A 1972 poll named television anchor Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.” The designation stuck until Cronkite passed away in 2009, and was featured prominently in his many obituaries.
Given that Cronkite retired from CBS when I was 15, I can’t say he was my North Star. But of this much I’m certain: If Cronkite had the misfortune of being an anchorman in 2021, his trust scores would rank down there with congressmen, priests and used car salesmen. I can say this with certainty because nowadays no one trusts anyone.
Which is a damn shame.
When I was a kid, Dr. Goldberg was our family physician. He made house calls toting his enormous black valise, and he dispensed prescriptions and wisdom, neither of which we questioned.
If Dr. Goldberg said get a vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, we got a shot. If he said give your son Naldecon four times a day for a cough, that’s what my mom did – because Goldberg was a doctor, he had parchment diplomas on the wall and we trusted him.
Now? Half of America could be bleeding out on the sidewalk and they’d insist on knowing who the paramedics voted for in 2020 before accepting life-saving medical treatment.
Get a COVID-19 vaccine because over a dozen scientific studies say they work? Ha! Wear a mask because the Delta variant is undoing our progress fighting the pandemic? What are you, some kind of sheep who listens to scientists?
Actually, I am a sheep like that, as are most Americans. Gallup does an annual poll of trust in American institutions. This year for the first time they asked respondents how much they trust science.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents – 64% – reported having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in science. Another 24% had some trust. Only 12% had “very little” trust or “none at all.”
Only two institutions were deemed more trustworthy than science: Small business at 70% and the military at 69%.
The big losers? Congress, with only 12% of those polled claiming significant trust in that clownish body. Meanwhile, TV news – sorry Uncle Walter – was trusted by 16% of respondents. “Big Business” also had the trust of 16% of those polled.
Surprisingly, 51% of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the police, even after the vicious onslaught directed at cops over the past few years. That’s down a dozen points in the last 15 years, but it’s still more trust than we have in the Presidency (38%), public schools (32%) and newspapers (21%).
This erosion of trust plays a role in dividing us and rendering communities unable to solve problems large or small.
The city that doesn’t trust its leaders, schools and people of faith is a city that struggles to solve its problems and to prevent those problems from recurring.
The individual who doesn’t trust a doctor, schoolteacher, minister, anchorman, CEO or Senator is someone with few ways to calculate what’s true, what works, what’s dangerous and what should be avoided.
Back in the day, Walter Cronkite ended each nightly newscast with his signature line: “And that’s the way it is.”
Cronkite could say that, and it drew no laughter, because people trusted him.
Today? The way it is has little to do with actual facts and everything to do with who’s saying it, who’s listening and who else is saying the exact opposite.
Trust me when I tell you, a country that trusts no one is one that eventually loses everyone.