The bad news for liberals and progressives arrived via a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University: Fox News was the news source among broadcast and cable networks Americans trusted most.
Fox beat all networks handily, garnering 29 percent as “most trustworthy” among the 1,286 registered voters called between February 26 and March 2. CNN took second place with 22 percent, CBS and NBC tied at distant third with 10 percent each, ABC followed with 8 percent and forward-leaning MSNBC was at the back of the pack with 7 percent.
The Washington Post was aghast that “for millions of Americans Fox News is the mainstream media.” Liberal blogs found the poll results “terrifying” and bemoaned the fact that the conservative network, a “Murdoch-owned scream machine” to one blogspot, had become a “ratings juggernaut.”
Should Walter Cronkite, icon of liberal or mainstream broadcast news during the 1960 and ’70s, be turning over in his grave?
Not too often. A Gallup poll conducted in late 2014 revealed that 60 percent of Americans don’t trust all news media; other recent polls have told us that “America’s confidence in news media remains low.”
But follow-up questions are rarely asked in these polls. We don’t discover if confidence was ever high, when that was, and why confidence diminished or disappeared.
The Quinnipiac poll takes a perfunctory shot at asking and gives the following results: 48 percent of voters interviewed say that the information presented on television news is “less newsworthy” than in the heyday of broadcast news, only 7 percent consider it “more trustworthy” and 35 percent consider it “about the same.”
Almost the same percentage (42 percent) is saying that the news presented on Cronkite at CBS or Huntley-Brinkley on NBC was more than or as “newsworthy” as the 48 percent who consider the news on television today “less newsworthy.”
That could be because the half hour Cronkite and others had available then rarely featured celebrity scandals or tales of crime the full hour allotted to Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow permits to titillate viewers. Cronkite did not compete with the National Enquirer or PEOPLE Magazine.
But we do not learn whether or not the respondents in the poll speak from experience, from having watched nightly news on the three networks when they dominated television news, and compare what they remember to the fare on the cable channels today.
Moreover, how much do they know about stories, from political to economic or foreign news, to judge them more or less accurate, as worthy or unworthy of their trust? And, where do they get the information to shape such judgments?
Newspapers and magazines, alas, are not mentioned in these polls, nor are the young people who tend to, as they often inform pollsters, “seek out personal venues for getting information.” A Facebook message from a friend, citing a passage from a blog or comment by another friend, is such a venue, as are late night TV jokes or news as seen by stars of Comedy Central. Entertaining while sneaking in facts works.
Fox News gloated when, on March 9, the Quinnipiac poll crowned it King of Newscasts. Soon after, reports of a major shake-up and realignment at MSNBC were published. Liberals and progressives, after all, still have NPR and three biggies of daily print journalism—the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—to carry the banner for the Democrats’ agenda and for social reforms.
Yet, they ought to take a look at what Fox News did well to perform so well on the latest poll, and how MSNBC screwed up. Personalities on the screen matter, in a way they of course never did in print or in the old broadcast news business. Edward R. Murrow was not a laugh every three minutes and reported without chatting or shouting. Hectoring, the boys and girls at MSNBC might discover, does not make a conversation.
But there is solace in the really big picture. Another poll revealed that “Americans don’t trust each other.” Only one third of respondents in an Associated Press poll believed that “most people can be trusted.” As 27-year-old Bart Murawski of Albany, NY, put it: “I’m leery of everybody.”
Including the hosts and talking heads on the news.