Social Security: Another Media Failure
Arkansas Democrat Gazette, May 16, 2005
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, May 12, 2005
Arkansas Democrat Gazette, May 16, 2005
Aberdeen American News, May 16, 2005
Wilkes Barre Times Leader, May 16, 2005
Duluth News-Tribune, May 17, 2005
After it was established that the Bush administration's stated reasons for invading Iraq were false -- Iraq's alleged nuclear program, weapons of mass destruction, links to Al-Qaeda -- many journalists, editors, and producers felt that the U.S. media had not done its job during the march to war. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles criticizing their own reporting.
A similar but more candid note from the media -- broadcast, cable, and print -- is in order for their misreporting of President Bush's effort to change Social Security. Here is what an honest confession might look like:
"We apologize for having failed our listeners and readers in our reporting on Social Security. The extent of this failure can be clearly measured by the public's complete misunderstanding of the problem being discussed. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 68 percent of Americans under 44 think they won't even get a benefit from Social Security. Even according to President Bush's (Social Security Trustees') numbers, Social Security will always be able to pay a benefit that is higher than what retirees get today. This is after adjusting for inflation, and it is true even if we were to do nothing and allow the Social Security Trust Fund to run out of money.
Where did Americans get the idea that they would get nothing from Social Security? They got it from us, the same place they got the ideas that Iraq was close to producing nuclear weapons and was involved in the massacre of 9/11. One thing we did wrong was to report false or unsubstantiated allegations over and over, without countervailing facts. This makes it easier for politicians to pursue a "big lie" strategy -- to deliberately repeat false information until it is accepted as truth.
President Bush can say, as he did recently, "Without changes this young generation of workers will see a UFO before they see a Social Security check."
This should have the same credibility as the statement, "Elvis Presley is alive; I just talked to him yesterday."
Our second mistake was to leave out or downplay crucial facts. Few Americans know that according to the President's own numbers: (1) Social Security is financially stronger than it has been throughout most of its 70-year history; (2) the whole shortfall over the next 75 years is less than what we fixed in each one of the decades of the 50s, 60s, and 80s; (3) fifty years from now, the average real wage will be over 70 percent higher than today (so workers won't be hurting if they have to pay a little bit more to Social Security); (4) the year 2017 -- when Social Security payments are projected to exceed payroll tax revenue -- has absolutely nothing to do with Social Security's solvency.
We encouraged deception about the Social Security Trust Fund by describing the government bonds it holds as "I.O.U.s," and allowing politicians to pretend that defaulting on these bonds was a real possibility. We should have used the Congressional Budget Office's numbers in our reporting, since it is non-partisan; instead we generally reported numbers from the Social Security Trustees, who are partisan (four of six are Bush appointees, and a fifth is pro-privatization). The CBO numbers show Social Security to be financially solvent for the next 47 years. If just this one fact were included in every news report on the Social Security "problem," most people would surely see the whole debate for what it is: a farce.
There were exceptions to these reporting failures, but they were few and far between.
We hope you will forgive our sloppy, careless reporting on Social Security. At least this time, nobody was killed as a result."
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis (2000, University of Chicago Press).