Center for American Progress

“Fool Me Thrice? The Media and the ‘Crisis’ in Social Security”

“Fool Me Thrice? The Media and the ‘Crisis’ in Social Security”

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An Annenberg Public Policy Center survey released Monday revealed a full 57 percent of the public – and 78 percent of those aged 18 to 29 – do not believe Social Security would be able to pay benefits to them upon retirement. Although the invented "crisis" rhetoric peddled by the Bush administration is clearly beginning to have its desired effect, the idea that Social Security is about to melt down has nevertheless been debunked dozens of times over the last several weeks, though never as thoroughly as in Roger Lowenstein’s thoughtful New York Times Magazine piece this past Sunday, in which he concludes that "Only a real crisis would dictate undoing an institution that has provided a safety net for retirees, that has helped to preserve in the social fabric some minimum of shared responsibility and that has been supported by workers in good faith. And, in looking at Social Security today, the crisis is yet to be found." "Social Security," Harold Meyerson notes, "is on a sounder footing now than it has been for most of its 70-year history."

Aside from a few standout examples of honest reporting, the media’s attempt to find some sort of balance in reporting the Social Security story has been sadly lacking. As we’ve seen in a number of instances over the last several years – most notably in its pre-war reporting – the press is too often content to simply play the story straight, giving the president and his supporters the ink and face time they desire, while blandly countering their false assertions with a quick summation of nameless administration "critics" who simply "disagree."

A Washington Post story this past weekend provides a prime example of this reporting method. Noting in its lead that "President Bush said Saturday that Social Security ‘is on the road to bankruptcy’ and unable to pay promised benefits to future generations," the next paragraph weakly attempts to balance this with "Democrats accuse him of exaggerating the problem." The rest of the story is little more than a series of quotes from the president, followed by two one-line quotes from a pair of Democratic Congressmen proclaiming that there is no crisis. The Congressmen were allowed no space for a factual rebuttal and had no opportunity to address the president’s phony figures. Indeed, the article accorded Joshua Bolten, the president’s budget chief, the last word, allowing him a full paragraph to explain why the Social Security system appeared about to crumble.

Many members of the mainstream media feel compelled to dumb down the fight over privatization, turning it into little more than a battle of Democrat versus Republican – and in the process, seriously underreporting the bipartisan opposition to the president’s plan. CBS News online last week asked, "Is there a Social Security crisis?" before answering the question in a familiar manner: "Mr. Bush says yes, the Democrats say no." Several other stories follow this line, including a Reuters published report in the New York Times on Tuesday which claimed that "Democrats and many private economists insist Social Security is not in as serious trouble as the White House alleges," without bothering to report why this might be so. Similarly, a USA Today report notes, "Democrats in Congress say Bush’s plan would weaken Social Security by placing retirement funds in higher-risk investments," echoing Business Week, whose writers observe: "Democrats, deeply at odds with Bush’s sweeping ownership agenda, largely oppose schemes featuring private accounts."

And yet compared to TV, the print version of this debate looks almost sophisticated. On Monday, David Gregory, NBC’s White House correspondent, interviewed the president and gave him a wide opening to implicitly paint the Democrats in a negative light, saying, "Let me ask you about Social Security. You said this past week, speaking to younger workers, that they have to imagine a system that is ‘flat bust,’ your words. Democrats call that a scare tactic=" The president, having been set up, lobbed one right back: "My point was, why don’t we fix it now because I know the longer we wait the harder it is to fix it."

Even with the media’s willingness to bend over backwards to promote the administration’s scare tactics, numerous Republicans have publicly come out against privatization. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a member of the GOP leadership, recently told the Washington Post that 15 to 20 House Republicans are against the president’s proposal, while others estimate the number to be "closer to 40." Among this number are Rep. Rob Simmons, who told the Post that there is "no way" he’ll support the proposal, and Sen. Arlen Specter, who sent out an e-mail saying that he has "rejected [the] idea" of a privatization plan. Add to this list Senators Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who has called himself a skeptic of privatization. Newt Gingrich has warned that if the president’s plan passes as is, Republicans may lose their decade-long majority in the House, and perhaps most significantly, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA), said Tuesday that the plan was likely "a dead horse."

In truth, the Social Security fight is not a Democratic/Republican partisan fight. It is, as Meyerson has observed, one more example of a "presidency by concocted crisis." First taxes; then Iraq; now Social Security. The media went along for the first two rides and the country is far worse off for their credulity. Do they really want to play patsy again in a game of "Fool Me Thrice?"

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.




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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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