How Have American Media Changed from Walter Cronkite's Era? Significance, Context Often Are Lacking, MU Media Expert Says
July 21, 2009
COLUMBIA, Mo. -The death of Walter Cronkite provides an opportunity to examine the differences between today's news media and the broadcast journalism of his era. The current nonstop reporting bears little resemblance to a time when people tuned into the "CBS Evening News" to learn about the world's events from Cronkite, the person many considered to be "the most trusted man in America." A result of the continuous coverage is that the significance of the events being reported is often diminished, according to Betty Winfield, a specialist in mass media history from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
"Television and media are so different than when Cronkite was on-air; in his era, people put aside time for the news...it was an event," said Winfield, University of Missouri Curators' Professor in Journalism. "Today, we have 24-hour, nonstop news with many different anchors and journalists. During Cronkite's era, there were only a few choices. When he spoke, people weren't bored, they were engaged.
"During Cronkite's time, news stations were owned by individuals who took pride in the news being reported. Now, there are corporations whose interests are faceless because they only care about beating the competition. News broadcasts don't feel as special anymore because they are so constant. Stations try to report on every single detail of stories instead of what's most important."
People could identify and trust Cronkite because he looked like an ordinary person, Winfield said. He received opposition from politicians and administrators, but he refused to be censored.
"Unlike the anchors of today, Cronkite didn't try to be posh and suave. He strictly reported the news," Winfield said. "It was easy for people to trust him because he wasn't blow-dried and overly made-up. No matter how bad the situation was, he always provided reassurance for the country."
A specialist in mass media history and political communication, Winfield is an adjunct professor in the MU's Department of Political Science and an affiliated professor in the MU Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs. Winfield has written three books and seven book chapters, including FDR & the News Media (Columbia University Press, 1994). She has published more than 70 encyclopedia and journal articles and numerous scholarly papers on mass media history and White House communication. Among those publications are analyses of the presidential candidates' wives, and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt's relationships with the public and the media.