Our trust deficit just keeps growing

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A two-part series in The New York Times offers evidence that reports from major think tanks might be compromised by corporate donors. Sigh.

SO UNDER the category of our country's "going to hell in a handbasket" (a phrase defined by Merriam-Webster as "denoting rapid and utter ruination") comes news that long-respected think tanks aren't necessarily trustworthy.

A two-part series in the (often) venerable New York Times suggests some are on the take, providing reports and espousing findings that happen to mirror the wishes of their major corporate donors.

And some "independent" experts offering testimony to Congress and info to media are also on payrolls and/or boards of major companies, which, as you know, always seek to have their way in shaping public policy.

Among the tagged: "the prestigious" Brookings Institution (founded in 1916) and the American Enterprise Institute (founded in 1938).

The Times cited $400,000 in donations to Brookings from a corporation that, among other things, sells solar rooftop systems. Brookings then published a report on the benefits of such systems and named a corporation executive as one of its senior fellows.

The Times also reported that an American Enterprise Institute fellow who pushed research calling for increased spending for military equipment happened to be a lobbyist for Pentagon suppliers of such equipment.

These think tanks, of course, stand by the value and veracity of their work.

In the same way I suppose the Times did in 2008 when it endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama after the Clinton Foundation gave $100,000 to the Neediest Cases Fund, a charity run by the newspaper.

I raise all this because whether the Times is right now, whether it was right then, or whether think tanks and the Clinton Foundation are (cough) as pure as newborn babes, this is the sort of stuff that keeps our trust deficit growing.

And what timing, eh?

It's not enough that we have to struggle through a presidential election featuring major-party candidates whom strong majorities of voters (60 percent, according to this week's CNN poll - if IT can be trusted) don't trust.

Now we have to be suspect or more suspect of anything we hear or read from the think tanks that so often are go-to sources for journalists on policy questions, because those making or offering policy so often can't be trusted.

Wait. What am I thinking? We (and by we I mean you) already don't trust journalists.

Gallup shows a decline in media trust every year since 1999. Its most recent survey says only 40 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in mass media, which means 60 percent do not - ironically, maybe fittingly, a tie with our major-party candidates.

And look across the board. Who IS trusted? Congress? Legislatures? Local officials? Courts? Prosecutors? The Catholic Church? Wall Street? Unions? The Democratic Party? Republican Party? Institutions of higher learning (I'm thinking of you, Penn State)? Drug companies? Anybody?

As our trust deficit expands, you know what else expands? Gridlock: legislative, political, intellectual.

We stay inside our circles of certainty, relying solely on information and insight we agree with, willing to reject all else as clearly unworthy of trust.

We keep getting reasons not to trust. The think-tank controversy is only the latest.

Maybe it was ever thus. Maybe those with power or money always found ways to wheedle into every aspect of policy-making and skew things in their interests for their benefit, and we, perhaps naively, were simply not aware.

Still, it sure seems worse these days. And it sure seems that fixing a trust gap is a heavy lift. But the worse it gets, the wider it gets, the closer we get to ruination.

Trust me.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer