today’s tabloids) to the large dailies in most cities. How much they were trusted by their readers was measured in their circulation rates and daily newsboy sales. Business and political leaders feared and respected them, due to their ability to sway the opinions of their readers.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
This caricature of Horace Greeley appeared in Vanity Fair in 1872. Wikimedia

7. The New York Tribune became one of the nation’s most influential newspapers

Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune offered daily editions in New York, and a weekly edition which was distributed throughout the emerging west in the 1840s and 1850s. The weekly edition’s influence was such that one journalist, Bayard Taylor, claimed it rivaled that of the Bible in the American Midwest. Greeley expounded views out of sync with the government. He opposed the American war with Mexico, the expansion of slavery into the conquered Mexican Territories, and the Compromise of 1850. He also opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers in those territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery. When it passed, he supported packing the territories with settlers from free states. His famous exhortation for young men to go west was based as much on his desire to rid New York of homeless and unemployed immigrants as his desire to see new lands settled.

Greeley relied on the loyalty of his readers, both in New York and across the country, and they repaid him by making the New York Tribune arguably the most influential of all American newspapers during the antebellum era. Southern post offices refused to deliver his weekly Tribune, and it was forbidden in trains and depots across Dixie. In the North it was widely read, quoted, its contents discussed, its opinions debated. Its journalistic integrity was seldom questioned. American readers, other than Southern secessionists, trusted it implicitly. Greeley himself did not enjoy such widespread faith in his integrity, in part because he made many forays into politics himself, despite declaring his newspaper nonpartisan in all matters. Greeley was trusted to the point he conducted personal interviews of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Brigham Young, Ulysses Grant, and many other luminaries of his day.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
New York Daily TImes issue #1, September 18, 1851. New York Times

8. The New York Times changed the political orientation of newspapers

Despite most newspapers claiming to be nonpartisan in their coverage of current events during the antebellum period, most remained oriented with the political party espoused by their owners. Both news coverage and editorial content reflected their political views. In September 1851, Henry Raymond, a journalist who had worked for Greeley’s Tribune, used money borrowed from friends to start a new newspaper which he named The New York Daily Times. Raymond’s vision was for a newspaper which supported political positions on its editorial pages but presented hard news in an apolitical manner. He established a network of correspondents in Europe, providing Americans with news of European affairs in a manner heretofore unknown in the United States. For Raymond and the Times, public affairs were the center of the news desk, allowing the readers to make their own judgments regarding their views.

The editorial pages, which presented opposing viewpoints as well as those of the editorship of the Times, became a major influence in New York politics and business practices. The Times used a format which significantly toned down the strident language favored by most newspapers of the day. Florid prose vanished before a matter-of-fact style, both in its headlines and its editorials. “There are few things in this world which it is worthwhile to get angry about…” Raymond said of his paper’s style. Abusive and polemic editorials, so common in a period when the President of the United States was referred to in print as a baboon, were not allowed in the Times. By 1870 the Times, which dropped Daily from its name in 1857, had grown so powerful that it could successfully take on the political corruption of Tammany Hall and William “Boss” Tweed.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper took full advantage of the public’s desire to see illustrations with their news. Wikimedia

9. News magazines grew in popularity before and during the American Civil War

During the antebellum period and Civil War American newspapers did not carry illustrations alongside their articles though some advertisements did. Editorial cartoons became a new art form as well. Artwork accompanying the articles was simply too expensive to produce, took up too much space, and did little to advance the story being told in the opinion of most editors. Illustrated magazines emerged to fill the void, among them Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, launched in 1855. Leslie had previously worked on a failed Illustrated Newspaper, which had been launched by P.T. Barnum. He took the lessons learned by that failure and started both a fashion magazine and a journal of fiction before launching his Illustrated Newspaper. The latter nearly failed as well, before the drama of John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry gave it a boost in circulation.

