The Trust Conundrum

I was recently asked to participate in a panel exploring current levels of trust and distrust in government. Among other things, we were asked to consider what citizens might do to mitigate the growing cynicism about politics, and whether we thought the current media environment was contributing to widespread distrust of government at all levels.

These are questions worth pondering.

I think a great deal of distrust in government is a result of the deficit in civic literacy that I have written about previously. When citizens don’t understand constitutional constraints on the public sector, when they are unfamiliar with the most basic historical and philosophic roots of our particular approach to self-government, they are unable to evaluate the lawfulness of government activity. One result is that government action that should be entirely predictable looks arbitrary, while corruptions of the process are seen as “business as usual.” Normal checks and balances are decried as unnecessary red tape, and egregious abuses of legislative mechanisms like the filibuster are seen not as a misuse of power, but part of the ordinary, mysterious processes of the political system.

When citizens aren’t able to distinguish between use and misuse of the power of the state, it’s no wonder they believe all public policy is for sale.

The current chaos that is the media is even more consequential, because a healthy Fourth Estate is critical to democratic self-government.

Citizens can’t act on the basis of information they don’t have. The paradox of life in the age of the Internet is that there are more voices than ever before—theoretically, a good thing—but we’ve lost news that is collectively recognized as authoritative, which is proving to be a very bad thing. A babble of opinion, spin and outright fabrication has replaced what used to be called the “iron core”—reliable information that has been fact-checked and authenticated.

It is one thing to draw different conclusions from a reported set of facts; it is quite another to deny the existence of the facts themselves.

On the one hand, the Internet has empowered many more government watchdogs; on the other, it has facilitated the rise of innumerable conspiracy theorists, fringe groups, special interests and outright liars. The result is that someone who prefers to believe, say, that global climate change is a hoax or that President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya can readily find sources that confirm those suspicions.

The days when everyone listened to—and trusted the veracity of—reporting by Walter Cronkite and his counterparts in the mainstream media are long gone. (Indeed, there is a persuasive argument to be made that there is no longer such a thing as “mainstream” media.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  Today, thanks to incredibly shrinking newsrooms and proliferating propagandists, people are choosing their own facts, and increasingly living in alternate realities that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. When thoughtful Americans aren’t sure what news they can trust, and ideologically rigid Americans—left and right—are living in information bubbles of their own choosing, the lack of constructive dialogue and institutional trust shouldn’t surprise us.

In a world that is changing as rapidly and dramatically as ours, the importance of real journalism—not “infotainment,” not talking heads, not bloggers, not columnists, not “he-said, she-said” stenographers, but actual fact-checked, verified news in context—becomes immeasurably more important.

Without a shared reality, we can’t build trust. Without accurate civics education and an authoritative journalism of verification, we can’t share a reality.

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