By now, everyone is familiar with the story of Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor who is taking some time off after coming under fire (not literally, apparently) for inaccuracies in a story about being shot down over Iraq. A second round of stories this weekend noted that Hillary Clinton, among other notables, has also been caught making similar comments over the years.
One direction for the analysis of this situation has been to take a critical look at the production of U.S. media these days. David Pakman’s post about abundance versus scarcity has been getting a lot of attention. His argument is familiar, “Brands built in the age of scarcity take significant risks when they use celebrities (or any one individual) to act as a proxy for their products.” This is in contrast to online media, where “brands are built by the stories brands tell and the content they share.” Facebook doesn’t have an anchor problem.
But that media criticism doesn’t explain why so many notable people have made up stories involving the military.
I want to take a different view of the situation by looking at the trust that Americans have in their leading institutions. For many years, Gallup has run polls asking about “confidence in institutions”. These surveys are interesting because they can show the American public’s changing relationship with various parts of our society.
In their current chart, Gallup lists 16 different institutions. By far the most trusted institution in the United States is the military, with 74% of respondents indicating that they trust the armed forces a great deal or quite a lot. The bottom two institutions are Congress (with ~6%) and television news (with 18%).
Hillary Clinton was a member of the US Senate when she made her comments about coming under sniper fire. Brian Williams was the anchor of one of the top television news organizations in the United States. Is it any surprise then that both have attempted to grab some level of confidence from the public by expanding beyond their own institution and attempting to “touch” one far more trusted?
These sorts of stories are not going to be rare. In a world where trust in American society remains quite low, the incentives to try to burnish our images remain quite high. Some level of vigilance is required from the public, but more importantly, some humility is required of those who ask to serve us in the media and in politics. After all, there is a reason why these institutions have such low trust.
Image from Wikipedia.