Only Leslie’s had pictures of the events surrounding Brown’s attack, surrender, arrest, and execution. During the Civil War which followed, Leslie’s appeared weekly with drawings and woodcuts of battles, encampments, fortresses, maps, Confederate and Union leaders, and other dramatic depictions of events as they took place. Leslie’s and its competitors, including Harper’s Weekly, brought the Civil War into the parlors and offices of the civilians. Leslie’s was so popular it was often smuggled into the Southern states and exchanged between Union and Confederate troops along with coffee and tobacco. Americans saw the war, or at least pictures of the war, as it happened. The illustrations amplified the descriptions of battles in the newspapers, as well as the casualty lists they routinely published. The well-known image of Uncle Sam first appeared in Leslie’s, which continued to publish until 1922.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
An information wanted advertisement from an 1831 issue of the Boston Pilot, America’s leading Catholic newspaper of the time. Wikimedia

10. Americans trusted specialized newspapers in growing numbers

During the late 19th century immigration led to the emergence of not only foreign language newspapers but religious papers as well. In Boston, Irish immigrants took solace in reading Catholic newspapers, supported and published by the Church. Dioceses across the country supported Catholic newspapers, in cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis. In the latter, the diocese published no fewer than four separate newspapers. In the antebellum years, the Catholic newspapers had a somewhat confusing editorial position, which was established more or less nationwide by the Boston Pilot, the nation’s leading Catholic newspaper. The Pilot opposed the emancipation of slaves. It opposed the abolitionists. It also opposed secession and called on Irish-Americans to support the Union. Southern Hibernian societies condemned the Pilot and its views.

Protestant societies and churches had their own newspapers as well, which in the North became almost universally abolitionist. They followed the lead of William Lloyd Garrison, which he made known internationally through his newspaper The Liberator. Protestant newspapers, besides calling for emancipation and abolition, also supported the ideas of temperance, including the national prohibition of alcohol. Some protestant papers even supported the idea of universal suffrage, considered outrageous by conservatives of the day. Abolitionist newspapers, which often read like fire and brimstone sermons, were banned in the South, where their own Protestant newspapers defended slavery, often citing the same biblical sources the abolitionists used to condemn the “peculiar institution”. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, readers trusted the newspapers which espoused their political and religious beliefs.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst dressed as the popular cartoon character the Yellow Kid. Wikimedia

11. Newspapers were a growth industry in the decades following the American Civil War

Following the Civil War and throughout the period of Reconstruction newspapers became a major growth industry, often fueled through government and party patronage. Newspapers became an early business in western boom towns, often supported by the mines, cattle barons, lumber camps, or other businesses which gave the towns their main source of income. Though they typically reported national news, copied from other newspapers, they also served as mouthpieces for the leading businessmen of the community. Smaller towns generally supported weekly newspapers, though in the larger cities and communities the growth of dailies continued unabated. By the end of the 19th century, the United States produced more than half of all newspapers published in the world. Most had loyal subscriber bases which turned to them for their information of world events. Competition for readers was fierce.

Major publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst shifted their publications to a less partisan middle-of-the-road political position, in order to attract more readers rather than alienate those of differing political persuasion. Instead, the newspapers began to focus on sensationalism. Reporting of hard news displaced editorials as the main focus of most publishers. Newspapers began to focus on the public interest in terms of societal ills; hazardous working conditions, child labor, adulterated food and beverage products, dangerous patent medicines, political machines, and more. The labor movement became a major focus of newspapers during the latter part of the 19th century. Americans came to trust the descriptions of their factories, railroads, bankers, meatpackers, steel mills, mines, and other industries as they were described in the newspapers of the day.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
USS Maine depicted the evening before it exploded in Havana Harbor, an event exploited by yellow journalists. Wikimedia

12. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer changed American newspapers forever

In 1887 William Randolph Hearst was given control of the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a wealthy miner and US Senator. Hearst hired considerable talent for his newspaper, including Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, but knew his dream of a chain of powerful newspapers could not be realized without an anchor in New York City. When he learned of the New York Morning Journal’s dire financial condition he purchased the paper, entering the New York market then dominated by Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World. The New York market was a crowded one, but Hearst’s primary target was Pulitzer, and the two newspapers engaged in a circulation war. Increasingly lurid headlines, sensationalist reporting, often based more on rumor than fact, and the use of art and cartoons soon marked both newspapers. Their war gave rise to the term “yellow journalism” as the papers struggled for readers.

