Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
Every day we organize our lives around trust in people we have never met. Listening to the weather report, waiting for a bus, asking for directions, eating at a restaurant, putting money in a bank or accepting someone else’s check, giving out our credit card number on the internet, and in dozens of other ways, our daily lives are based on trusting that people will be honest and do what they say they will. Without high levels of trust in other people and the institutions they represent, the free flow of goods and services on which we depend would stop, and our social interactions would shrivel.
During my lifetime, trust in public institutions has fallen. Trust in government was very high in the postwar period, remaining at nearly 80% during the Kennedy years. My generation is partly responsible for increased skepticism about what government tells us. During the 1960s the unprecedented suspicion of young Americans toward people in power turned out to be justified. The government lied to us about the war it was waging in Vietnam. LBJ’s fabrication about the Tonkin Gulf incident was only the most egregious example. Year after year, official military reports about the war consistently painted a false picture of success. The dogged and dangerous reporting of print and TV journalists eventually brought us a truer image of endless stalemate. President Nixon’s dishonesty served as further proof that our government was not to be trusted to tell us uncomfortable truths. I remember devouring the daily news as the Watergate scandal developed. Government lied and covered up, media uncovered and revealed what we deserved to know.
Trust in government fell precipitously after 1965, varying between 20% and 40% (except for a brief jump right after 9/11) until recently, hitting only 17% earlier this year. This plunge was common to both parties, all generations, blacks, whites and Hispanics.
The self-congratulatory myths about American society as uniquely free and equal drilled into our heads at school were exploded by the realities brought to light by the civil rights movement. The American past had been whitewashed by generations of authorities in schools and colleges, media and government. High school history texts and college courses portrayed slavery as a beneficent system. The mass murder of Native Americans, the persistence of lynching into the 20th century, the ubiquity of discrimination in North and South were hidden from view. Again the media took the lead in revealing the truth about systematic discrimination, displaying for all to see the violence behind segregation.
Although the unpleasant revelations of the late 1960s and 1970s damaged popular trust in leading institutions, the skepticism they engendered is healthy. No government should be trusted to tell the full truth about how well its policies are working. Taken as a whole, the media tend to provide a rosy picture of our society. But while “Father Knows Best” embodied the white myths about American life, news broadcasts and articles brought the disturbing information about war and racism into our homes.
The series of Gallup polls shows the broad decline in trust in major American institutions since 1975. The proportions of Americans who said that they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in organized religion fell from 68% to 36%, in Congress from 40% to 11%, in the presidency from 52% to 38%, in public schools from 62% to 29%, in the medical system from 80% to 36%, in banks from 60% to 30%, in television news from 46% to 18%, and in newspapers from 39% to 23%. These are startling numbers. Trust in the military and the police has not fallen.
A Pew survey at the end of last year demonstrates the current widespread distrust of people in power in America. 17% of those surveyed believe that members of Congress act unethically “all or most of the time”, and another 64% think this happens “some of the time”. Leaders of technology companies, journalists, and religious leaders are also mistrusted by two-thirds of Americans. The best ratings are given to military leaders and public school principals, but more than half of the public thinks they, too, act unethically more than “a little”.
What has further eroded trust is the concerted partisan attack on the institution that has most consistently delivered the information we desperately need – the media. In response to more openly critical news coverage of the American status quo, conservatives made the news itself into the enemy. Nixon was the first President to make the press into a significant target, even though an amazing 93% of American newspapers had endorsed him in 1972. Once the Watergate scandal began to dominate the news, Nixon attacked the media as unfair. In late 1972, he told Henry Kissinger, “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy…write that on the blackboard 100 times.” Vice President Spiro Agnew had been attacking news reporting since he took office in 1969.
For a long time, it appeared that this Republican strategy had little effect on Republican voters. Surveys from 1990 through 2005 showed that the difference between Republican and Democratic respondents about their trust in the media was relatively small. Between 60% and 70% of Democrats thought that news organizations tended to favor one side in their reporting, as did about 75% of Republicans. After 2006, as the Bush administration lost popularity, more and more Republican voters turned against the news. The mistrustful Republican proportion jumped to about 85%, where it has remained. When Sarah Palin based her 2008 campaign on attacking the “lamestream media”, she was preaching to the Republican base.
Most recently the mistrustful Democratic proportion fell to 52%. Overall, trust in the news is very low, but with significant partisan differences: 35% of Democrats, but only 12% of Republicans say they trust the information they get from national news organizations “a lot”. Less than half of Republicans think journalists “provide fair and accurate information” and less than one-third think they “cover all sides of an issue fairly”, while these percentages for Democrats are 84% and 74%.
This partisan lack of trust in the news is not healthy. Conservatives who mistrust national news organizations have shifted their attention to openly biased and often untruthful internet sources, like Breitbart News and Alex Jones’ Infowars. There they absorb packaged nonsense which reinforces their prejudices, along with more claims that the real news is “fake news”.
Skepticism about those who wield power, including news organizations, is healthy when it encourages careful criticism, fact-checking, an unwillingness to take opinion as fact. Conservatives hate the mainstream media which reveals what they don’t want to know, especially when their President is constantly shown to be a liar, and perhaps a traitor to the Constitution.
Blind trust is foolish. Blind distrust is dangerous.