No Laughing Matter

I must confess that my memory is beginning to slip. I can’t, for example, recall whether Walter Cronkite was trusted slightly more, or slightly less than God. What is certain is that a 1972 Oliver Quayle Research survey found the legendary CBS news anchor to be “the most trusted man in America.” So formidable was Mr. Cronkite’s influence that when, while reporting from Vietnam in 1968, he referred to the war as “a stalemate,” it prompted then-President Lyndon Johnson to lament, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” And that’s the way it was.

Mr. Cronkite wasn’t alone among journalists who inspired widespread trust. The vast majority of Americans were confident that the likes of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Eric Sevareid, John Chancellor, Connie Chung, Dianne Sawyer, Tom Brokaw, Cokie Roberts, Peter Jennings, Jessica Savitch, Barbara Walters and others were reporting accurate, well-sourced, and mostly unbiased news.

Nowadays, not so much. A recent Gallup poll asked a representative sample of Americans the following question: “In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media — such as newspapers, TV and radio — when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly — a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or none at all?” (Gallup has asked the same question every year for the past 50 years.) For the first time ever, the percentage of respondents who answered “None at all” (38%) eclipsed the percentages responding “Great deal/Fair amount” (34%) or “Not very much” (28%).

Another Gallup/Knight report suggests that “…about two in five Americans believe official government accounts of events can’t be trusted (43%) and that the opinion of ordinary people is worth more than that of experts or politicians (40%).” And according to Gallup Trends, “average confidence in institutions, including business, religion, the U.S. court system and schools, dropped to the lowest on record in 2022.”

With confidence in the media at an apparent all-time low, and trust in government institutions on the wane, to whom are Americans turning as trusted sources of information? Enter Gallup and the Knight Foundation, once again. In an October, 2022 survey, the pollsters found that nearly 9 of every 10 Americans followed at least one “public individual” for news, or other information. Who do these individuals tend to be?

Readers might be comforted (or not) to know that “Scientists or experts” led the pack, having been identified by 66 percent of respondents. The second most oft-cited group was “Journalists,” at 58 percent. OK, but this is where it gets dicey. A greater number of respondents indicated that they turned to “Comedians” as sources of information (32%) than “Religious leaders” (25%). 17 percent named actors, and 12 percent responded that they look to athletes.

I do not wish to be dismissive of comedians. Raw and acerbic as they were, comic voices such as those of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory delivered painful truths with a spoonful of sugar. Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are regarded by many as contemporary extensions of that tradition. And while the media they employ to ply their craft are of a relatively recent vintage, satire and farce have served as effective vehicles for the delivery of social and political criticism for centuries, if not millennia.

But the Walter Cronkite era seems a millennium removed from the present. Back then, one was accustomed to wait until 7 p.m. to receive the news of the day. Now, waiting more than a few minutes invites a Herculean exercise in deferred gratification, for today there is no waiting. Our inboxes and smart phones are inundated with a nonstop flood of “breaking news” from an ever-growing number of sources.

Back then, access to the airwaves and print journalism was restricted to those with appropriate training, credentials, and experience. Political commentary was largely restricted to the editorial pages of newspapers, magazines, and televised editorials and programs that were clearly demarcated from news. Now, anyone can get into the game. Feedspot furnishes a list of the “100 Best Political Podcasts worth listening to in 2023.” These are deemed the best among thousands of such podcasts.

Here’s someone’s list of the top 30 Instagram influencers. Ever heard of Khabane Lame? At least 158 million people have. That’s the number of followers the 23-year-old Senegalese-born Italian has attracted on the Tik Tok social media platform. To say he offers political commentary would be a stretch. But should he decide to do so, he’ll have an audience that’s more than five times larger than Walter Cronkite’s.

The exponential increase in both the availability of information and the number of ‘influencers’ vying to package, present, and interpret its meaning to mass audiences has been accompanied by a no less significant change. Postmodernism has destabilized truth. Back then, people spoke of the truth. Nowadays, an increasing number of people speak of their truth. If truth has become fungible, follower counts on podcasts and social media platforms can be said to provide indicators of whose truth is ‘truer’.

These changes have not been free of consequence for education. Arguments over whose truth is being taught are pushing the nation’s public schools into the heart of the culture wars. The politicization of parent groups around issues of curriculum and instruction is seen by some as a healthy expression of democratic local control of schools, and by others as a stampede conducted by a retrograde mob of book-burning villagers with pitchforks.

In the face of such contentiousness, private schools offer a workable pluralistic alternative. Despite their differing philosophical, religious, and political orientations, each private school is a community grounded in a transparent set of shared values and beliefs. The freedom to pursue differing visions and missions is, has been, and must continue to be private education’s most important source of strength and promise.

Speaking at a CAPSO Colloquium on Private School Accountability, former U.C. Berkeley Law Professor (Emeritus) Jack Coons may have put it best in offering the following exhortation to an audience of private school leaders:

“Keep your identity. Teach your own ideas. But, in all justice I urge you to ponder how something like this freely chosen diversity of yours might be made accessible to every family. Maybe we can secure to all parents the dignity of favoring their own vision of the good and the true. Among the benign side effects would be a new transparency in the public sector; for the market would give government schools good reason to be as honest as you all are about what it is they actually teach.”

A visionary thinker if ever there was one, Professor Coons offered those remarks in 2005. He may not be Walter Cronkite, but this brilliant, justice-seeking and fun-loving nonagenarian surely makes my list of people I can count on to speak the truth.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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