The Most Trusted Man in America

How many mistakes do we allow our newsmen to make? The national conversation has been all about Brian Williams and his false claim about his time in Iraq. He has received a six-month suspension, and NBC’s investigation is ongoing.

What do we expect our anchormen to be like? Walter Cronkite was called “the most trusted man in America,” so it seems obvious that Americans think honesty in an anchorman is an important quality. Even in this day and age, the anchorman on a major newscast has a tremendous amount of influence, whether he knows it or not.

The book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell discusses a study done in 1984, during the Reagan-Mondale presidential race. The researchers took clips of the anchormen on the three networks – Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather – and compiled short videos featuring moments when each anchorman talked about either Reagan or Mondale. They then asked a group of people to look at the videos, without sound, and evaluate how positive or negative their perception of the anchorman’s emotions was. The result: all the anchors scored average when talking about each candidate, except for Peter Jennings, whose expression was noted as significantly more positive than average when he was talking about Reagan. More importantly, in a followup survey of people who watch the nightly news broadcasts, the ones who watched ABC News (Peter Jennings’s station) voted for Reagan in greater numbers than viewers of the other stations.

(I imagine you might have questions about the study. There is much more information in the book The Tipping Point.)

So, if subconsciously, anchormen can have an effect on viewers, then it is even more important that they be totally honest when broadcasting the news. How far should this trustworthiness carry on after the anchor steps out from behind the news desk? After all, the statements Williams made about his time in Iraq were made on David Letterman, not on the news. In fact, this Washington Post article, “Storytelling ability connected Brian Williams with viewers but also led to his downfall”, suggests that Williams was a meticulous reporter, but an avid storyteller, and this is what got him into trouble. Just like other celebrities, Williams needs to realize that he is always in the spotlight and always viewed as a news reporter, even when he is not reporting.

Naturally, opinions on what Williams did and what his punishment should be are all over the Internet. Folks think his punishment was too harsh; other folks think it wasn’t harsh enough. There is even a vocal group who feel he was suspended, not because of his lies about Iraq, but because he told the truth about some issues that the Left would rather not reveal.

NBC had to react; they needed to show that their news operation had to have integrity. Beyond that, I think that “buyer beware” is enough. With all the news shows now on the air, there is opportunity for a lot of people to make lies even more egregious than what Williams said. There hasn’t been a loud clamor for them to resign. And, with the Internet, if a newscaster makes a statement you question, you can always use the Internet to fact-check.

Fact-checking takes a lot of effort, especially if there are a lot of facts to check. Here’s today’s pie-in-the-sky observation: Life would be so much easier if we would trust our anchors to tell the truth.

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