40 years of lies turn people off
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, October 4, 1994
Polls tell us that Americans increasingly distrust government. In 1964, more than three out of four Americans (76%) answered “Always or most of the time” to the question: “How much of the time can you trust government to do what is right?” Today, according to aTime/CNN poll, only one in five (19%) gives the trustful response.
Distrust hangs like a fog over other institutions, too. At least three out of four Americans feel that large corporations (84%), the media (83%), Wall Street bankers and financiers (79%), and lawyers (79%) have too much influence. The notion of “rot at the top” — formerly limited to small, populist enclaves — has clearly gained majority status in our political culture.
What’s the source of mistrust? Many say it was the Vietnam War. Others point to Watergate. Trust levels did drop 32 points (from 76%to 44%) between 1964 and 1984 and another 25 points (from 44% to 19%) since 1984.
Robert Redford’s penetrating new film about the quiz show scandals on network TNT in 1958 gives us another possibility. Quiz Show helps us recall when the leaders of America’s largest communications organizations stood before Congress and the American people and said it’s OK to lie to a viewing audience. After all, it’s just “entertainment.”
Does the magician really pull a rabbit from a hat? So what that network executives gave contestants the answers in advance? So what that sponsors wanted winners to be people that Americans could identify with and admire? That’s show business, they said. The broadcast establishment found itself in a moral cul-de-sac, obsessed with ratings and earnings, unable to tell right from wrong.
About the same time, Americans were stunned by Sputnik — where the Soviet Union’s military and scientific establishment beat their American counterparts into space with an orbiting satellite that could be seen with the naked eye — and allegations of a missile gap. Again, a failed establishment, this time losing America’s lead in space and national defense.
In 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Protesting the Soviet action, President Eisenhower claimed the U-2 was a weather plane that simply flew off course. When the Soviets revealed that CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was in custody and had talked, the president had to tell the American people he had lied.
Then came assassinations, the official lying that surrounded the war in Vietnam, Watergate, crooked Wall Street operatives, errant televangelists and years of mumbo jumbo about “deficit reductions.” One theme links all these post-assassination events: self-serving actions by a failed establishment. After nearly 40 years of this stuff, is it any wonder that the American people are turned off by those who would be their leaders and want to be left alone to run their own affairs?
The bottom line: Americans trust themselves and their local institutions more than they trust the establishment.
One other thing: The NBC executives who engineered the original quiz show scandal came back to produce The Jokers Wild and became millionaires in the process. Robert Redford has given us more than entertainment.