Last week, President Trump tweeted his shock when an “off the record” interview was published. Such a breach of integrity by members of the media would have shocked Walter Cronkite, iconic CBS news anchor, once known as “most trusted man in America.” Journalists no longer aspire to Cronkite’s standard. To survive, they must return to such standards.
By all appearances, an increasing number of journalists have concluded that personal antipathy for this president justifies anything, even knowing violation of ethical standards and a sacrifice of integrity.
Problem is, when a journalist loses public trust, the return climb is steep and they take the entire profession down a notch. Too many notches, and reporting becomes mere “trash talk,” reporters just part of the national food fight. The once noble profession becomes increasingly sullied, unrecognizable.
In an era when America’s press is struggling for credibility, even as reporters transparently disdain the policies of this White House, the latest breach is a hum-dinger. It unilaterally upended trade negotiations with one of America’s closest allies, Canada. That would be reason enough for average Americans to register shock, but it was actually bigger. It was a gut punch to press integrity.
In 2009, after a long career, Walter Cronkite died. At the time, a seasoned Washington Post writer offered a prescient observation. She wrote: “The greatest sorrow in marking Cronkite’s death is the necessity of acknowledging that we have replaced his work ethic and wisdom with puffery and ideological pontification.” Donald Trump was nowhere in sight.
Today, absent his person, standards and apparently much respect for Walter Cronkite, we are at an inflection point. We are witnessing the meltdown of journalistic standards. Whether a given reporter went to Columbia’s School of Journalism or came off the street, pencil behind an ear, the old profession is dying. Politically involved reporters are killing it.
This is a tough statement, and one made with profound regret. The press have a role, and they are betraying that role. True, this president is outsized, outspoken, and often outlandish. He is the first to use social media in a patently proactive, highly personal, often offensive, way. So what?
American unity is being challenged from without and within – line between the two deliberately blurred – and the press are not helping. At risk is that “shining beacon on the hill,” of which Ronald Reagan so passionately spoke.
On both sides, tempers flare. The tendency grows for reporters to throw away standards and join the fray, not report it. Rather than describing a marketplace of ideas thick with bullheaded fellow citizens, entitled to their own opinions – but never to violence – the press is taking sides. Perspective is lost.
Our media, which Founders expected to be a check on government and themselves, has lost it. At a time when rule of law is at risk to violence (encouraged by some on the left), when students fear speaking freely, when those who attend church are vilified, when those who seek to enforce borders, protect citizens and citizenship, effectuate drug laws, are condemned – something is very wrong. That is the story, not whether a reporter likes this president.
True, this a time fraught with oddities, professional disruptors, intentional resisters, a raft of people “spun up” by professional inflamers of emotion. But where is our dispassionate, once humble and respectable media?
The answer is, being human, they have failed us. They have thrown their lot in with those mired in emotion, who freely disparage not only an elected president, but what he stands for – his ideas, those who elected him, Founders who empowered that election, and Article II of our Constitution.
In this moment, when a reporter’s promise to conduct an interview of this president “off the record” can fall to political fervor, overt bias and unrepentant political involvement, we have lost something important. Or are losing it.
American reporters once looked up to Walter Cronkite; they wanted to be like him. They kept their promises, to others, the profession and themselves. They saw his integrity, calm, dispassionate and respectful approach as a standard worth aspiring to. It still is.
Cronkite did not always agree with the presidents he covered, Hoover to Reagan. But he respected the United States Constitution, knew how to control his own opinions, since they were not relevant. He fenced ego, deliberately. He would never break a promise, understanding that without integrity –reporting facts and suppressing opinions – his profession was lost.
Interestingly, most Americans also respected Walter Cronkite and his generation, because they respected America, and the presidents America elected. Cronkite also knew he was not elected; his role was to report truth dispassionately, not make news.
The lessons Cronkite taught were many. They are missed, as that Washington Post reporter presciently observed in 2009. Real journalists are actually patriots, who patiently ask the honest questions. They are not legends in their own minds, unelected shadow politicians, clever undercover activists, or interviewers who betray truth, their profession and themselves.
I can hear Walter Cronkite’s voice, firm and honest, trusted because he was unwaveringly worthy of that trust. I hear him reporting presidential elections, moon launches and landings, Vietnam War. I miss his sense of dispassion, and think he would agree – We have lost much, must stop and regain perspective. Much depends on it. Time to remember journalism depends on integrity, or it is lost. “That is how it is,” to borrow words Cronkite regularly used to close his evening broadcasts.