Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.
A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)
Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.
For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?
That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.
But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere: “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”
It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.
Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”
Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?
Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.
If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.
And that’s the way it is.