Jack Welch, Chuck Todd, and the Erosion of Trust

NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd made some news himself the other day – but it’s not what you think.  He made a contribution to the analysis of trust.  To see why, let’s look how trust gets defined in the public sphere.

Defining Trust: A Confusion

How many articles have you read that start with, “Trust is down in _____. ” Trust in the media is down. Trust in finance is down. Trust in banks is down. Trust in state government is down. Trust in the federal government is down. Doctors don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry; but the public shows declining trust in doctors.

Nearly all these studies neglect to answer a simple question: Are they talking about:

  1. trusting,
  2. trustworthiness, or
  3. the state of trust?

It’s a simple enough question. For trust to exist, one party must do the trusting, and another must be the party that is trusted. When the two find common ground, we say there is trust. To properly discuss trust, we ought to be able to identify which part we’re talking about.

But most data confuses the issue.  For example, the very well-publicized Edelman Trust Barometer measures the state of trust. The problem with state-of-trust data is that you can’t dissect it.  If trust in government is down, is that because government is less trustworthy?  Or because people have become less inclined to trust anything?

In almost all cases where the data is about the state-of-trust, the reader is easily led to believe the data is about trustworthiness. That is, when we read “trust in government is down,” we immediately jump to, “Those lousy government people are so untrustworthy.”

From data about trust, we infer trustworthiness. That is a flawed inference. Rarely do we talk about trusting as part of the dynamic contributing to trust. Yet it is powerful.

Chuck Todd’s Contribution

What Chuck Todd did was to highlight a very specific example of the propensity to trust – the trusting part of the equation.

The context was: In response to an improved set of employment data issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jack Welch had tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.”

On Meet the Press, Todd interrupted a similar train of thought by Newt Gingrich to say:

“What we’re doing, we’re corroding trust in our government in a way, and one time responsible people are doing to control it. And the idea that Donald Trump and Jack Welch, rich people with crazy conspiracy, can get traction on this, is a bad trend.”

Todd was pointing out the other side of the trust dynamic: the decreased propensity to trust.

In its extreme forms, a lessened inclination to trust shows up as paranoia, conspiracy theories, and dark imprecations with no proof.  When celebrated business leaders like Welch go in for this sort of thing, there is a chilling effect on the propensity to trust – people become less inclined to trust others in principle.  And that, as surely as any objective reduction in trustworthiness, will serve to reduce trust.

Leaders who role-model cynicism and freely make data-free accusations are themselves fostering cynicism and reckless behavior.  They are to blame for a declining level of trust, just as are leaders who head untrustworthy organizations.

Untrustworthy players drive down trust ratings: but so do untrusting, cynical skeptics.


Incidentally, if you doubt the recklessness of Welch’s statement (and the subsequent pilings-on of Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich), consider this:

“No serious person…would make claims like this.”

Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

“Stop with the dumb conspiracy theories. Good grief.”

Tony Fratto, a strategist who was a top communications official in the Bush White House,

“These numbers are very trustworthy.”

[Keith] Hall, former BLS Commissioner, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and whose four-year term ended in January.