If philanthropic elites want to help create bonds of trust in our civic institutions, they will need to do more than just add money to the ideological arms race that already exists.
Mike Scutari writes about how philanthropy can help address the “global trust deficit.” According to the article, not only Americans but people all over the world have low confidence in major institutions like government, business, organized religion, the media, etc. This is a problem because a lack of trust “makes it harder to solve any number of big problems, since citizens are less likely to provide key institutions with the support and resources they need to advance solutions.”
Scutari goes on to show examples of how large funders like the Hewlett Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, and Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, are working to counteract distrust. In particular, he focuses on Omidyar’s pledge of $100 million to counteract distrust by “strengthening independent media and investigative journalism, tackling misinformation and hate speech, and enabling citizens to better engage with government on critical issues.” One of the recipients of the funding will be the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which was behind last year’s Panama Papers investigation.
Scutari points out how such an effort might backfire: By exposing corruption in government and big business, the ICIJ and other comparable organizations may end up simply eroding trust in institutions even more.
But his concern is misplaced. Anyone with a basic understanding of today’s backlash against the elites knows that it is precisely the Hewletts, Soroses, and Omidyars of the world that are suffering from a trust deficit. We should rephrase how these efforts are likely to backfire: they will be seen as naked attempts by a partisan elite to offer an ideological rebuttal to today’s populism under the guise of independent, objective, non-partisan investigative journalism. To the extent that these efforts have any impact at all, it will be to erode trust not in the institutions they expose, but in the interests they represent.
Matt Bannick of the Omdiyar Network says that their efforts to support investigative journalism stem from the fact that “facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored.” He is right to point out that the lack of trust in the media today comes from the perception that journalism has become partisan to the point of mendacity. But this perception is shared across the political spectrum. As long as figures like Omidyar, who wears his politics on his sleeve, wish to address the trust deficit, they will need to do more than just add money to the ideological arms race that already exists.