Nation's faith in itself fading

February 02, 2006|By TARA SONENSHINE

WASHINGTON -- When all of the dust settles on the James Frey-Oprah Winfrey affair, we will still be wondering whom to believe. Not whether or not to believe the "novelist" Mr. Frey, or whether to trust Ms. Winfrey with our future book choices, but whether to believe, well, anyone.

America has been in a crisis of confidence for some time. Credibility seems to be in short supply, from institutional confidence to national distrust. The controversy over Mr. Frey's A Million Little Pieces is really a window onto a wider problem: the shattering of America's faith in itself.

Take the media, for example. Beginning in the late 1980s, with the proliferation of news outlets, 24-hour cable television and the growth of Internet-based information, confidence in American journalism has steadily plummeted.

According to the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking public attitudes toward the media for nearly two decades, in 2004, just over half of those surveyed ranked the newspaper they are most familiar with as being "believable" - 9 percentage points down from 2002 and 13 points down from 1998.

Television has not fared better. In Pew's 2005 State of the News Media report, the believability of network newscasts continued its downward path from 1985, when roughly 32 percent of the respondents thought they were credible, to 25 percent in 2002. That number dropped again in 2004, to 22 percent. On the cable side, even CNN has lost ground in the believability index.

Web trends are not much better. The Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School tracks America's attitudes toward the Internet. According to recent findings, the number of hours Americans spend online keeps growing, but the perceived credibility of the information from these sources keeps falling.

In 2004, the number of users who believe that only half of the information on the Internet is accurate and reliable crossed 40 percent for the first time. Blogs and information posted by individuals have the lowest credibility among the very public that is using them.

Politicians are losing the trust battle, on both sides of the aisle. Shockingly, in last month's CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll, when Americans were asked, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" 64 percent answered, "Only some of the time."

Although post-Hurricane Katrina data are not yet available, there's little doubt that August's natural disaster undermined Americans' faith in the ability of local, state and national government to protect them during a crisis.

President Bush's Iraq misadventure has almost certainly deepened disdain and distrust for U.S. foreign policy. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell didn't go on the Oprah Winfrey show to warn about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but his speech before the U.N. Security Council three years ago might have reached even more viewers. The failure to locate such weapons inside Iraq and its implications for overall confidence in U.S. intelligence have surely brought skepticism of Washington to a new height.

Not to mention the current debate over domestic surveillance, an issue upon which the country seems divided. But even if you believe that it is legitimate for the U.S. government to tap your phone conversations or seek information about individuals without prior court approval, revelation of the eavesdropping scandal has to make you just a tad paranoid.

So where does all this fit into Mr. Frey's book, and how do we rebuild the public trust in journalists, politicians, corporations and each other? Ms. Winfrey may have made an important start - by opening a national dialogue about faith, and not the religious kind.

It's time for Americans to speak candidly about candor and trust - to face the truth that we don't know what to believe and whom to believe.

Tara Sonenshine was a deputy director of communications for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and a former contributing editor at Newsweek magazine. Her e-mail is tsonenshine@earthlink.net.

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