Americans Stopped Trusting TV News Anchors Long Before Brian Williams

Ratings show that the Cronkite era of newscaster credibility is a thing of the past.

From left: Former ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, NBC anchor Brian Williams, CBS anchor Scott Pelley. (Photos: YouTube)

Feb 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Brian Williams took a huge blow to his credibility on Wednesday when he admitted his Iraq War story of being shot down in a helicopter was completely fabricated. That the NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor fudged the facts should come as no surprise to TV news viewers, who’ve watched beloved newscasters fabricate stories for the sake of television year after year.

America’s trust in TV anchors has steadily declined in the half century since Walter Cronkite set a golden standard for TV reporting in the 1960s with his intimate accounts of the first moon landing, the Vietnam War, and President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Despite that just 90 percent of American households owned TVs in the 1960s—compared with 97 percent in 2011—70 million Americans tuned in to watch Cronkite's coverage of the Kennedy assassination on CBS in 1963. By comparison, ABC's, CBS', and NBC's evening news program each brought in an average of 22.1 million people per night in 2012, according to Nielsen ratings.

The evening TV news is becoming a thing of the past, and it's not just because Internet streaming services are offering a viable alternative. It's because the American public is losing trust in its formerly beloved on-air reporters. Williams is only the latest to compromise his credibility.

About 75 percent of Americans said that if the network evening news programs went off the air, it would be an important loss, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center study. But just because the nightly news is ingrained in American culture doesn't mean Americans trust it. Just 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, and more than half of Americans say that news stories are often inaccurate. A smattering of disgraced reporters, including Peter Arnett, Dan Rather, and Lara Logan, could share some of the blame for that perception.

In 1998, CNN journalist Arnett reported that the U.S. military used poison gas as a means of killing American military defectors during a 1970 raid in Laos. After the report—which cited "military officials"—was disputed by hundreds of veterans and former government officials, CNN hired a constitutional lawyer to review the claims, which were found “unsupportable." CNN retracted the story and fired Arnett, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for earlier coverage of the Vietnam War. Five years later, he was fired by NBC for telling Iraqi state television that American military plans had failed.

CBS news anchor Rather published a report in 2004 that relied on unverified documents that accused then-President George W. Bush of exaggerating his accomplishments with the Texas Air National Guard. An independent panel concluded that CBS News had failed to follow basic journalistic principles in its preparation and reporting of the documents. As a result, Rather stepped down as anchor of The CBS Evening News, a position he held for 24 years.

A similarly catastrophic blunder occurred on the same network a decade later, when CBS' Logan was suspended from her post on 60 Minutes after reporting on an account of the Benghazi attack that was fabricated by a former military contractor. The source invented the story for a book deal he made with CBS News' parent company. An internal review faulted Logan for false reporting on the Benghazi attack, but Logan was back on the network as of June 2014.

It's worth noting that Arnett, Rather, and Logan were all either bamboozled by faulty sources who fabricated stories or by fraudulent documents that they failed to authenticate. Williams, on the other hand, wasn't relying on outside sources or research. Instead, he lied repeatedly to Americans directly about a personal experience.

"I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," he said in an apology to Stars and Stripes published on Wednesday. "I would not have chosen to make this mistake."

While network news shows have suffered humiliating setbacks to their credibility, alternative news shows like The Daily Show—which launched in 1996 and rebranded with Jon Stewart in 1999—and 2005 offshoot The Colbert Report have sprung up not just to expose but to mock the major networks' news programs.

A 2009 public opinion poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports showed that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 said news-oriented Comedy Central programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were taking the place of traditional news outlets. In 2013, both shows took the top spots as the most-watched late-night talk shows among adults 18 to 49.

Williams' admission could impact news shows at a time when ratings are curiously high, compared with cable networks' overall down ratings, thanks to competition from Internet streaming services. NBC Nightly News finished first in the ratings compared with competing news shows at ABC and CBS during the week ending Jan. 26, 2015. The same week last year was the most-watched week for evening newscasts since 2011, when all three major networks saw increases in viewership for their evening newscasts for the first time in nine years, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started.

As for the unusual uptick in viewership, CBS Evening News executive producer Patricia Shevlin said, "You want to leave the viewer thinking about something or feeling something when they see the evening news. As long as you do that, you're doing a good job,” she told The Associated Press in 2011.

But what Shevlin and her on-air anchors failed to acknowledge was that "doing a good job" means more than just emotional engagement—it's about trust and credibility, both of which are gained through accurate reporting.

It's a lesson Williams has had to learn the hard way, as his credibility—and likely, evening news viewership—continues to erode.