Can objective journalism endure, after Cronkite?

Editor’s note: Larry’s thoughts on Walter Cronkite provide us an opportunity to talk about what journalism is, and might be, in the Internet era. I’ll follow Larry’s piece with a comment of my own, and I invite you to do the same.

As a journalism professor, the death of Walter Cronkite is a reminder of what journalism was and may never be again.

When my college students ask me who I think the best journalists in the business were, my first answer would always be Walter Cronkite. Like most young people, most of my students tend to get their news from local television, the Internet, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of them do not read newspapers. Very few of them were familiar with Cronkite.

“Walter Cronkite was and always will be the gold standard,” ABC News anchor Charles Gibson told the Associated Press. “His objectivity, his evenhandedness, his news judgment are all great examples.”

Walter Cronkite was everything a journalist was supposed to be. He was truly fair and balanced; not in the Fox News sense. He was thorough and prepared and he asked the tough questions that needed to be asked of politicians and government officials, whether they were liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican.

Back in 1972, Cronkite was voted as the most trusted person in America. Since then, the public’s trust of journalists has eroded over the years due to various scandals and controversies involving plagiarism and fabrication, including Jayson Blair, Steven Glass, Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley, the emergence of doctoring photos through Photoshop, and the 60 Minutes’ use of an allegedly forged document.

The emergence of advocacy journalism, while it serves a purpose, has also harmed objective journalism. Most bloggers tend to only give one opinionated perspective and viewpoint on a certain issue and rarely conduct thorough investigative journalism. Fox News has become a joke and a parody of itself; just look at the Presidential campaign where one host implied that Michelle Obama’s fist tap with her husband was a terrorist fist bump, another host joked about Obama being assassinated, while one Fox News segment referred to Michelle Obama as Barack’s “baby mama.”

As Cronkite told Larry King a few years ago regarding objectivity in journalism, “We all have prejudices, but we also understand how to set them aside when we do the job.”

Each semester, I do an exercise with my students, in which I have them watch the network news, a liberal news show such as Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and a conservative news show such as Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly. I have the students compare the ways in which the news is reported and the biases that the hosts display. When I first did this exercise, I expected the students to prefer the shows where the hosts expressed their opinions, since they resembled the strong voices displayed on the Internet and blogs. To my surprise, most of my students indicated that they preferred the straightforward, non-biased approaches provided in the network news broadcasts.

This exercise gives me hope that there will still be a place for the type of objective, straightforward reporting that Cronkite embodied. While there is a place for opinionated blogs, websites, newspaper editorials, talk radio, and cable TV news programs that are biased and entertaining, there still is a desire for thorough reporting and straightforward information that people can trust.

Many young journalists are unaware that good reporting and research goes beyond Wikipedia and Google. I cite Cronkite to my students as a model of how preparation, fact-checking, research, and objectivity are essential to the practice of journalism.

Journalism is supposed to be about discovering the truth. That was what Walter Cronkite did. When he signed off each night saying, “That’s the way it is,” the viewers could believe it.

About Larry Atkins

I am a journalist, a lawyer, and a university professor. I have written over 300 articles, Op-Eds, and essays for many publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, B


  1. The journalism that Walter Cronkite practiced died long ago on television. And while many online writers and broadcasters (notably those at Fox News) have perverted the craft of journalism with their ideologically driven “reporting,” other bloggers and advocacy journalists are trying to move the field back toward the way that Cronkite and his CBS News crews practiced it.

    Today, for too many who call themselves journalists, “objectivity” has been reduced to identifying two sides of a given issue and booking a representative of each to speak on-air. The reporter or producer putting the piece together pays no mind to whether the two viewpoints selected have any foundation in evidential reality. Viewpoints therefore gain publicity not through their truth, but through the power of their advocates to intimidate reporters to present them.

    If you lied to Walter Cronkite, the odds were long you’d see airtime on the CBS News every again. And there’d be a good chance that the fellas from 60 Minutes would be by to lay you out, too. Today, pundits and analysts lie (at worst) or miss (at best), time and time again, and continue to get airtime on cable networks and broadcast news shows.

    Perhaps that’s why so many people adore The Daily Show, and what Jon Stewart’s crew does. They research extensively, and refuse to allow past statements to slide down the memory hole. The juxtapose past statements with current ones, or with proven reality, to expose the liars and confidence artists who get away with their mendacity on the other news shows.

    I have no beef with reporting done in the promotion of a specific political party or ideology, so long as that reporting is thorough, accurate and tested by all the available evidence. I do have a problem with lazy reporting, however, that offers little more than cherry-picked data, casted characters and unproven talking points, whether it be provided by a blog, a cable news network or a printed newspaper.

    The Cronkite model of journalism ought not to be reduced to endorsing limited competition, where a handful of corporate news sources provided what they said were the facts of the day, without drawing any conclusion from them. No, the Cronkite model should inspire journalists to take a much more skeptical view of their sources, and to demand evidentiary proof in reporting. If bloggers and ideologues want to join in, let’s welcome them.

    The world needs more watchdogs. But watchdogs only help when they’re not asleep at their posts.

  2. says:

    Cronkite – Schmonkite!
    No offense – God rest his soul – meant to the honor of Walter Cronkite: I am sure he was a good man… However, the title of “America’s Conscience” and “The most trusted man in America” fall on deaf ears for me! It is said that the only times he lost his ‘composure’ during his 40-yr ‘reign’ on CBS were when John F. Kennedy died and when Apollo 11 landed on the moon… So, the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X or the 4 Birmingham bomb girl victims held no emotion for him? What about Vietnam, which needlessly cost me my older brother in 1968? Gush if you must, but his rather ‘stoic’ announcement of Dr. King’s assassination left me feeling that he was part of the problem, not the solution! ‘WHICH’ America trusted him most? No offense – but not mine…