I've heard the phrase "the most trusted man in America" so much of late, that as much as I admired Walter Cronkite, it's starting to really piss me off. First of all, it makes me wonder, if he was the "most trusted MAN, " who was the most trusted woman? Is she still alive, and if she's not, where was the 24-7 news coverage of her death?
Secondly, hearing that phrase over and over has made me ponder the whole concept that one person in the media was once considered "the most trusted." Today, the blogosphere hums with discussion of who or what the most trusted source of information is – Twitter? Google? Wikipedia. I'm willing to bet that most of us are far more likely to trust the recommendations of people they've met on Twitter or Facebook than a neighbor they dislike, or anything Google sends their way. We at KDPaine & Partners are constantly being asked to identify "the most influential" or "the most trusted" bloggers for a particular marketplace. What those requests really mean is: Who has the biggest following? Which of course has nothing to do with how trustworthy you are. There are lots of people I follow on Twitter – including Sarah Palin that I wouldn't trust any further than I could throw them.
Of course, there is an urgency to my ponderings since on Wednesday I'll be speaking at the Open Government and Innovations Conference in DC on the subject of how to measure openness and trust. For my presentation I'm relying heavily on the work of the Grunigs that essentially set the standard for measuring trust, and on the work of BYU's Brad Rawlins who did the definitive research that showed that the way to build trust was thru greater transparency. But most of that work was done before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube redefined the entire nature of transparency. Increasingly, organizations of all kinds have no choice as to how transparent they are, because if they chose not to disclose something, chances are their employees or customers will do it for them. Today, instead of Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather showing up at your door with a microphone in hand, anyone with a cell phone can, and will, show the world whatever it is you are trying to hide. Chances are, that person will have as much, if not more credibility than half the news anchors out there -- in part because we tend to belief or disbelive news outlets based on our own political viewpoints and the extent to which the network agrees or disagrees with our own beliefs.
So perhaps the "You" that Time Magazine glorified as the "man of the year" in 2006 is really the new "most trusted." Not you or me or anyone person, but the collective wisdom of the crowd, which as my father would call "human beings, with a wide range of choice, unpredictable, cantankerous, capricous, and motivated by innumerable conflicting interest and conflicting desires." And it is precisely because of their cantakerous and unpredictable nature that we will trust them, because unlike faceless bureaucrats or organizational spokespeople, they will show themselves to be human.
Which had a lot to do with why we trusted Walter Cronkite. Not just because he was "Uncle Walter" but because we could see him in the face of momentous, earth shattering news, trying so hard to be unmoved and dispassionate and failing miserably.