When Walter Cronkite stepped down from anchoring the CBS Evening News in March 1981, it was commonly accepted that Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.
Curiously, it was Walter himself that propelled us down the slippery slope of mistrust, following his reports that military and government leaders were lying to us about the progress of the war in Vietnam. That war, Watergate and other personal and corporate breaches have torn the very fabric of our society and spread through every segment of our culture. No personal, professional or political relationship can succeed without trust and once breached, it is difficult to restore.
Prior to Vietnam, Americans believed our systems of government, commerce and education were the best in the world, that people within those areas were trustworthy and that our work ethic, our innovative spirit and our principles of working for the common good would solve any problem and create new opportunities for generations that followed. We trusted people and institutions to do what was right until evidence demonstrated that trust wasn’t justified but that is no longer true. Today we are more likely to withhold trust until one proves trustworthy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s political campaigns. Listen to the half-truths, character assassinations and mean-spirited, divisive messages being aired. How are we to believe these people and trust them when the win-at-any cost mentality in is so pervasive? We see it in politics, sports, business, and at every turn.
Late last year Gallup pollsters asked which professions Americans trusted most and found that nurses, pharmacists, medical doctors, high school teachers, police officers and clergy scored highest for honesty and ethical standards. Another global study of more than 50,000 people in 25 countries asked who, among the 54 most visible public figures on the world stage of politics, business, culture and sports, was most admired and trusted. At the top of the list were former South African president Nelson Mandela, tennis star Roger Federer, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and British entrepreneur Richard Branson, largely due to their philanthropic activities outside their own celebrity. How difficult would it be for you to name ten people in whom you had absolute trust?
A dramatic course correction is needed, and it must begin with transparency, open and honest communications, a spirit of co-operation and desire for win-win solutions. Many groups, both faith-based and secular, have doctrines that speak to trust, but one of the very best is the Rotary Club’s Four Way Test of the things we say and do. In plain and succinct language it provides an essential yardstick: Is it the Truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Our state motto, “Esse Quam Videri,” to be, rather than to seem, must become the standard for conduct if we are to solve the problems we face and have a bright future. As Walter Cronkite always said at the end of his nightly newscasts, “that’s the way it is.”
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be reached at www.ncspin.com.