By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Even in 1972, when the Oliver Quayle polling organization declared Walter Cronkite the most trusted public figure in America, the concept of trust was in decline -- shaken by social upheaval, assassinations, the war in Vietnam and the emerging scandal of Watergate. To have faith in a man who transcended mere reliability already seemed a quaint remnant of a passing age.
The shared crucible of the Depression and World War II had helped create a public realm in which millions participated in the collective urgency of shared history. And postwar prosperity and technological progress brought forth a new medium that gathered in its flickering light a diverse and fractious people.
But by the time Cronkite was anointed the nation's avatar of trust, the world he embodied was splintering. It was plausible, in the 1960s, that the con man at the center of Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can" could talk his way onto Pan Am flights simply by wearing a purloined pilot's uniform. It was deeply disturbing, but not terribly surprising, to learn that under the guidance of a stern man in a lab coat, ordinary people would torture innocent victims in the infamous Milgram experiment carried out at Yale University. Cronkite was a white man in a tie, with a calm, reassuring voice, and he could have talked us into almost anything, if he wanted to. But his legacy is a paradox: We trusted him to teach us to trust less.
The nostalgia for Cronkite is nostalgia not for a lost golden age, but for a brief time when three large media corporations held a monopoly on the airwaves, when trust could be sorted out easily and quickly with the shorthand of race, class and education.
Today, when we talk about trust we really mean something like reliability, or efficiency. We "trust" institutions that are well run. We elect politicians we hope will be effective. We rely on large networks of carefully vetted micro-trust. The average American trusts one friend with the kids, another with secrets, one Web site for news, another for movie reviews. We sign codicils to our marriages, and we learn the mind of God from men we won't allow alone with our children.
But there is no aura of trust that public figures can put on like a bespoke suit. Trust has been shattered into a million little pieces, which was, perversely, the name of a dubious memoir endorsed by Oprah, unofficially the most trusted woman in America. Replacing it is a host of smaller and more precise ideas. Transparency. Authenticity. Accuracy. A different world, and not necessarily a worse one.