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18 July 2009 • 8:27 am

Walter Cronkite and the Erosion of Trust

walter_cronkiteReading the obituaries and fond remembrances of Walter Cronkite, who died yesterday at the age of 92, I am struck by the simplicity and power of the label “the most trusted man in America” that was his – exclusively. Cronkite was, of course, the anchor of the CBS Evening News on American television from 1962 until 1981, an era when there was no internet, no cable TV, and far fewer sources of news. In contrast to the newspapers that delivered yesterday’s news in depth,  television journalism was about immediacy – it was today’s news – and about brevity. Cronkite’s 30 minute newscast format (which had been expanded from 15 minutes shortly after Cronkite became anchor) required less detail and more thoughtful editing than any newspaper story. 

Cronkite’s passing gives us pause for reflection; on his remarkable career, on the evolution of news and information sharing during our lifetimes, and the increasing irrelevance of network television news. Like many of my generation, I especially remember Cronkite for his role in two of the moments that defined 1960s America – his genuine emotion in November 1963 when he told us that President Kennedy was dead, and his boyish excitement at the triumph of the success of the Apollo moon landing, exactly 40 years ago this week.

As I reflect, I keep coming back to that phrase “the most trusted man in America,” and realize that I mourn not only Cronkite’s passing, but an erosion of trust in our society. When Cronkite delivered the news, its integrity was simply not an issue. But what person or institution today has earned anything close to the nearly universal trust that was felt for Cronkite?  I believe that it’s not just that there will never be another Cronkite, but that our world has shifted in a way that says we’ll never have that degree of trust in anyone or anything again in our lifetimes. Or maybe I am just older and more jaded now.

Observers far wiser than I may offer their explanations on how and why we’ve lost our trust, but I am more interested in finding and understanding the trust that does surround us. We trust our family members, our friends, our closest colleagues. Some trust the leaders of the organizations and societies of which they’re a part, but far more view those leaders with caution and suspicion. With our daily experience of economic crisis, job losses, Ponzi schemes, and the politics of polarization and demonization, the concept of trusted leadership seems increasingly remote. Whom among your leaders do you really trust?

Our institutions and organizations continue their poor record of success in changing themselves to survive and prosper in their changing environments. Successful change comes not only from a leader’s wisdom to present a compelling vision of a different and better future, but from the willingness of people in the organization to accept the risk of changing their own surroundings, of trying new things, of exploring the unknown. Successful change comes through leaders who are trusted by those led. But it is so rare to find leaders who inspire us to believe in ourselves the way Walter did. I’ll miss Walter Cronkite.

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