The late 1890s featured the struggle of Cuba against Spanish oppression, and both Pulitzer and Hearst used the events on the island to drive their coverage. When USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Hearst led the charge for reprisals against Spain, blaming them for destroying the American battle cruiser. There was no evidence the Spanish had attacked the vessel and even less motive for them to have done so. But Hearst’s papers demanded its readers “Remember the Maine” and Americans widely accepted the false accounts of Spanish complicity. Both Hearst and Pulitzer tolerated journalism with little or no evidence of facts in their papers, driven by the need to increase circulation (and thus advertising dollars). Both published multiple editions daily, Sunday editions, news magazines, and foreign language editions. Though outright falsehood was not tolerated, speculation presented as factual was. Their readers didn’t know the difference.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Muckraker Upton Sinclair exposed the outrageous practices of the meatpacking industry in his seminal work, The Jungle. Wikimedia

13. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt warned the press against printing falsehoods

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt both attacked and praised a group of journalists who had emerged in the Progressive Era. These journalists and writers focused on the perceived ills of American society perpetrated by unregulated big businesses and their political cronies, the political machines of the day, and the corruption of the anti-labor movement. The President coined a term for them. He likened them to the muckraker in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Roosevelt described them as roiling the muck on the bottom of an otherwise placid pond. While he acknowledged that many of the ills described by the muckrakers did in fact exist, as did many others, Roosevelt had a warning for those practicing the new journalistic trend. He agreed corrupt practices and abuses should be attacked, but with limits on the attacker.

“I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful”. Roosevelt thus tasked the muckrakers with following a standard of integrity ignored by the yellow journalists, often employed by the same publisher. Muckraking stories led to changes of public opinion and the development of regulations concerning pure food, control of patent medicines, safer working conditions, increased wages and reduced working hours, and other areas. All were opposed by big business, but enough of the general public believed what they read in the papers to induce their government to act on their behalf. Muckrakers represented what the Founders intended when they insisted upon a free and uncensored press.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Ronald Reagan announced baseball games by reading ticker tape and creating the action for his audience, complete with sound effects. Wikimedia

14. Newspapers began to consolidate in the early 20th century

Beginning with E. W. Scripps in the early 20th century, as well other chains including Hearst’s, newspapers consolidated, with large corporations owning multiple newspapers in several different cities. Scripps also formed the United Press Associations, which later became United Press International (UPI) to compete with the by then almost monopolistic Associated Press. National news coverage began to change, with local news coverage remaining in the hands of local editors. Nearly all major cities published both morning and evening papers, often in competition with each other. National chains began to purchase both, often owning all the newspapers in a given area. At the same time, newspapers found a competitor for the dissemination of information. Radio broadcasts included news programs, some of which were little more than opinion pieces, while others used the news wires of the AP. UPI, Mutual, and others to broadcast national news.

By the 1930s radio had supplanted the evening newspaper as a source of information and entertainment. Americans listened to radio broadcasts which told them of events in Washington, in Europe, and in their local community. Lindbergh’s historic flight, the loss of the Hindenburg, the opening of Hoover Dam, and other events of national significance were all covered live by radio. So were baseball and football games, and the morning newspapers were no longer required to learn the score of the preceding day’s athletic contests. The new medium of radio quickly became a trusted source of news, with the added advantage of being available immediately, described by an eyewitness, or so most Americans believed. In actuality, many events, including sporting events, were described on radio by an announcer in a studio. He read the results of individual plays from a ticker tape.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
John Cameron Swayze, later famous for advertising Timex watches, on a 1955 broadcast of the Camel New Caravan. NBC

15. Television was slow to emerge as a leading news source

American society changed in many ways following the end of World War II. Americans, driven by the GI Bill and the expansion of housing in the suburbs, began to move outside of the major cities. Smaller, outlying towns found themselves absorbed into metropolitan areas. The automobile became the primary means of getting to and from work. Evening newspapers lost circulation, as they could not be read on a rail commute home at the end of the workday. Nor were many read once home was reached, where the radio and the new medium of television occupied the attention of their owners. Television, in its earliest days, did not have large news staffs, nor the means to transmit pictures other than by film. Film had to be shot on site, developed and printed and delivered to the transmission facility for broadcast. Still, television stations quickly developed news staff.

