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Regaining public trust

12/10/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Public trust is a valuable commodity. When you've lost it, rebuilding it is a difficult challenge, according to commentator Allen Gilbert.

(Gilbert) When you lose the public's trust, how do you rebuild it? That's the question facing a hospital, a newspaper, and a church.

The hospital is Fletcher Allen, whose top management and board of trustees have stumbled badly. Their desire to build a huge expansion at the Burlington hospital led them to hide the true cost of the project. They deceived state regulators, whose job is to keep health care costs in check.

If the hospital's trustees were elected officials, they would no doubt be turned out at the next election. But they don't have to stand for election, and so far none of them has offered to resign. Resignation could be one way of restoring public trust, much as the trustees thought that forcing former CEO Bill Boetcher to resign would restore trust.

The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus lost the public's trust when its top editor was accused of fabricating stories, and was fired. Although newspapers are private, for-profit companies, the bond of trust that they forge with the public is crucial. A paper whose writers aren't trusted is doomed to fail. The Times Argus is a privately held, family-owned newspaper. That means that the internal reviews you'd have in other companies don't exist. There are no publicly owned shares of stock, and no board of directors. And there's no public or nonprofit agency to do an independent review of what went wrong at the paper.

So the Times Argus is on its own in rebuilding public trust. Publisher John Mitchell must take decisive steps to assure readers that serious professional lapses won't happen again. The burden is especially heavy considering that two weeks before the Argus firing, Mitchell had axed the top editor at the Rutland Herald, the TA's sister paper. The Herald firing was unexplained.

The third institution with a trust problem is the Catholic Church. It's been struggling for months with charges that some priests may have sexually abused children. The Vermont diocese has seemed to swerve from one stance to another on the issue. At times it has adopted an almost defiant tone in rebutting calls from civil authorities for greater accountability. At other times it's appeared repentant, promising to cooperate completely with officials. The church seems in some sort of public relations purgatory, with its credibility greatly wounded.

In all three cases - the hospital, the newspaper, the church - bad decisions were made, and crucial missteps were taken. Someone, or some persons, thought that they were above the law, beyond ethics, or just plain clever. The damage caused by the misjudgments could be deep and lasting.

None of these institutions should escape what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called "the disinfecting light of public scrutiny." The institutions must demonstrate that they deserve our trust. They are a part of the fabric of our communities, and we need to be able to trust in them. Right now that's hard to do.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.
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