Sorry, Brian Williams, You’re No Walter Cronkite

Confusion between the NBC newsman and VP Joe Biden shows the slipping profile of America’s top anchors.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 22: Moderator Brian Williams watches a video which pays tribute to late moderator Tim Russert during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios June 22, 2008 in Washington, DC. Williams announced that former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw would temporarily host the show through the presidential elections in November, 2008. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Jan. 9, 2014, 7:49 a.m.

The way Amer­ica gets its news is chan­ging — and it’s re­leg­at­ing the once-fam­ous news an­chor in­to a broad cat­egory of vaguely good-look­ing older men who wear ties.

NBC Nightly News an­chor Bri­an Wil­li­ams, per­haps the closest mod­ern equi­val­ent to Wal­ter Cronkite, is un­re­cog­niz­able to a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, ac­cord­ing to an on­line poll con­duc­ted by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter in Au­gust. When shown his pho­to­graph, some re­spond­ents even con­fused Wil­li­ams for Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden or former Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney.

A ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents, 53 per­cent, had no idea who Wil­li­ams was when shown his pho­to­graph, and 18 per­cent of re­spond­ents guessed the wrong per­son. Only 27 per­cent cor­rectly iden­ti­fied him.

Former journ­al­ists, in­clud­ing Tom Brokaw, Peter Jen­nings, Dan Rather. and Ted Kop­pel, were also among re­spond­ents’ in­cor­rect guesses.

The poll de­picts the steady de­cline of broad­casters’ in­flu­ence in Amer­ica over the last three dec­ades. In 1985, 47 per­cent of sur­vey re­spond­ents re­cog­nized Rather’s pho­to­graph. And the fu­ture looks even bleak­er for tele­vi­sion journ­al­ists, con­sid­er­ing that only 15 per­cent of 18- to 29-year-olds re­cog­nized Wil­li­ams.

Wil­li­ams shouldn’t take it per­son­ally. The sur­vey res­ults are largely due to a broad shift in how people con­sume news. Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 Pew sur­vey, only 27 per­cent of re­spond­ents reg­u­larly watched nightly net­work news, com­pared with 60 per­cent in 1992.

And the de­cline has oc­curred across the polit­ic­al spec­trum. In 1985, 50 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and 49 per­cent of Demo­crats re­cog­nized Rather. Last year, only 28 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and 32 per­cent of Demo­crats re­cog­nized Wil­li­ams.

Al­though few­er people are watch­ing the nightly news on a reg­u­lar basis, tele­vi­sion is still Amer­ic­ans’ top news source, ac­cord­ing to a June 2013 Gal­lup Poll. The ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents, 55 per­cent, said they turned to TV for news, but the In­ter­net and cable news are both en­croach­ing on net­works’ ter­rit­ory. The In­ter­net was the top news source for 21 per­cent of re­spond­ents; Fox re­ceived 8 per­cent of votes and CNN re­ceived 7 per­cent. Only 1 per­cent of the Gal­lup Poll re­spond­ents chose NBC as their top news source.

The num­bers cer­tainly put a damper on Wil­li­ams’s suc­cess. Al­though NBC Nightly News topped the even­ing-news­cast rank­ings for the 17th year in a row in the 2012-13 sea­son, Wil­li­ams may now be atop a small pyr­am­id com­pared with past dec­ades.

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