On July 17, 2009, the "most trusted man in America," Walter Cronkite, passed away at the age of 92. TIME magazine wasted little time in seeking his replacement. Five days later, it announced its selection-not the likes of news media darlings Charles Gibson, Brian Williams, or Katie Couric. Instead, the winner was a guy who makes us laugh for a living: Jon Stewart of The Daily Show won the online poll by 44%, and, as many of his fans will tell you, he has earned the title with more than just jokes.
Consider his full-frontal assault on Jim Cramer in March 2009 when he caught the CNBC financial showman on video talking about less-than-ethical trading practices: "I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a ****ing game. When I watch that, ... I can't tell you how angry that makes me."
Fans find Stewart's commentary refreshing because he speaks for all of us who want organizations, from business to government, to stop the lip service and act like human beings. CNBC promotes its once-golden boy with "In Cramer We Trust" taglines. As Stewart pleaded to Cramer during The Daily Show flogging, "We're both ... snake oil salesmen. ... Isn't there a problem with selling snake oil ... as vitamin tonic?"
Trust today is a big issue. Earning it-and keeping it-is the Holy Grail of achievement. If you win trust, you gain entry into people's minds, values, passions, and even their checkbooks.
Trust in strangers is a modern phenomenon. Two hundred years ago, urban sprawl and high population rates did not exist. We trusted our neighbors and people we knew. We trusted businesses and elected government officials because they were our neighbors and people we knew. Then we began to trust strangers, but only because they didn't feel like strangers.
In 1962, Cronkite became the anchor for CBS Evening News. A year later, he had the country's eyes and ears as he broke the news of President John F. Kennedy's death. He was the family friend charged with breaking the bad news, not a disconnected TV personality. There was no questioning Cronkite after that moment. He had our trust, and we willingly gave it every night for nearly 20 years.
The breakdown of trust since that time has been a spiraling mess of brazen dishonesty and complete disregard for humanity, the often-overlooked but basic need that has been punched into our DNA. From I'm-not-a-crook crooks to the financial thievery of the first decade of this century, the trust between the big institution and the people it purports to serve has eroded.
Part of the reason dishonesty occurs is simply because it can. When acting poorly and not getting caught (or worse, getting caught but remaining free of the consequences) is possible, it happens.
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