WASHINGTON — "We live at a time when the harm done to trust can be seen firsthand. Confidence in public officials and in professionals has been seriously eroded."
That was written not yesterday, but 25 years ago in a post-Watergate book by the philosopher Sissela Bok, titled "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life."
But it aptly describes today's erosion of credibility in our public institutions. Many doubt that an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction, which a massive search has yet to uncover, was the real reason for the invasion of Iraq. Many wonder whether the resignation of two top editors of The New York Times resolves the issue of reporters who invent and steal their stories and fake their datelines.
Confidence in the Roman Catholic Church has been damaged by coverups of pedophile priests, and confidence in corporate America has been underminded by scandals like Enron. Americans have a pervasive sense of being lied to. Last week, Martha Stewart was indicted for obstruction of justice, accused of lying about the sale of some stock about to take a plunge. The Wall Street Journal defended her editorially by saying, "She is accused of lying about something that wasn't illegal."
No felony, no big deal.
Hillary Clinton's memoir, "Living History," is out this week. She has lived a fascinating personal and political life. But the first big headline, spread across the front page of the New York Daily News, was "Hillary's Book Bombshell: Why Did You Lie To Me?"
About Monica Lewinsky, of course.
Whom and what can people trust when even Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, potential challenger to Henry Aaron's all-time home run record, turns out to have cork in his bat? "The media got me up there like a criminal," he complains.
Ms. Bok wrote, "Trust and integrity are precious resources easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity."
So we wait to find out which overpaid CEOs lied, which intelligence officers lied, which journalists invented scoops, which sports heroes cheated. And respect for veracity is taking a beating.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.