Did people ever trust the press?
The short answer is "no." But that requires a little explaining, especially when people still often recall—incorrectly—that the long-time CBS News television anchor Walter Cronkite was in his day "the most trusted man in America." Cronkite, born in 1916, grew up in Kansas and Texas, and studied two years at the University of Texas before dropping out and working in journalism—wire services, a newspaper, radio, and, starting in 1950, television, working for CBS affiliates and moving up. In 1962, he became the CBS News anchor, the impresario of the network's flagship news program. He imprinted himself on American audiences—at least on the one-third or so of the audience that preferred CBS to its rivals ABC and NBC—and he remained the anchor until he retired in 1981. His coverage of the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination is celebrated, especially the tear in his eye and the lump in his throat as he announced Kennedy's death. His delight in the US space program is also well remembered.
But did this make him the most trusted man in America? A public opinion poll in 1972 asked respondents which of the leading political figures of the day they trusted most. Cronkite's name was thrown in apparently as a kind of standard of comparison—how do any and all of the politicians compare to some well-known and well-regarded nonpolitical figure? Seventy-three percent of those polled placed Cronkite first—followed by a general construct—"average senator"
(67%)—and Senator Edmund Muskie (61%). Chances are that any other leading news person—or probably many a movie star, athlete, or prominent scientist—would have come out as well or better than Cronkite. A 1974 poll found Cronkite less popular than rival TV news stars John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner, and Howard K. Smith. It appears that the main reason Cronkite was "most trusted" is simply that he was not a politician.
So the notion that Cronkite was unusually "trusted" is a phantom best forgotten. This does not mean that journalists have never been trusted, but it does mean that there is no basis to one of the most cited pieces of evidence that consensus and comity prevailed about the news media in the years 1945-1968 just before growing social upheaval around the Vietnam War and about civil rights erupted and spread.
The idea that the press had been a perfectly trusted pillar of mainstream, neutral, moderate, responsible news reporting is largely an illusion. Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson ran in 1952 against what he called the "one-party press"— Republican—and of course he was right if you looked at the corporate ownership of the country's newspapers, their antagonism toward Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and their overwhelming editorial-page support for Republicans. If you go back very much further than the 1940s, you reach a moment where "trust in the news media" is not even a sensible topic. The news media were understood to be and understood themselves to be advocates for one party or the other, not neutral truth-tellers. Readers trusted their own favored paper and distrusted the others.