The Web 2.0 debate over the value of mainstream media is part of a broader, more structural assault on the culture of expertise. The cultural crisis of our age is mistrust. We trust others -- politicians, media, professionals -- less and less. Instead, our new sources of trust are ourselves (Time magazine's inane "You", as well as family and friends). Trust has been simultaneously personalized and depublicized.
Max Hastings accurately describes this crisis of trust in the United Kingdom:
Today public trust in our rulers has sunk low and is unlikely to rise. There has been an almost equally dramatic decline of belief in doctors, teachers, royals, judges, public bodies and the media. A surgeon recently described to me the frightful recriminations when relatives are told that nothing can be done for a patient. Where once a doctor's view was received with sorrow but also resignation, many now believe that if someone dies, it is because a hospital did not try hard enough.
Hastings is writing in the wake of a poll that revealed the four most trusted people in the United Kingdom:
1) Terminal cancer patient Jane Tomlinson
2) Nature movie director David Attenborough
3) Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver
4) Virgin founder/CEO Richard Branson
What would the same poll reveal in the United States? The same, I'm sure. There would be no politicians, no judges, no doctors, no mainstream media (except, perhaps Oprah -- whose glittering brand, like Branson's, is based on trust). Instead, we would trust celebrity victims (even dead ones like Pat Tillman), unknown politicians (Obama) fictional internet stars (Lonelygirl15) or wisdom-of-the-crowd style comedians (Jon Stewart).
Where would a respected journalist like Thomas Friedman rank? In spite of his books dominating the NY Times bestseller list, I doubt a professional journalist like Friedman would figure at all in this kind of poll. But is Friedman really any different from previous journalistic icons like Murrow, Rather or Cronkite? What is it about today's high profile journalists or pundits that brings out such intense public distrust?
The answer is to return to trusting people we don't always agree with but respect for the seriousness of their calling. For example, 21st century politicians like John McCain or Hilary Clinton are no less serious or committed than respected 20th century politicians. So why the mistrust of so many of our elected officials?
Our challenge is to rediscover respect for public officials, journalists and other unfashionable professionals. We need to learn to trust others again. We must (re)learn our own irrelevance and the intrinsic value of our betters.
Trust me on this.