To support them they hired, for the most part, experienced journalists. Among them were Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC, Walter Cronkite and Eric Severeid at CBS. They wrote their own stories, for the most part, introduced other reporters and their stories, and managed the news broadcasts from a single location, which became known as the anchor. Evening newscasts began as brief broadcasts, fifteen minutes, barely enough for a summary of the day’s events. With only two national networks, soon joined by a third as ABC expanded nationwide, they were often sponsored by tobacco companies. In 1956 NBC’s Camel News Caravan, hosted by John Cameron Swayze and featuring David Brinkley, was replaced on the network with the Huntley-Brinkley Report. At least one American was unhappy with the change. President Eisenhower notified the network of his displeasure, though the change remained in effect.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
David Brinkley (onscreen from Washinton) and Chet Huntley in New York during a 1963 broadcast of the Huntley-Brinkley Report. NBC

16. Television changed America’s perception of the news

When reading a newspaper, if one lost interest in a story, one could simply look for another, more enticing article. Not so with television news. The only options were to change the channel, though there were few to choose from, turn off the television, or wait for the next story. The emerging networks decided what was and wasn’t newsworthy, and how much of the broadcast to dedicate to the story. By the early 1960s, fifteen minutes was no longer deemed sufficient for the day’s news. CBS expanded its nightly news broadcasts to 30 minutes in 1963. NBC, its main rival at the time, did the same just a few days later. Together, the two broadcasts presented the bulk of the televised national news when the 1960s began, ABC consistently lagged behind them in the ratings. All of the network broadcasts featured accomplished journalists.

Network and local newscasts adopted the practice of clearing identifying when a report was editorial in nature, rather than a report of hard news. They also developed the means of providing the same amount of time for the presentation of an alternative viewpoint, as required by FCC regulations. Trust in the network news was considerable. NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley became national celebrities. Their fame, and the trust of the public in their reporting, made the NBC news division profitable, able to charge higher rates for advertising. By 1965 advertising revenue from Huntley-Brinkley exceeded all other programs on television. As newspaper ad revenues slipped, and more and more evening newspapers declined in circulation, ratings for the network evening news broadcasts soared. Americans trusted what they saw on their television screens, as well as the men who produced it.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Walter Cronkite reporting from Hue, South Vietnam, in February 1968. CBS

17. Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America in the 1960s

Walter Cronkite presented his first edition of what became the CBS Evening News, a fifteen-minute broadcast, on April 16, 1962. Acknowledging the short broadcast could not possibly provide a detailed report of events, he closed it by telling his audience, “That’s the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all of the details on the headlines we’re delivering to you”. His admonition to Americans to become better informed did not sit well with his superiors at CBS, who wasn’t pleased with his sending the audience to view what they considered a competitor. But it indicated the complete dedication to the news, rather than the newsreader, which permeated the earliest television news broadcasts. Throughout the decade of the 1960s Cronkite, and his contemporaries took American viewers on a wild ride through events.

They included the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and the steadily expanding War in Vietnam. The Space Race, the anti-war movement, Martin Luther King’s murder, followed by Bobby Kennedy’s, and the attempted murder of George Wallace all played out on television, presented by Cronkite’s calming but factual voice. Cronkite went to Vietnam, interviewed generals and privates, soldiers and marines, and came to the conclusion the war was unwinnable. When he came home he said so, leading President Johnson to lament that having lost Cronkite he had lost middle America. There were no cries that Cronkite was biased, nor that what he presented was false. By the end of the 1960s, he was often called the most trusted man in America. Americans lost faith in their government but trusted the messengers who told of its transgressions.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, and Lyndon Johnson, at the latter’s Texas ranch in August, 1968. Wikimedia

18. Much of the turmoil of the 1960s was blamed on the media

In the late 1960s, war protests, the hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement, protests against the draft, and other nation-shaking events came to be blamed on the old American bugaboo, communism. Conservatives came to label those who opposed the war on Vietnam as anti-American. Civil rights protestors and their leaders were against law and order and American values. A growing movement in American politics, driven by the conservative right, considered the overwhelming majority of the news media to be supportive of the anti-American movement, with communist sympathies. Nightly news broadcasts which presented protest marches, draft-card burnings, Civil Rights demonstrations, and American troops beleaguered in Vietnam, were labeled as supportive of Communists in American politics. The messengers came under attack because the message was unwelcome.

Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by calling upon what he deemed the “silent majority” to support law and order in America. By inference, those who protested against government actions and positions were contemptuous of the law. A large fraction of conservatives labeled distrust of the government as supportive of the communists then attempting to take over Southeast Asia. After entering office in January 1969, Nixon and his administrations stepped up attacks on the American news media. Until Nixon, the news organizations were collectively referred to as the press. Nixon and his minions changed that, calling them the media. He also called them the enemy, to his staff, on multiple occasions. Vice-president Spiro Agnew, a former governor of Maryland, was tasked with attacking the media, explaining its enmity to the American people. Agnew took on the job with a vengeance.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and John Mitchell in the Oval Office in 1971. National Archives

19. Agnew led a direct attack on the American media during the first Nixon Administration

Under Agnew, and with the support of senior Nixon Administration officials, the American news media came under attack as it never had before. Agnew referred to the media as a “small and unelected elite”. According to the Vice-president, it was up to the media moguls to decide, “…what forty-to fifty million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world”. In Agnew’s estimation, what they chose to present in their printed pages and televised broadcasts was decidedly un-American. Agnew defined what he called a “credibility gap” opening between the “the national news media and the American people”. The Nixon Administration did far more than just deride the media in speeches and press essays. Journalists had their White House press credentials pulled in response to what the President felt was negative coverage.

Some journalists found themselves suddenly the target of continuing Internal Revenue Service audits and investigations. The White House tapped phone lines, including for calls not made to the offices of the administration. Agnew’s attacks rang a bell with conservatives, especially those who continued to support the war in Vietnam and opposed the changes over Civil Rights and desegregation. In 1973, after Nixon and Agnew had won a second term in a landslide, Agnew was revealed to have accepted bribes and kickbacks from contractors while in office as governor of Maryland. He also evaded federal taxes on the money. By then, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate Scandal. Agnew resigned as Vice-president and pleaded guilty to tax evasion in a plea deal. Nixon later claimed that Agnew had been hounded from office by a vengeance-driven media. In a 1980 memoir, Agnew claimed the White House “coerced” him into resigning.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Since the resignation of Richard Nixon, attacks on the media by political partisans have increased steadily. Wikimedia

20. Americans’ trust or distrust of the media depends on their political views

Since the scandals of the Nixon Administration, many others have plagued the federal government. There were the Abscam Scandal, the arms for hostages scandal (Iran-Contra), the 1980s Savings and Loans crisis, the Whitewater Investigation, and many more. The media covered them all, and since the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1980s in great detail. Still, whether that coverage has been trusted by the people has depended in large part on individual political orientation. Just as it has since the first press attacks during the Washington Administration, a large body of Americans trusts the media when they are told what they want to hear. When they are not, the media is labeled as biased, likely to provide slanted, or even blatantly false information, based on their own political positions and beliefs.

To firm conservatives, the American media is hopelessly biased towards liberals and socialism. To far-left supporters, the media is conservative and supportive of authoritarianism. Neither side trusts the media outlets they have determined are aligned with the other. Americans no longer obtain their news from trusted sources such as Walter Cronkite, or professional journalists. Instead, the bulk of their “knowledge” comes from entertainers, trained in fields other than journalism. Or, it comes from social media, repetition of unverified claims which gain momentum through internet sites. Yet the media still fares better than Congress when it comes to public trust. In a 2016 Pew Research poll, about 24% of respondents said they trusted national news organizations either “not too much” or “not at all”. In the same poll, 69% expressed distrust of Congress.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies, Trusted Voice of TV News”. Douglas Martin, The New York Times. July 17, 2009